5 Steps To Getting Started When You’re Feeling Completely Overwhelmed

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I often feel overwhelmed.

Right now, I am overwhelmed thinking about the next two weeks.

My kids go back to school.

With that period of time comes a flurry of activities.

Lots of back to school meetings. School supplies to buy. New soccer and baseball schedules. Signing up for the bus. Coordinating carpools. Social interactions with other parents.

And that is all on top of all the usual parts of life. Current consulting projects balanced with networking activities. So that I will have a steady flow of work.

Also, writing. And building a website, and starting a newsletter. I have never done anything like it before and I am poking around in the dark.

So, I sit here with a racing heart. Feeling jumpy and cloudy. Feeling the overwhelm.

But I know I will get something done today. I will finish this piece of writing. I will publish it today. I won’t let overwhelm, well, overwhelm me.


Because I have a few steps that I have learned to take when I have this feeling. Ways to cut through. I won’t get everything done. Not even close. But I will make progress.  I will manage my overwhelm feelings and make some headway today. Here is what I will do.

1) Ask Myself, What Thought Is Overwhelming Me?

This is a different thought for everyone.  Often my overwhelming thought is I don’t have enough time.

I have this thought when I am trying to balance a lot of work tasks. And also carve out time to network and prospect for new business.

When I think that I don’t have enough time, I tell myself, I have enough time to do something. I don’t have to do everything. But I have time to do something today.

But often, there is a different thought that is overwhelming me. So much that I can’t get started. It’s a perfectionist thought. It’s the idea that:

I don’t know how to do this and people will judge the outcome.

That is the thought that I have right now about putting together a newsletter. It’s not that writing one email per week actually takes that much time. Its that I have no idea what I’m doing. So the activity feels enormous.

In this case, I have a different conversation. I tell myself, no one is expecting my newsletter to be perfect except for me. Also, the best way for me to learn, to get better, is to complete the first attempt.

And here’s the other thing. I know I will never stop being scared in the beginning. Seth Godin had a great quote a few years ago. He said:

…the right question is, “How do I dance with the fear?”

Once I identify the thought, things get a little easier. Whatever the thought is, I can have a little conversation about it. Then, my mind in the right place, and I can move on to the next steps.

2) Make a List/Brain Dump

I say this all the time, but I think it is so important to write out everything.  Sometimes a list that feels enormous in my head is actually short. Sometimes there are a lot of tasks but they take up only a few minutes (like making appointments). Often, I plan out a whole day after making this list/brain dump. My brain loves a plan. I’ve talked about how I plan out a day here:

This Is How To Plan A Day.

But sometimes, even taking the time to make a full plan feels overwhelming. Or sometimes, I see how many things exist on my to-do list and all I can think is, I will never get to everything. And I get stuck.

3) Pick One Thing — Anything

On the days where building out a full schedule feels enormous to me, here is the plan I make: I am going to do one thing first.  One thing. That’s the plan. I will finish it and then I’ll figure out the rest.

For example, right now, I am going to write this story.

I am being inundated with emails and texts as I write this. Every time I hear a notification my heart jumps a little bit. (Yes, I need to turn them off. But I got overwhelmed. Thinking about how much time it would take to turn off 3 emails accounts, Slack, text, AND my phone). I am ignoring them, for the moment. I need to finish this one thing. All that can wait.

4) Set A Timer

This is a great action when I am worried that “I don’t have enough time.”Once you pick one thing to start, set a timer. During that time, it doesn’t matter if your mother calls. Even your boss can wait 20 minutes to hear back from you if it is an unscheduled conversation.

Most of the research on timers indicate that shorter, focused periods work best. The popular Pomodoro Technique says that 25 minutes is an optimal amount of focused work.

So, commit to 25 minutes.

Commit to working for 25 minutes on one thing.

When you break it down, it doesn’t seem so big. Don’t worry about everything else on your list. You wrote it all down. You can focus on this one thing, for this short period of time.

5) Reward Yourself

Once you complete the thing or make it through the time, take a moment. Be proud of yourself. Give yourself a reward. I believe that it is critical to reinforce positive behaviors. For you, it could be a coffee. Or five minutes of Instagram (better set a timer for that one too).  As Charles Duhigg notes in his brilliant book, The Power of Habit,

Studies of people who have successfully created new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose…a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt-free television.

In other words, you will get more accomplished over time if you reward yourself for making progress.

I will take my dog, Rosie, on a walk when I finish.  That will be a reward for both of us.

Repeat steps 1–4 as needed

From here, repeat the process. Figure out what thought is making you feel overwhelmed. Then do one thing at a time, for a short period of time. Sometimes after I get through the first thing I can breathe enough to schedule out the rest. It doesn’t really matter though.

Battling overwhelm is not a one-size-fits-all activity. We all have different trigger thoughts, and we all have different things we need to get done during the day. Whatever process works for you is the right one. TC mark

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