7 Steps to escape ‘Overwhelm’

You know the feeling. There’s too much to do, a backlog is building up, there’s not enough time or space, yet you press on, hoping that one more push, a few more hours – today, tonight, over the weekend – will do the trick. And this time it doesn’t. Added to the mix is a new type of task or project that you’ve never done before. Suddenly instead of being stimulated and challenged as you would normally, you begin to feel helpless, powerless and inadequate – overwhelmed by the enormity of everything and its relentless surge. Your creative juices have escaped and gone somewhere else and all you can feel is the pressure, the burden and the heaviness.

When you’re in this state you cannot be productive. Something needs to change.

I call this moving into overwhelm, although my editor insists overwhelm is not a noun; it as meant to be used as a verb. Still I prefer to use the idea of moving into and out of overwhelm, as it encourages clients to remember that “overwhelm” is a state of being, one of many states of being that they are capable of holding, and they can indeed move into and out of these states of being by choice. Awareness and choice-making are each part of the transformational change process that occurs when people develop and learn how to function new levels of maturity, with more choices and more at stake.

How to get out of ‘overwhelm’ in 7 simple steps

NOTE: In the long run, it actually takes longer not to do this. These steps can be completed in 15 minutes to an hour, or longer depending on the complexity of the situation. It’s a great investment.

1. Listen: That inner voice that keeps saying “Not Enough” isn’t talking about you – as in you’re not enough – its letting you know that there is not enough (time/ resource/energy/ planning/ structure….) whatever is needed in order for you to fulfill whatever it is that you believe is expected. It’s a sign to stop the struggle for a moment and notice what is going on.

2. Step Back: mentally leave this overwhelming scenario and move back, far enough so that you can ‘see’ the whole picture, visualising all the way out to the edges, noticing where your small, stuck self was sitting, right in the middle of it. Knowing that the one, who is now seeing it all, is not the small stuck self.
Now if you’re ready, skip to step 4. Or, if you’re still feeling helpless, powerless and inadequate, take some more space:
• physical space, e.g. leave the office and go for a walk, stretch, breathe, go for a swim, play with your pet, take a 10 minute break to call someone who makes you laugh or
• consciousness-raising space, using a simple breathing meditation or other technique – or combine them in what ever way works for you (contact me here for information on meditation methods).

3. Remember: As a human being you are creative, resourceful and whole. You may have been struggling to feel and behave this way lately, however that is by nature who you are and have always been, and the short perspective-break that you just took will be helping you to recognise this already.

4. Brain-Dump: Make a list, in no particular order, of everything that needs your attention at the moment.
• If you enjoy the visual medium, create a mind-map. Allow the creativity to return.
• However you do it, just get it out of your head and onto paper.
• I personally like large format paper with coloured pens and I make a mind-map
• Others prefer to do it on the computer using a mind-map application; others use Powerpoint.
• Some like to just make a big list.
• The important thing is not to censor anything right now, let it flow or tumble out of you, until the pressure in your head has subsided
• If you still feel that pressure in the head or tight in the chest, go back to Step 2 and spend a little longer in the park (preferably without your mobile phone).

5. Organise and Prioritise: See where related things can be put into groups, notice what are clearly the most important and what are the most urgent things. Generally as people begin to lay out all of the pieces that have been jumbled up in the overwhelming state of mind, they see new relationships between the parts that can be approached differently. Some things are not really as urgent as they seemed; it doesn’t all have to be done today! A project timeline, with future-actions and inter-dependencies becomes clear. Priorities emerge and can then be scheduled
• Decide what needs to happen in order for all of the important and urgent things to be done in the timeframe required
• Schedule the activity (either you or someone else can do)
• If it is not possible, you need more resource or more time
• Feel yourself back in the driver’s seat again!

6. Systematise: If you don’t already have a system that supports you in keeping things on track – whether is an electronic calendar, a project management tool or other system, this needs to be addressed as soon as possible, to keep you flowing at this new level. It will be easier to investigate the range of available tools and select the right one, once you know what you want them to do for you, rather than trying to make yourself work within the logic of a tool that may have more features than you actually need.

7. Ask for what you need: Most of the time this is easy and produces great outcomes. Often we don’t ask because we forget that we’re not always required to do absolutely everything on our own, or we’re afraid of looking incompetent or stupid, or of being refused the help.
• If you do meet resistance, explain why you need the necessary resources, information, tools or time and how it will benefit delivery of the required outcomes to the stakeholders in your business/organisation as well as yourself.
• For self-employed people this is often a conversation with yourself and your trusted advisors.

For most people the overwhelm will have disappeared after Step 2. Others might need all of the steps. Some want to go straight to Step 6: Systems. This is fine as long as you have released negative and self-defeating emotions and have recognised the difference between the important and urgent priorities.

I don’t wish overwhelm on anyone – it’s not pleasant, however it can be a great learning experience if approached with awareness and the right support.

I wish you all the best in your stretch to the next level – let me know if this article has been helpful!

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High impact conversations that transform people and companies. Sue loves working with leaders on a mission, to untap their full potential. Her specialties include entrepreneurship, leadership, integration, transformation, and growth.


Phone: (02) 8860 6540
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