Woman under water

How to stop overwhelm from ruining your day and get back on track

Overwhelm can really ruin your day!

Feeling backed up in your work, overloaded in every area of life and worrying that you’ll never be able to catch up with everything you’ve said “yes” to is as distracting and uncomfortable as constipation.

Most people will feel overwhelmed at some point in their lives. Sometimes it’s temporary, caused by a one off event like planning a wedding, starting a new job or embarking on a big project. But then for others, overwhelm is a constant feature. Why do some of us suffer with overwhelm and others not?

In the process of interviewing over 100 female entrepreneurs and leaders for my book, I discovered how successful women with a lot going on in their lives manage to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Chronic overwhelm 

The number of people feeling overwhelmed has been on the rise. Percentages from recent studies are staggering! Half of working parents struggle with family life and work balance, as reported by Forbes, and almost 75% of small business owners feel overwhelmed by too much to do.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed in life, you’re not alone. That doesn’t mean you should continue to suffer from it though. Chronic overwhelm is detrimental to your health and well-being.

Overwhelm is common. Suffering is optional.

We tend to assume that overwhelm comes from having a lot on our plate, or a lot of responsibility. But that’s not the full picture.

Think about the someone you know who gets more done than everyone else. If they are like my favorite real-life heroes, they seem to have a magical gift for accomplishing tasks while never seeming to be rushed. They always make you feel like they have time for you even when you know they have a very full schedule. How do they do it?

Although they have far more going on than most people, they don’t feel overwhelmed, because they understand they are choosing where they spend their time.

In contrast are the people you know that are rushing everywhere and always catching up. It’s really annoying when you ask someone how they are and all you get back is a somewhat breathless “Busy!”  If this is you, you’ll know that it’s not a very satisfying way to live.

Being overly busy is a bad habit. Being “too busy” is not a badge of honor; it means you’ve lost control of your life. It is an unhealthy choice to make.

Hawaiian logic

While I was living in Hawaii, I enjoyed studying the history of the island people. I was surprised to learn that historically, Hawaiians revered people who were very fat, because over time it became a symbol of wealth due to a less physically demanding lifestyle. That is totally logical, but it led to an extremely unhealthy lifestyle for many people.

Most of us eat too much or get too little exercise sometimes. Most of us overcommit ourselves sometimes.

However, choosing to appear overly busy is like choosing to appear overly fat so that others feel inferior. Yikes!

It doesn’t have to be this way

Feeling overwhelmed is a choice; you don’t have to sign up for the sufferfest.

One of my best friends shared with me recently how she hasn’t had a day off in over 6 weeks. I asked her why she didn’t take a day (or three) off next week? She talked about the projects she has and how clients are asking her to travel last-minute and adding to her scope of work, and how stressful it has been. I listened, and although I understand completely how easy it is to get sucked into the trap of “I have to!” I reminded her that as a business owner she is in total control of her calendar. I could hear her relief as she sighed into the phone. 

She realized that they don’t need to know details about what she’s working on for other clients, or whether she’s taking a much-needed break (for mental and physical health). They want to feel important and want her to be able to give her undivided attention to their project. Before we ended our call, she was prepared to answer their next request with “Let me check a few things on my calendar and get back to you.” Then a simple “I am available starting [date].”

This is how she can honor herself without anyone being upset. It was easy to see the solution when she took a step back and gained perspective.

She told me later that she pushed back (professionally) on their request for immediate travel and bought herself a few extra days to minimize the stress. She was also excited to share they were fine with it. (Woo-hoo!)

Set personal guidelines to avoid overwhelm

When it comes to overwhelm, daily habits can either lead you in deeper or help you avoid it altogether.

Regardless of your circumstances, you can avoid falling into chronic overwhelm habits by adopting some personal guidelines such as:

  • Only say yes some of the time. Don’t pounce on everything that smells faintly of opportunity, and don’t automatically agree to things. Always explore options before committing. (See also Learn how to say no with grace.)
  • Support your best self with solid productivity skills. This might include simply asking yourself frequently “What’s the best use of my time right now?” or try this technique for getting back on track quickly.

Remember that you hold the cards. Only you can decide how to feel.

5-step formula for when overwhelm hits

Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, here’s something you can do to take back control with a quick win (excerpted from the Avoid Overwhelm chapter of Lead With Moxie, based on interviews of over 100 leaders):

  1. Stop and breathe (for 5 minutes or longer when you can).
  2. Consider the task you’re currently on and identify which of your work or life goals it supports.
  3. Explore if it can wait for another time, if someone else can do it, or what happens if it doesn’t get done at all.
  4. Decide what to do, and follow through. Do not revisit your decision – it will waste time and energy!
  5. Now you can celebrate a win and move on to whatever is next.

Take one step forward

In a job several years ago, I was frustrated every day because I felt like I could never get it all done. It was painful! And although we weren’t paid for overtime, I sacrificed my free time to the job thinking that someone would notice, that it would make a difference, and that it would be worth it. 

It wasn’t. 

I complained to my husband. He reminded me it was my choice to stay working there. He was right. Around that same time, someone in the office had given me a gift which included a motivational quote desk magnet:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” ~Winston Churchill

I puzzled over this, assuming it meant to just suck it up and continue going through the motions. I thought it was a crappy gift, but I stuck it on my filing cabinet anyway. Within a year, I had changed careers, with double the paycheck, and for less stress. When I moved into the new office, the magnet came with me. As I looked for a new place to stick it, I realized how powerful perception can be because my assumption was wrong. What he meant was not to stay stuck in hell, but to put one foot in front of the other, moving forward intentionally.

It turns out this is a great way to overcome overwhelm.

Avoiding overwhelm is one of 15 behavioral themes featured in my book, with interviews of over 100 female leaders. Get your copy of Lead With Moxie on Amazon today.

Heather Legge
Verified Coach
Verified for professional standards and commitment to clients. Read more Close

Since 2006, Heather Legge has worked with business owners to help them achieve their vision. You too can develop the productivity habits and leadership skills for business success. Email heather@envisionsuccessinc.com or book a free call with Heather now .

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