Overcoming Feeling Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed is one of the most frequent words I hear from clients these days. It seems that more and more people feel overwhelmed by their workload and life in general. The impact of this is more stress, burnout, poorer quality decision making, reduced creativity, broken relationships, reduced self esteem and less productivity. The important things can pass us by if our nose is permanently on the grindstone, .

thinking time
What slips by us?

Being constantly busy seems to have become part of our culture. I have come to recognise that invariably the second question asked at a business networking event, after ‘How are you?’ is ‘Are you busy?’ It is easy to feel inadequate or guilty if you say no. Is busyness seen as a measure of success? Some people think their lives are full, when really they’re just cluttered.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this age of ‘time-saving’ technology, we are feeling out of control and a victim of unrealistic expectations. We are at risk of becoming slaves to our machines.

“Anyone who by his nature is not his own man, but is another’s, is by nature a slave”

Aristotle (384-322BC)

Three Options to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

I offer three options to help you take back control and reduce the sense of being overwhelmed. They are simple options although this is not the same as easy! Hopefully you will have time to read this.

Change Your Thinking

We know that our thoughts control our feelings and so if you are feeling overwhelmed, what are the thoughts leading to that? It doesn’t mean it is reality just because we think it. We may think that we can’t say no, that we have to answer every email as it comes in, that we are a failure because we haven’t completed everything on our to-do-list; or others will deem us lazy if we go home on time. That doesn’t make it true. By changing our thinking, we can change our feelings and thus our behaviours.

How might it impact on your feelings and behaviours if you are thinking:  ‘I am overwhelmed because I have too much to do and I can’t do it all; therefore I am a failure’?

How might it change if you are thinking: ‘I will always have a lot to do, but I am doing the best I can in the time I have’?

How are your thoughts influencing you? What thoughts do you need to change?

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike and mysterious secret………..: life is fun.

The Tao of Pooh: Benjamin Hoff

Perceptions are not necessarily reality, so we may have to challenge these. An example is a Director, who was a coachee of mine, was feeling overwhelmed and felt she was letting the Board down by underachieving. When I asked her what their expectations were, she didn’t know. She was working on her perceptions of what their expectations were. When these were clarified, she realised she was over imagining what was expected of her.

What perceptions could you challenge?

Set Realistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations can cause you to feel overwhelmed. Very often we set ourselves unrealistic expectations of what needs to be done and what we can achieve in the time available. If that isn’t bad enough, others can also set us unrealistic ones too. Whilst you continue to say yes to everything, they may not realise you have too much to do.

When you plan your day, you can choose to include ‘BUT’ time. (BUT standing for ‘I would have done it but for this’ or less politely ‘b#g#e#ed up’ time). This is the average amount of time each day that you get interrupted by the unexpected, the urgent ‘curved balls’ and other people’s issues. I am told that this is about 2 hours a day on average. If you don’t allow for this in your planning then you are setting yourself up to fail.

A recent example of this was a manager who was given a new role as company trainer. As his new job description appeared ‘light’; more and more bullet points were added. The enormity of some of the task’s timescales was not taken into account. He is now feeling totally overwhelmed.

How clear are you of the expectations of yourself and others? What BUT time do you need to allow? 

How realistic are the expectations of your job description and goals? Is there open and honest discussion about this?


When we are in the thick of things, it is easy to lose sight of what is important and get caught up in the urgent. Buzzing smartphones and popping emails can distract us from what really needs to be done. Stephen Covey designed the concept of urgent versus important in his brilliant book First Things First. The urgent things tend to demand your attention NOW. We can be proactive and focus on the ‘important and not urgent’ or we can be reactive and deal with the urgent. There is a risk of becoming addicted to the urgent.

Where do you spend most of your time? What important aspects are being missed?

We can get dragged into other people’s priorities and lose sight of our own. Ken Blanchard talks about taking on other people’s monkeys in his book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. This is when you find yourself taking on their problem or priority (monkey) onto your own back. You may do this out of kindness, sense of obligation or an addiction to ‘monkey collecting’.

How many monkeys are you carrying?

An example is an Engineering Manager of a factory, who was failing to meet his targets. This was because he and his team were constantly being called out to deal with breakdowns and problems that could easily have been dealt with by the operatives. More important tasks were being sidelined to deal with these unnecessary call-outs. He was busy picking up other people’s monkeys.

Would you be prepared to ask ‘whose monkey is it?’

In summary, if you want to reduce a sense of feeling overwhelmed, then remember to keep your sense of humour and:

  • Challenge your thinking.
  • Set realistic achievable expectations.
  • Prioritise what is important.

If you would like more detail about any of these aspects or to discuss further options, then please contact me.

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