How to Be Productive When You’re Overwhelmed
Does this ever happen to you?
It’s a perfectly good morning, there’s a warm beverage, your cozy workspace, your projects are all under control and then—BAM! Upon closer inspection you have a small tsunami of prioritized work to get through in the next couple of weeks. It doesn’t help that your to-do list is lengthening by the minute as well.
There’s a difference between having a lot to do and having too much to do. However you might define those quantities, “a lot” can be motivating; “too much” can make you freeze in your tracks, resulting in doing a whole lot of nothing productive. Part of the problem is, when you have too much to choose from, no matter how well prioritized your work might be, you just don’t know which task to pick first or where to start.
Here are eight tricks to calm the mind and help you dive in to your tasks when you feel overwhelmed.
Know that your reaction is normal.
Stop beating yourself up and get strategic about how to chip away at your work. You might even try giving your mind an allocated amount of time to wander. This means setting a timer for ten minutes in which you can browse the internet, stare out the window and even freak out a bit if it helps to get that out of your system.
Take a deep breath—
—actually, take five. Let’s take a breathing tip from the pros who really face some frightening work stress—the military. They use a tactical breathing technique when faced with critical situations. Breathe in for a count of four; hold for four; breathe out for four; hold for four, and repeat.
Write down everything you have to do.
Some people find comfort in handwriting the list and seeing their very nonthreatening scribble on a harmful piece of paper. Plus the old-fashioned act of writing by hand has stress-relieving properties. It’s been proven—try it.
Prioritize and then, creatively prioritize.
Start with prioritizing by deadline. For the tasks that share deadlines, order them by magnitude—put the bigger projects on top. Once your priority list is final, step back and see if this gives you a sense of order, and direction on where to start. If you’re still having a hard time getting motivated, pick the task you most want to do. It’s certainly better to gain traction doing something.
Start with the easy stuff.
What can you knock off in the next 15-30 minutes? Make phone calls, answer emails, etc. Then, attempt one of your beefier tasks.
Use your team mates.
Working in an office with colleagues has a lot of benefits—use them! People love to help others solve problems. Share your project challenge with a co-worker; see what a team mate does when he has too much on his plate; see if you can do some delegating; buy someone a coffee just to give your mind a break. Or, talk to your manager about your workload and priorities for some perspective and guidance. You’re not in this alone.
Give yourself set periods of time in which to work. Set a timer for, say, 30 or 40 minutes—something that you can commit to. “Working within a specific and limited time frame is important because the race against time keeps us focused,” writes Peter Bregman in his Harvard Business Review article, “A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed.” Focusing our attention increases motivating stress and decreases paralyzing stress. And, the contained time periods give us a framework that helps us chip away at important work.
Take five—or 20.
Sometimes you just need to get away from what you’re doing. Whether it’s a walk, a coffee break, some quiet time or reading an unrelated article, really disengage your brain from the work you’re doing. You might be surprised at the focus and brilliance you bring to your big list of tasks when you’re feeling refreshed.
The best project managers are masters of dealing with overwhelming workloads. How do they do it? Get some essential best practices in our eBook, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.”