We all feel overwhelmed sometimes. In fact, I think a lot of us feel overwhelmed the majority of the time. Between student loans, a constant stream of horrible news, employers who barely want to pay us, and trying to maintain a healthy social life and also fit in a few workouts each week, most of us have a lot on our plate, and it isn’t easy to balance.
Feeling overwhelmed is exhausting. When we’re overwhelmed, we can’t produce our best work, enjoy life, and go after our goals. Instead we’re stuck feeling frazzled and just trying to keep it all from completely falling apart. When you’re overwhelmed, you’re not thriving.
For some people, the instinctual reaction to feeling overwhelmed is to jump quickly from one project to the next. We want to work, work, work, without ever thinking about whether or not that time and energy we’re expending would be better spent elsewhere. This results in you feeling busy but not necessarily productive, often making things even worse.
On the other hand, some people react to feeling overwhelmed by retreating. We feel frozen and exhausted, and doing anything at all just feels impossible or not worth it. Just like working wildly without direction, doing nothing at all is likely to make things worse instead of better.
Or, if you’re like me, you might do both. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, sometimes I convince myself that if I just push myself a little harder, I’ll be fine. This results in me feeling irritable and eventually burning out. Other times, rather than dealing with the things overwhelming me, I’ll just spend all day sprawled out on the couch doing nothing, putting me even farther behind on my to do list.
I know that it’s difficult to deal when you’re feeling overwhelmed, so today I’m going to break it down into a step by step guide to getting things back under control when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
1. Mind map it out
If you’ve never made a mind map before, there are hundreds of examples online, but here’s a quick little one that I threw together to show you how it works.
In the center, you start with your primary topic. It could just be your name, it could be the year, it could be “I’m overwhelmed.” I’ve made mind maps to work through how I wanted to get my finances in order, and I’ve made them to figure out how to prioritize my week. They’re flexible. Write what comes naturally to you.
Shooting off of the center bubble, list all of the big topics that are on your mind. If you’re creating a mind map to deal with being overwhelmed at school, you could list your classes, a professor that’s making your life difficult, and any other things that you find yourself spending a lot of time on.
From there I like to start writing actionable ideas off of those bubbles. You can also write comments, plans, and other relevant notes.
The aim of the mind map is to start getting all of your thoughts out of your head and onto paper in a way that connects them together. When we can actually see what’s bothering us and understand what’s connected and how, it starts to bring us a sense of direction.
Being overwhelmed clutters your mind. Keeping more information than necessary floating around in the front of your mind is distracting and exhausting. It prevents you from calmly and thoughtfully processing what’s going on so that you can create a solution. Creating a mind map is a great first step toward getting organized and moving forward in a thoughtful manner.
As you’re creating your mind map, you’ll likely find that some things aren’t quite as important as others. This is good. This shows you where you need to focus your energy.
Grab a highlighter and highlight the two or three most important things on your mind map. What’s stressing you out the most? What is most important in the short term? What’s most important in the long run? What could you do that would bring results quickly?
Take things off your plate
When we’re feeling good, we often pile things onto our plate. We want to work on that side hustle, exercise daily, cook all of our own food, ace every class, and spend three nights a week hanging out with friends.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to realize that not all of these things are equally important. They might initially feel like they are. You really want to do all of them.
But take a second to float them all around in your mind. Weigh the pros and cons, and consider the consequences of taking each item off of your plate for the time being. You’ll likely find that a few of the things on your mind map either don’t need to be done by you, don’t need to be done right now, or don’t need to be done at all.
Take those off of your plate.
If you can, designate some of them to other people, or schedule a time in the future to revisit them. Many of the things you want to do right now are likely great ideas, but now isn’t the time for them. There’s no shame in scrolling forward a month or three on your calendar and scheduling a time in the future to revisit those ideas. You don’t have to abandon them completely, but now may not be the right time.
Accept the chaos
I’m one of those people who loves to have everything under control. I put a lot of effort into controlling the things that I can control so that life goes the way that I want it to. But sometimes, rather than fighting the wave, it’s better to just dive under it, hold your breath, learn what you can while you’re down there, and wait for the wave to pass.
Yes, there will always be some things that you have to put effort into managing. Those things need to stay organized or there will be significant consequences. But other things can get a little chaotic and nothing truly terrible will happen.
As much as I like to keep my space clean, when life gets busy, my apartment gets messier. Rather than fighting the chaos and letting it bother me, sometimes letting it go to focus my energy elsewhere is the best choice. Yes, I’d love a spotless apartment, but if there’s just too much going on to keep it as clean as I’d like, temporarily accepting the chaos is a good move.
Ask for help
Asking for help can come in a couple of forms. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes things need to be done, but they don’t necessarily need to be done by you. Sure, maybe you’d feel best if you were the one to bake the cake for your best friend’s birthday because you know you can make an amazing cake, but sometimes it’s best to just let someone else do it, even if they can’t do it as well as you can.
Nothing catastrophic will come from designating some tasks to other people. Chances are, in a week or two it won’t make a difference that someone else did it instead of you, but you’ll feel so much better about it. This frees up your time and energy to focus on the things that really do need to be done by you.
Asking for help doesn’t always mean literally asking someone else to do something for you. Sometimes, other people have the power to shuffle around your responsibilities so that you can do your best on the things that you need to do. Talking to your coworkers, boss, professors, or partner to create a new balance of work, whether temporarily or permanently, can make a huge difference in how overwhelmed you feel.
I know that for many people, busyness tends to come in waves. Some months are busy, some months are quieter. During the quiet months, you may pick up new routines and habits that work fine for those times. Maybe you don’t have a lot going on, so spending an hour reading each evening is manageable.
But then you hit a busy period. Suddenly you have new responsibilities that you didn’t have a few weeks ago, a bunch of errands to run, and a vacation to prepare for. Now those old routines aren’t going to work anymore.
In those times, it’s okay to cut back. I’m not sure if the same is true for other people, but this is something that I’ve always resisted. Once I’ve established a routine or habit that I like, I don’t want to scale it back. I want to keep doing what I was doing before.
But life changes. As you go through different periods of life, you’ll have to modify your lifestyle, and that’s okay.
Personally, the last month or so of my life has been quite busy, and looking forward, I suspect that my life is going to stay busy for quite a while. To accommodate this, one major change I’ve made is switching up my workout routine.
Rather than going to the gym 5 times each week for nearly two hours each time, I’ve cut back to going every other day for an hour. Is it ideal? No, but fitness has had to take a back seat to the other things going on in life. When I hit a quieter period in life, I’ll likely increase my gym time again.
There’s no shame in modifying previous routines if they no longer work for you. It’s okay to cut back.
3. Calendar block
A lot of the time, we have way more time than we think. It’s just that a horrifyingly large amount of that time goes to waste because we aren’t planning carefully.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I turn to my calendar. By calendar blocking carefully, I can see exactly how much time I have, what I have to do, where my time is going, and if I have time for everything that I need to do or not.
Often, once I’ve calendar blocked all of the things that are making me feel overwhelmed, I end up feeling relieved because I see that it does all fit into my schedule and that I’m going to be fine.
One bit of advice that I have when it comes to calendar blocking your way through an overwhelming period is to give yourself extra time. The last thing that you want is to schedule yourself too tight and end up falling behind and feeling even more stressed. We want the calendar to make you feel empowered and on top of your life rather than being yet another source of unneeded pressure.
4. Don’t forget self care
When we’re feeling overwhelmed, taking time to stop and take care of yourself is often the last thing on your mind. Self care ends up low on the priority list, which is the exact opposite of where it should be.
Self care helps you keep going. It keeps you steady. Ignoring self care when you’re feeling overwhelmed puts you on the fast-track to burnout, making the feeling of being overwhelmed even stronger.
As tempting as it may be to ignore self care, find a little time every day to do things for yourself. It doesn’t need to be anything big. Certainly if you’re overwhelmed, taking a day off to go to the spa probably isn’t going to help, and you’ll likely make yourself feel worse instead of better. Rather, find small things that don’t take much time or energy but make you feel better.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, limiting small distractions in favor of taking longer, more intentional breaks helps me stay on track. I make sure my phone is out of reach while I’m working so I can get my work done quickly, and then take a break to go take a walk or make a snack, rather than eating up my break time with random phone checking.
Meditation is also another great way to incorporate self care into your life when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Meditation itself is a wonderful way to combat stress and help yourself stay focused on what matters. It can calm you down and lower anxiety, helping you flow through the busy period, rather than fighting against it.
5. Take it one step at a time
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to act without thinking. A slow, methodical approach may sound like an unappealing time-waster, but in reality, strategically choosing how you spend your time will help you make a bigger impact in less time.
Not all of the things on your to do list are equal. Some are much more important. Some will make a big difference in a little time. Others will take a long time to complete but ultimately change very little.
Working carefully and methodically through your to do list will leave you feeling better than choosing tasks at random. Instead of doing 25% of four different tasks, choose just one and complete it, then move on to the next. Finishing something will help you feel better.
Use your mind map to strategically choose which items to work on first, and let it guide you through.
You’ll be okay.