How to cope with feeling overwhelmed

Illustrated by Bridget Daulby

Feeling overwhelmed is par for the course when you’re doing hard things.

But feeling overwhelmed doesn’t mean you’re weak or useless. Don’t personalise it or turn it into fuel for self-criticism. Here are some coping strategies.

Start with the parts of a task you don’t feel overwhelmed by.

Imagine you want to jump off a 10m diving board. That terrifies you. However, you can jump off a 1m board. After practicing multiple times, you feel ready to take on the 3m board, then the 5m board and so on.

Big tasks often have many steps. Usually, there will be some steps that feel less overwhelming than the others. If you start with these, your confidence and experience will grow, and harder steps will feel more manageable. 

Don’t plan to work on an overwhelming project all day.

When we procrastinate, we feel guilty about that. We think that when we eventually start, we’ll need to work on the task all day to make up for the earlier procrastination – but if you think like this, you’ll inevitably procrastinate longer. So, don’t! Plan to work for 90-120 minutes.  

The 10-minute hack.

This tip comes from my upcoming book, Stress-Free Productivity. If there’s a task you’ve been avoiding for some time, work on it today, for 10 minutes only.

Once you start, you’ll have the itch to work on the task more. Each day, work 10 minutes longer, until you’re up to about 90 minutes in a stretch or you finish.

Don’t think too far ahead.

Anxiety causes us to want to think far ahead into the future. However, if you’re at step 1, thinking about step 100 will overwhelm you. Likewise, many of us have dozens of items on our to-do lists, but we can only do one thing at a time.

Train yourself to focus only on the task you’re currently doing. How? Cultivate habits of doing particular types of tasks at particular times.

For example, create a “deep work” habit of doing mentally challenging work for a couple of hours at the same time each day. Do one short, “life admin” task every day that doesn’t have a deadline, like changing a broken lightbulb, to keep on top of those tasks. 

Managing overwhelm is a skill you can improve.

The better you cope with feeling overwhelmed, the more willing you’ll be to feel it. When you can tolerate difficult emotions, you’ll be able to take on bigger, more important dreams and challenges.

Managing your emotions is a core work and life skill. It’s not a skill humans come pre-equipped with.

Several schools of psychology can help you improve at behaving skilfully while feeling strong emotions, including overwhelm. Try books on: acceptance and commitment therapy, habits, gentle parenting and self-compassion.

Don’t try to get rid of the feeling.

It’s tempting to think that the solution to feeling overwhelmed is to get rid of that feeling. But it’s not.

Often, feeling overwhelmed happens because we care about many things.

Without overthinking it, consider whether the feeling is telling you anything useful. Do you need more support? Do you need better organisation?

Feeling overwhelmed can be unsettling, but the more you practice responding to it skilfully, the more confident you’ll get in your capacity to cope with it.

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