How To Work When You’re Overwhelmed


As I write this article, I have exactly 32 other things to do that I’ve labeled high priority. In addition, I have 39 things to do that are medium priority. And, lingering toward the end of the list, I have 21 things to do that are low priority.

You might think that I’m overwhelmed. But guess what? I’m not. Here’s how you too can take your productivity to a whole new level while keeping your stress down.

These ideas will work whether you’re running a home-based business¬†or simply trying to be more effective in life or work.

Why We Freak Out When There’s Stuff to Do

Understanding the root of stress is the first step toward getting rid of it. I believe a lot of our stress comes from the “unknowns” in our lives:

  • We know we have a lot of email sitting in our inbox and think that the number of emails is what makes us feel overwhelmed. The lack of knowing what’s contained in those emails, however, is probably what’s keeping us overwhelmed. It’s an unknown.
  • We have bills piled high on our desk and don’t know if we can pay them. That scares us. It’s an unknown.
  • We are feeling tax time approaching and are not quite sure if we’ve done our accounting right. We don’t know if we’ll be able to find all our receipts and documentation. It’s an unknown, and it terrifies us!

All of us have unknowns in our lives. In fact, we always will. So what do we do about these unknowns? Do we run and hide? No! We’re fighters! We’re not giving up!

How to Calm Down and Get Back to Work

Get all of that stuff out of your head.

Have you heard of a neti pot? It’s something you can use to flush out your sinuses. Gross, yes. In a similar manner, the first step toward feeling better and less “congested” is to empty your head of all the tasks you’re trying to remember to do.

Cleanse your head by writing everything down you need to do in the future. Yes, everything you can think of. Some things you’ll be able to do right away, others you’ll need to do later. Some things are big projects, others are simple things like remembering to take the garbage out.

Now you can choose to prioritize your list if you like. But whatever you do, don’t make a I’ll-do-this-today list. If you make one of those, you’ll inevitably not do something on that list and feel horrible and discouraged when you have to move tasks to tomorrow.

I like David Allen’s concept of “Next” lists. Try making your list based on different contexts such as “things to do at home” or “things to do regarding work.”

Then you should take your list and prioritize it. Don’t make a big deal about this. Just prioritize loosely. Make sure that you include due dates for your list. It might help to get some task management software like Things for Mac to help you organize.

Do the most urgent and important things first.

Even though you may have prioritized your list, you might have to follow your gut when it comes to choosing what to do next. Generally, it’s best to choose a task from your next list that is high priority. But which high priority do you choose to accomplish first? That’s where you have to follow your instinct.

Dave Ramsey (mastermind behind the 7 Baby Steps), in his book EntreLeadership, talks about the difference between urgent and important tasks. Urgent tasks are those things that have to get done soon or they’ll die. Important tasks are those things that should get done because they hold a purpose. If any task is both urgent and important, you should do those tasks first.

Do the weekly review. Seriously.

Once a week, I review all of my items to make sure that I’m on track. The only time I review my entire list is once a week. Why? If I reviewed my list every day, it would overwhelm me. I, like you, have way too much on my plate and have to focus on the task at hand – not stressing over what I have coming up.

Focus on one task, complete, repeat.

If you’ve taken the advice above, you’re ready to focus on the task at hand, complete it, and then repeat the process.

There is a great power to focusing on one task at a time. Try it. You’ll be better able to focus now that you don’t have to remember everything you have coming up (it’s written out in a list).

After you complete your current task, go right to the next task – follow your gut – what do you need to accomplish next?

By following this process, we put off trying to understand or worry about the “unknowns” in our lives and simply focus on one thing at a time. We trust that we’ll get to those “unknowns” and figure them out at a later time because we have them in our system.

Jesus wants us to have a strong focus on today:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:34 NIV

So, what are you overwhelmed about? I suggest you get it out of your head, onto paper, and focus on what you can accomplish right now. You’ll feel more motivated to get things done!

Are you overwhelmed? Tell us about it. What are some ways you cope with the stress of multiple tasks weighing down on you? Leave a comment below!

  1. Tyler John

    thanks for the reminder to not worry. often my problem is starting a task then moving over to another one before I finish the first. haha, lists help. i actually put my to-do’s in a google doc on my phone. have you had success with another app or method?

    • John Frainee

      Tyler, I really like Things for Mac and Things for iPhone. They are very powerful programs that have helped me sort through my lists and get to the most important tasks at hand.

  2. Ruth F

    To reduce the clutter of piles of paper lists, I have resorted to using my iPhone notes page with an ongoing perpetual list of to do’s. I am challenged by how to prioritize from there and sometimes find myself making duplicate entries. The list is so long it’s hard to go through and pick out the most urgent important priorities. It is tedious and time consuming for me to cut and paste into groups to manage better. I enter dates for high priority items, mark them done with a gold star from my Emoji app, but the undone’s then have to be moved ahead or left to get buried. I wish that my starred accomplishments would jump to an other list that shows the dates with them so I can look back and tell myself I was productive. If I put the todos on a calendar they get lost with the day, and it’s hard to dig out what still needs to be attended to. To get my to do list all moving smoothly, I can spend the day arranging but accomplishing nothing, or else get distracted by yet another urgency (or interest) that arises but hasn’t gotten on the list yet! I recently got the Wunderkit app, but haven’t attempted it’s solutions yet.
    I wonder if there’s a David Allen app…

    • John Frainee

      Ruth, I haven’t found a Dave Allen app (and I don’t think he’d ever endorse one from what I’ve heard from him), but Things for iPhone is probably as close as you will get. I recommend it! Hope that helps!

  3. Joolie

    I couldn’t agree more!
    The nature of my job is that priorities constantly change. So I don’t keep a list, but I do keep everything in order. I print emails or write notes and then put them in order of priority with about 3″ showing so, at a quick glance, I can see what each one is. When a new item comes in it’s inserted in to the stack according to the new priority.
    At the end of each day I review what remains incomplete and may shift things so I tackle an easy or quick project first thing in the a.m. Like the debt-snowball, I will sometimes apply a task-completed-snowball to get the feeling of accomplishment in my heart & head.
    As much as possible, I focus on one task at a time and follow it through to completion before beginning another. If I get stuck on something I’ll put it aside completely and switch my attention rather than becoming mired. Often going back to it next offers a fresh look and what seemed unclear is now obvious.
    I used to switch my concentration to each new task that crossed my desk and it WAS overwhelming. Fewer things were completed and my efficiency was poor. This new method works for me incredibly well and I leave each day without the gnawing concern of what faces me upon my return next work day.

  4. Marianne

    I can’t live without a to-do list. Literally I would not get anything done and I would always be stressed out. Just like you said with your neti pot analogy, the only way I can stop thinking about something is to write it down on my list- then it’s out of my head and on paper and I can focus my brain on something else. I don’t usually prioritize the stuff on my list but if it starts getting especially long, I will go through it and star the things that need to get done right away. I use the same list for weeks at a time and then once there are many things crossed off I rewrite it and move things around. Often if I am bored, I will go to my list and start on the first thing and once that’s done or I’ve gone as far as I can on it, move to the next and so on. Times like these I really get a lot done! At work I have a daily to- do list which is more like an order of things that I do every day when I get in. Once those 4 things are done (things that have to be done every single day) I move on to my general list.

  5. Kristal

    Lately, I’ve been feeling like I feel overwhelmed with everything! lol There’s things I want to happen and get accomplished in my life; big things. I don’t know which first…a baby….a business…both…at the same time… a new job…weight loss? How am I going to fit that in with my crazy schedule right now when I feel like I don’t even have time to get the house clean or take care of my pets the way I know I should. Everything is so frustrating including my finances and trying to save money that I just can’t seem to get a grip on anything. I’m going to try your advice and start making lists…until I forget to, because I know I will…and then….I don’t know. I feel a little lost. =/

    • John Frainee

      Kristal, I think you’ll find the lists will help. But sometimes we need to removed responsibilities from our lives that aren’t necessary. Ask yourself if you’re spinning your wheels with something you really shouldn’t be doing right now. Also, it may help to focus on major goals one at a time. Ask yourself what will give you the greatest return on your investment, and do that. I wish you the best!

  6. Thank you for this reminder and the strategies. I like the Netti Pot example; it does help to clear your head of other things you need to do and just focus on what you are doing now. Otherwise, I often keep hopping from task to task and don’t really complete any of them.

  7. Joan

    Good post. I don’t have a problem keeping myself organized at work but I do at home. There seems so much that has to be done. For Christmas my hubby and I got iphones, so am going to look into the Things for iphones app. I do lists for home/life tasks but the list keeps growing and growing. So will definitely be doing lists today and sorting by 3 categories – high, medium and low. Thanks!

  8. As far as the email goes, I use the categories to sort it into bills, travel, personal, work, etc. so I don’t have to go through everything when I just want one category. It takes a lot of the stress out of it.

    I agree totally about the to do list. Don’t make it for one day or even one week. Let it be a list of things that need to be done. When I’m having a hard time deciding which to do next, I go with the gut as you suggest. It’s the most satisfying task to do and very motivating.

    I have to mention that as great as the Netti Pot works, if you don’t use the type of liquid it says to use on the box you can end up with a bad infection. A few people have actually died from brain infections because they used tap water in it.

  9. Garic Balen

    With so much to do and so little time to do it in, feeling overwhelmed, and the sensations of stress and anxiety that accompany it, are common to most workers. But the question of how you deal with it can determine whether your day is a success or a total feeling.

  10. Sean Hopcraft

    This is an awesome article. I think the best on that I have adopted in the past is focus on one task, complete and repeat. The not completing is where you get overwhelmed. Once I took control of my time and controlled the distractions and finished things, my day got easier.

  11. Jenny

    Hmm… I’m overwhelmed with forgetting things! Coupons for free or reduced products/services, events, appointments etc. To deal with it I know I need to get the office set up and a cork board with the coupons and must complete by dates in big red.

  12. Frank Viola

    Great advice. Focusing on one task at a time works best for me. Though I have friends who are more efficient multi-tasking. Guess it’s in the brain wiring.

  13. Lex

    This may sound a little childish, but…

    After I’ve made my list and prioritized it, I go through and find all the quick tasks that can be finished in just a few minutes. Then at the beginning of the day, I try knock those out first. This does two things for me. First, it reduces the amount of items on my list. Second, it gives me kick-start with the sense of accomplishment.

  14. Carl Lassegue

    Making a list always helps me get more accomplished. If I’m feeling overwhelmed I usually start with small tasks first and ride the momentum to tackle the bigger tasks.

  15. Erika Pizzo

    Great article, I love the insight you give on this topic. It can be very hard to prioritize “the list”, but when done, it can really make a difference in the way you go about your day. What helps me is to have a list for “today”, “this week” and “this month”, and look at my priorities from that light. Thanks for this article!

  16. Thanks for the great info! When I struggle to get work done I make myself a to-do-list, take a deep breath, then just push through my list of things, it can be hard at times, you just need to try and keep yourself motivated.