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The Best & Worst Things To Do When You’re Overwhelmed

by Marissa Bracke in Focus & Get Stuff Done


The 5 Worst Things To Do When You’re Overwhelmed

1. Pick any one minute and relatively unimportant detail of any one minute and relatively unimportant task and focus on it with laser intensity as if your entire business depended on getting it perfect. Spend hours on this tiny, unimportant task, so that by the time you come up for air, you’re still overwhelmed but now have several hours less with which to work.

2. Buy another ebook or ecourse that you convince yourself holds the solution to your problems–overwhelm and everything else. Unless you drop everything else to read (and implement) that book or course immediately–and none of us do that, let’s be honest–it just gets added to your list of Things That Need My Attention And Which Overwhelm Me. Consumer Urge: 1, Productive Steps: 0.

3. Play another round of Bejeweled, Farmville or any other digital game that allows you to click your mouse a lot and thereby simulate the sounds and motions of productivity without the pesky side effect of, you know, actually accomplishing anything.

4. Set up a new to-do application under the guise of solving your overwhelm issue once and for all, and proceed to spend a few hours frittering with it instead of doing anything on your to-do list.

5. Commit to additional projects, tasks or clients without resolving how you’re going to deal with your current overwhelm, nevermind the additional overwhelm from the additional project, task or client. Play ostrich and assume that if you avoid confronting your overwhelm, eventually it will just stop existing.

The 5 Best Things To Do When You’re Overwhelmed

1. Step away from what you’re doing for 10 minutes so your traffic jam of thoughts have a chance to unclog and start moving again, rather than becoming totally gridlocked. Grab a glass of water, stretch, maybe even poke your head outside–use the 10 minutes to do the stuff you know you’re supposed to do during your work day that none of us actually do often enough.

2. Ask yourself: “What is the single most important, valuable or pressing task on my plate, and what is the one single step I can take on it right now?” Then do that one thing. Once that one thing is done, ask yourself the same question, and do another one single step. Do this five times or for 30 minutes, whichever comes first. Then get up and give yourself a 10 minute break. Repeat as needed.

3. Give yourself the right space in which to focus and make progress. If working in a crowded coffee shop with lively music and myriad aromas is adding to your overwhelm, leave. If the silence of an empty room is making you crazy, make friends with Pandora. Don’t let your environment add to your overwhelm.

4. Stop looking at “Done” as your light at the end of the tunnel. “Done” is a myth. “Done” is the tomorrow that never comes. Look at the completion of any one task on your list–no matter how tiny–as your goal. And when you meet that goal, pick another. Who needs one “Done” when you can have a dozen (perhaps small) goal accomplishments instead?

5. Remember overwhelm is temporary. Overwhelm can mimic panic, and make you feel like it’s unending, unbeatable. It’s not. It is temporary, it is situational, and you have the final say in whether your day is defined by it.

★ What are your best and worst things to do when you’re overwhelmed?

Image Credit: Rob Friesel | CC License

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Kelly Parkinson

This may just be the addiction talking, but please allow me to make The Business Case for Bejeweled. Bejeweled is really good for me! Really! What better way to teach myself that “done” is a myth than to play a never-ending game, while letting my brain secretly process the answers to things when I’m not looking? I think I’m going to load up a new set of jewels right now.


Actually, yes–I think you’re right that Bejeweled can have a place in an overwhelm strategy. But I think the key difference is whether you’re using it essentially as a “step away” strategy (to let your brain unwind) or if you’re using it as an ostrich strategy (“as long I keep clicking these sparkly jewels, everything will magically be okay…”).

If you’re doing the former, you’re probably fine. But I think a lot of folks do the latter, and that’s where it gets the categorization of “Worst.”

And then there’s a third category of people: those who get compulsive about playing and simply cannot stop when the timer goes off & just have to play just one more game… and just one more… Um, ahem, not that I know anything about that. ;-)

Robby Slaughter

The worst thing to do when you feel overwhelmed is to retreat into your work cave and try to do battle with something on your list. This will only make you feel more helpless!

The best thing to do is reach out to people in your life and tell them that you are overwhelmed. You don’t have to ask for help; in fact, it’s easier and often more effective just to admit that you are swamped.

You’ll certainly learn quickly that everybody is swamped and you’re not alone. But you’ll also remember that the most important item on your list is your relationships—and these can never be “checked off” or completed on your own time without other people.

Share! It helps.


Good points, both about asking for help & about remembering to prioritize relationships. I do put some connection reminders on my to-do list, even though relationship building isn’t really a check-it-off thing, because I’ve found it really helps me to be mindful about keeping a place in my day reserved for reaching out & nurturing those relationships. Asking for help is a weak spot for me, and a friend of mine recently suggested putting “ask for help” on my list too, for that same reason, just to remain mindful about that possibility. It’s one I overlook too often… perhaps why it didn’t land on the list above! Thanks for the reminder on that (really important and useful) point.

Bill Bean

But I love Bejeweled!


I would be the last person to tell you to drop a game you love… it’s more the when than the specific game. So if you dig those sparkly jewels, play away! (Just so long as it’s not delaying the inevitable coping with overwhelm, of course.) :)


Nice post – lovely to discover your wit and wisdom Marissa!

What do I do when in overwhelm. S-l-0-w D-o-w-n.

It works every time.

I was talking with Thomas Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind, on last week’s radio show and he had a great example of why this works. He told a great story of how, as a concert piano tuner he has incredibly meticulous and tedious tuning to do… one day when running late and feeling very overwhelmed, he slowed everything to meticulous accomplishment of one movement at a time. I won’t repeat the whole story, but essentially he couldn’t believe his eyes when by the end he had actually saved 45 minutes off his time AND had gained energy and enthusiasm.

Worth doing, I’d say!

(that archive is free to listen to on my site if you like, it’s called Focus On Demand http://www.elesecoit.com/1/post/2011/01/focus-on-demand-with-tom-sterner.html)


You’re right. It’s not usually the intuitive response, but slowing down works. I’m not sure if it holds true for everyone else, but when I push myself and hurry, I wind up overlooking things, dropping things, messing things up somehow, which just makes me feel more pressured and more overwhelmed (and gives me more to do to clean up the messes). Hurrying rarely gives me any time advantage. But slowing down… makes space. Makes space for me to get perspective, to do things right, to not be overwhelmed.

It hadn’t occurred to me to put those two things together (overwhelm + hurrying vs. slowing down) but you’re absolutely right that slowing down is a great way to handle being overwhelmed!

Barbara Sher

What you said here is amazing, Elese. Re: ‘slowing down,’ with the story you told that makes it so clear what you mean: you might almost say it’s the secret to life, and you know I never say things like that.

Thank you!!!

I’ll go to that link right now. I think I’ll be listening to your other shows pretty soon, too.

Ann Ronan

Love the post Marissa, and Elise you’re right on. Rushing around just causes our brains to get even more muddled AND stresses out our body too. For me, the simple act of getting away from the desk and taking a few deep breaths works miracles. And like Marissa said, getting outdoors -looking at the wide world of beauty lifts my perspective up past my “boxed in” thinking.


I have one more best and worst thing to do. Don’t have another cup of coffee thinking that it will make you more productive. Chances are the caffeine will make you more anxious and more likely to feel more overwhelmed. Trust me, I know this one from experience.

One more thing you might want to try…and this is easier said than done…take a deep breath and focus on your breathing. I know this isn’t easy, especially when you’re feeling busy. But it kind of goes with step away for 10 minutes.

Marissa, some really great thoughts here on a very important subject.


LOL @ the coffee–because, yep, been there too. (For me it was Red Bulls in college. When it was actually time for me to do something productive, I’d go for caffeine first. Which, of course, just made me jittery and scattered. Not that it stopped me from going right back for more caffeine as soon as the first one wore off.) ;)

And breath! Yes! So simple, and so easy to completely overlook. That’s an important “and” to the step away suggestion–because if we step away and just go panic, clench up and stress out for 10 minutes, that’ll get us nowhere at all. But if we step away and remember to breathe, then we’re getting somewhere.

Your idea also goes well with Sparky Firepants’ note in a recent comment about reconnecting with where you are physically and what’s happening around you. Pair that with stepping away & remember to notice the breath, and it’s a great recipe for calm, steady readiness. Way preferable to clenched up overwhelm. Good points, as always, Tim!


Love ALL your points (and making a note not to discover what Bejeweled is…).

I’d add, sometimes it needs more than just ten minutes. I know that can feel like it might make the overwhelm worse. But I can’t say enough about the value of getting the blood flowing. 45 minutes on my bike can bring such an amazing cascade of ideas, inspiration, new perspectives – even entire newsletter articles.

And, uh, yeah, I’ve learned to take paper, pens, and a little digital recorder so I can capture all those ideas. ;-)


So true, Grace. There are times–and this is kind of in line with Robby’s point above about not continuing to fight the overwhelm–when it’s even necessary to call it a day and just come back to it all tomorrow. Sometimes 10 minutes just isn’t long enough for that thought / panic traffic jam to clear out.

I have a 2-hour block in the middle of my day that’s reserved for my workout, yoga and meditation. That’s a BIG chunk of time, but it’s also a total sanity saver. And by the time I hit the shower afterwards, I’m often bubbling with ideas & renewed clarity rather than feeling clogged with overwhelm.

You’re smart to take along tools on your bike ride for idea capturing. I have AquaNotes on my Amazon wishlist for mid-shower idea capturing! (Which is a good point too: it’s not a bad idea to take a notepad with you when you step away, even if you think you couldn’t possibly need it because you’re overwhelmed, because I think it’s exactly when we give ourselves some space from our overwhelm that we often get a sudden flash of insight, idea or clarity.)

Another reason you’re smart: staying away from Bejeweled! LOL It’s so much easier to stay away than to quit! ;-)


Thanks, Marissa.

If you have a tiled shower, you don’t need anything fancier than a washable marker. Write on the shower walls, and away you go.


Mona - Some Like It Raw

Worst thing for me to do when I’m overwhelmed is try to figure anything else out. The longer I keep myself in the conversation of HOW something is going to get done, or how to fit it all in, how to make myself calm down…it just gets worse and worse.

So continuing to THINK is not a good look for me when I’m already overwhelmed.

The best thing for me when I’m overwhelmed is SLEEP.

If I am well-rested and have been taking care of my body like that, it’s not even possible for me to get overwhelmed. I find that I only get overwhelmed when I’m sleep deprived in some way. So that’s priority #1 if I get overwhelmed. It means I need more sleep.

It wasn’t always this way though. I used to get overwhelmed WAY more often because I just didn’t feel safe in my life. But I finally put some very focused attention on safety in my life, and attention on feeling good…and over a few months I was able to upgrade my experience to the point where now overwhelm is only something I experience if I get very little sleep.

Lack of Sleep is my gateway to overwhelm.

And on the flip side, Adequate Sleep is my gateway to loving my life and feeling great about everything.


I think Arianna Huffington has a TED talk on the benefits of sleep.
* a bit of holding music*

Yep, found it: here it is

Type A, sleep deprived?



I’m so much more prone to overwhelm when I’ve not had enough sleep. I never appreciated how much sleep mattered to my overall wellbeing until I started getting enough (after leaving the academic & corporate worlds). Now when I don’t get enough sleep, everything else is off-kilter. I’m a total evangelist for adequate sleep!

This is another great tie-in to overwhelm that didn’t occur to me. Lack of sleep is such a biggie.

Fabeku Fatunmise

Mondo smarts, Marissa.

And, oy, how many times have I fallen into one of the five worsts you listed? I swear I spent a year searching for the perfect to-do list software. Because, you know, that had to be the fix.

For me, the worst thing I can do is keep pushing. When I’m spinning my wheels, pressing the gas never makes anything better. Ever. And I’m actually really happy to say I’ve learned that lesson enough that I almost never keep my foot on the pedal now.

My best has to be drumming. Giving myself a ten minute drum break can make more difference than giving myself a week off. Getting up, walking out of my office and snagging a drum changes things totally for me.

I used to feel like that was slacking. But it’s totally not. Because I get more done after a drum break than I would have if I’d just stayed glued to my seat mindlessly clicking refresh on Facebook.


Listening to your music = another GREAT way of handling overwhelm. Your sound mojo does for my brain what stepping away & breathing do for my body & mood. I can only imagine how much it must help you to actually be the one making the sound mojo!

And you’re right: it is totally not slacking. Giving ourselves the space to reinvigorate and clear the cobwebs is as vital as any other forward action. Absolutely. (Or absosmurfly, one might say.) ;-)


what a horrible list with no actual actions. At least the what not to do list had actionable items.

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