Feeling Overwhelmed? 3 Ways to Get Through the Day

A self-reflection notepad next to a computer on a white table

It’s not just you. Stress levels are high for almost everybody these days. 

The American Psychological Association reported in the early months of 2021 that 84% of participants in a survey of stress said they felt “at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the prior two weeks.”

For many, that one emotion can be summed up as “feeling overwhelmed.” It can be hard to describe outside of that wording, but it boils down to maybe feeling overworked, feeling like there isn’t enough time to get everything done or having so many emotions it’s difficult to work through them all. Or, it might be all of the above. 

It’s natural to feel this way sometimes, especially in a busy world. Working through those days can also be daunting. Not only is the work or the feelings a lot to handle, figuring out how to carry them is an added layer of stress. 

For those days, there are ways you can help yourself. Take a deep breath and take a few minutes to sort out your day. You’ll be surprised how taking a quick pause and taking the advice from the following experts and fellow professionals can change your outlook and help you help yourself through it.

1. Audit your brain’s real estate 

Have you ever been so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start? That can happen, and it’s frustrating. One way to help yourself these days is to take just 10 minutes to “audit your brain’s real estate.” 

The tip comes from lifestyle and business reporter Rosie Spinks, who writes that on days when she feels overwhelmed she notices her brain starts “to make space for way too many things, like shoving in more mediocre condos into an already too-dense neighborhood.”

To overcome that feeling, her audit starts by making three columns: Things she has to do, things she would like to do and things that are required to stay sane. 

“Try and be extremely granular about your columns. If you think about it during your day, it belongs on there somewhere—regardless of how minute or inconsequential it seems. (One of mine is “text people back,” something I consistently struggle with.),” she says. “Trust your brain when it comes up with something, and even if you don’t know which column it belongs in at first, write it down anyway. It will become clear as you progress.”

After making the three lists, start auditing the list. Some things you may need to keep as they are on the list, while other things you can drop off completely. Those in between-ers may need to be put off for a while or require less energy than you’ve been dedicating to them. 

Oftentimes, feeling overwhelmed can come from all angles, not just work or personal matters. Taking note of all of that can put it into perspective and, hopefully, help you get through the day.

2. Make it a minimum viable day

We’ve all heard of the “mental health day”, and they can be helpful, but sometimes just taking a full break from life and work for 12 hours isn’t enough. The thought of pausing for that long can be overwhelming in itself. Enter: the minimum viable day. 

Product Manager Rebecca Pendleton writes that she’s adapted the idea from the “minimum viable” business model. Essentially, the idea is to get as much as you can from the day with the least amount of effort. Others have signed on to a similar method, calling it the MIT (most important task) technique and setting out to focus only on a couple of big ticket items for the day that will yield the most important results.

For Pendleton, the minimum viable day has been revolutionary, especially when she finds herself feeling burnt out. She follows five steps:

  1. Know the purpose. Your goal is to do only what you need to do to get through the day. 
  2. Prioritize. “Essentially, for your MVD, you want to focus only on the must-have actions/outputs that you absolutely must do to prevent chaos from breaking out,” she says.
  3. Postpone what you can. Anything that can wait until tomorrow should. 
  4. Keep performance measurement in check. Be kind to yourself. If you didn’t accomplish everything, it’s okay. The goal was to make it through the day.
  5. Reflect. These days can be eye opening. Ponder what about the day was helpful, which tasks make you feel run down and how re-prioritizing tasks could help in the future.

3. Challenge big assumptions

For some, feeling overwhelmed isn’t just a rare occasion. It’s a daily occurrence that contributes to chronic stress, anxiety and burnout. That’s when Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey say it’s time to challenge “big assumptions.” 

In 2019, the duo wrote “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization,” and in it they discuss “how the increase in complexity associated with modern life has left many of us feeling ‘in over our heads.’” Simply put, they are experts on how to overcome feeling overwhelmed. 

In periods of ongoing struggle, the professors say it’s likely your own assumptions that are holding you back by keeping you in a cycle of unproductive behaviors. 

Those assumptions might be that you can’t recover from failing at a task or that if you’re not always available, others will fail and it’ll be your fault. These “big assumptions” aren’t always necessarily true, but they can consume us and drive us to a place of operating beyond our own mental means. It’s a tough place to be in, but you can change.

If you often feel overwhelmed, it might be time to take a deep dive into the underlying drivers of your behavior and investigate whether they’re actually true and what value they bring to your work.

“By identifying and debunking these beliefs over time, (people are) able to broaden their previously contracted view of the world, which in turn allow(s) them to reduce their overwhelm and provide them with a greater sense of agency,” the professors wrote.

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