A cartoon image of a hand coming out of a large pile of paperwork and books to represent feeling overwhelmed at work.
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Feeling overwhelmed at work? Here’s what to do

21 Apr 2022

We’ve all let the to-do list get on top of us from time to time, but the important thing is knowing how to climb out of the hole.

Whether you’re working on a big project or just have a lot of smaller tasks to get through in very little time, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed at work occasionally.

For those who are working remotely, that feeling can be magnified by the fact that you are the only one in the room, making it harder to pull yourself out when you’re snowed under.

Future Human

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are a few steps you should take.

Make a to-do list – or redo the one you have

This may seem obvious, but if you don’t have a to-do list for the day or the week already on your desk, making one now can help you focus your mind on the tasks at hand. If it’s one big project that is overwhelming you, break it up into smaller tasks and give each one a realistic deadline.

For those who already live in the world of to-do lists like me, the one you currently have may not be working for you. So it’s time to throw it out and start a new one.

Often those who work with to-do lists end up carrying around a lot of ‘task debt’ – when you have a number of long-uncompleted tasks that you keep carrying across to the next day’s list. That alone could be enough to overwhelm you and it can also skew your ability to effectively prioritise tasks.

Move these tasks off your current to-do list, re-write your timeline for the day or week with fresh eyes, and focus on which tasks actually need to be done.

Prioritise the right way

Part of that overwhelming feeling could be that you’re stuck in the mindset of needing to get one particular element of your work done before all else and it’s making you freeze up.

Alternatively, it could be that you’re leaving it at the bottom of the list and frontloading your day with less important busy work while letting the important job loom in the background.

Everyone is different when it comes to how best to tackle their work. Some prefer to ‘eat the frog’ – tackle the worst task at the start of the day and allow for smooth sailing after that. Others find their peak productivity levels in the afternoon and therefore leaving bigger tasks until then might be preferable.

One of the best ways to figure out what works for you is to think about the approach you usually take and do the opposite. Even if it doesn’t work every time, the immediate change might help to kick-start your mind. The more you do it, the more you can adjust it slightly to work with your schedule and working style.

Acknowledge your physical needs

One of the most common reasons people can get distracted or suffer from brain fog is that their body is lacking the proper fuel it needs.

Take this as a cue to fill your water bottle, take a sip and stay hydrated throughout the day. It’s also important to make sure you have good slow-burning energy snacks while you work too.

You may be wondering how this helps you feel less overwhelmed by the workload you have, but it is an important factor in helping you stay focused and productive when you need to.

Take purposeful breaks

Breaks are a vital part of your working day – not just your main lunch break but also mini five-minute breaks between tasks. Someone who is feeling overwhelmed might think they have been procrastinating too much to afford any breaks, but skipping them will only cause more problems.

If you plan breaks consciously and purposefully, you’re less likely to take unscheduled 20-minute breaks to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole or get up every 10 minutes to do something unnecessary.

One of the most well-known techniques for time management is the Pomodoro technique, in which you take a five-minute break for every 25 minutes of work.

If these breaks are built into your schedule, you are less likely to take accidental or procrastination breaks in the middle of tasks. It might even help to make a plan for some of your breaks such as making a cup of tea or doing a five-minute mindfulness exercise.

Don’t overthink, just start

There’s a common phrase among writers that ‘you can’t edit a blank page’, meaning the only way to actually make progress is to start. Sometimes we’re paralysed from starting a project because we don’t know where to start and we’re afraid we’ll do it wrong. But in most cases, any work is better than no work.

If you dive right into the task you’ve been dreading without overthinking it too much, the biggest challenge of actually getting started will already be over. Once you’re in it, you can tweak it, change it, improve it or add to it, but actually getting it started will help take some of that dread away.

You will no longer be overwhelmed by a mountain of tasks that you haven’t even started yet. Instead, you’ll have begun to chip away at them and progression is likely to breed more progression.

Talk to your manager

If the above tips are not so much as making a dent in your workload, then it may be a case that the workload is too much or the deadline is simply too tight.

It’s always OK to ask for help and your manager will be much more appreciative of you coming to them ahead of time to flag any issues, rather than when the deadline has passed and the work isn’t done.

More often than not, your manager will have gone through similar issues in the past and will have some tips of their own, maybe even specific to your work, to help you get through it.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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