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What To Do When You Are Completely Overwhelmed at Work

March 4, 2011

This post was published at Christianity Today’s earlier this week, which I thought makes it worthy of a repost right here at the homestead, too.

If you are at all challenging and stretching yourself, you will inevitably run into situations where you feel completely over your head. It’s the most natural thing in the world. But rather than beating yourself up for being such an idiot for not knowing how to handle it better, here are some useful steps to take when you feel snowed under at work.

1. Chunk it into pieces.

You’ve probably heard that old joke from your grandpap:

Q: How to you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

Ha ha, I know – not very funny, but there is some wisdom in there. Take that massive project and break it into small, bite-size pieces so that you can focus on one thing at a time. This will help you avoid the oppressive shadow of the great beast, and actually give your mind a more manageable starting point to begin chipping away at.

2. Make just one decision

Part of the problem of being overwhelmed by large projects is that your mind starts going to mush. Our brain naturally wants to find recognizable patterns and familiar connections, but if we can’t make sense out of the mess that is before us, our little mind goes straight into meltdown mode.

Instead of drooling, try and block out all of the miscellaneous noise and focus on just one issue that needs to be resolved. See if you can bring that one element to a point of decision, and you will begin to feel some momentum. The very act of deciding can be empowering and will start to clean up the clutter in your mind, clearing the way for that next decision. And the next.

3. Find one point of clarity

Is there just one aspect of the project that you intuitively feel a conviction about for direction? If you can latch on to just one thing that you believe is a step in the right direction, it will likely lead you to another intuitive connection that becomes the next point of clarity. Don’t worry – You don’t have to have all the answers immediately. Usually they unravel over time, and finding those small points of clarity along the way will eventually propel you towards the finish line.

 4. Talk to someone else

Before checking into the asylum, find someone else who is involved in the project that you can talk to. Rather than drag them down the slippery slope, bring one specific item for discussion, to air out your thoughts and confusion, just to sound off for a while. Even if you find yourself babbling like a madman, the very act of interacting and talking it out with an objective party can bring some insights through the conversation. Your subconscious mind is constantly working on the problem, but doesn’t necessarily fill you in all the time. Often times the talking it out begins to reveal the patterns and connections that are right in front of you. This is why therapists are in such great demand these days.

5. Stop obsessing about the outcome

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is “just showing up.” I have found that to be true. We tend to get obsessed over the deadline, the end result, or the outcome we are striving for. The stress and worry over achieving the end result can actually hinder our creative thinking, as opposed to just showing up every day, focusing on what’s in front of you and moving the ball a little bit further – even if it’s just another yard. Concentrate on the little things: waking up, eating breakfast, driving to work, and – oh, look! Here’s your project! Hello, project!

Remind yourself that at least you’re not going backwards. Sooner or later, everything will click.

6. Go do something else for a while

When all else fails, and you feel yourself becoming literally paralyzed by the looming situation, go do something else for a while. Preferrably something you enjoy, or that you know you can accomplish. A crossword puzzle, perhaps, or a little walk along the riverbank. Sometimes I’ll just pack it in and go run on the treadmill for a while with my ipod headphones at full volume.  Taking your mind off of the situation may have the paradoxical effect of allowing you to solve problems better, because when you are relaxed your creative mind is much better tuned to solutions.

7. Pray

When all else fails….

All right, so maybe this should have come first. But don’t ever forget that God cares about you, your job and this project. He loves you! And your soul is so much more important than that stupid project! God can help you get through it, just like he has done for you every other time. Do you believe that? If so, stop the madness for a few minutes and take it up with the Task Master himself.




Do your best each day, and trust God for the outcome.

I’ll see you on the other side.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2011 8:46 am

    Points 5,6, and 7 have saved my life. Really.

    Great post!

  2. March 4, 2011 9:44 am

    #4…talk to someone before you check into the asylum. That’s so good.
    We are in a major downsizing and while I am grateful I still have a job, It seems that my responsibilities are increasing exponentially.

    Then a seasoned old vet pulled me aside and told me “don’t let it get you down. Hang in there. You’ll doing good.”

    And I felt better.

    But I’m still swamped!

  3. March 4, 2011 1:13 pm

    i like #8.
    i know…i know. you didn’t write a number eight.
    but, i have…
    it’s the name of a song…a good old song called
    “take this job and shove it”

    no, i’m not talking about a bad attitude.
    i’m talking about keeping one’s options open.
    always be thinking about your options, because
    jobs come and go. you are not married to your job.
    so keep an open mind as to the many other things
    that one can do. you never know when a hobby
    or some one else’s need will turn into a job.

    the days of one 20-30 year job is over. most people will
    transition through many jobs in their lifetime.

    so keep that in mind, as a reminder to the importance
    of balance and priorities with the bigger picture.


    i think i’ll go and have me an elephant sandwich.

  4. March 6, 2011 10:09 am

    Just checked in here to apply ‘do something else for a while’.

    Thanks for the break!

  5. March 7, 2011 10:10 am

    I find that “overwhelm” hurts me most in the area of “creativity”. It’s easier to do mundane tasks when we are overwhelmed, but it is difficult to think out of the box, to see in color! I like the “do something else” because it takes our mind off of the deadlock we may be feeling.

    I also tend to organize (I am not an organizer at all) because it is mundane and can be cathartic.

    I also agree with nancemarie – we need to remind ourselves that our jobs don’t define us. We don’t have to “shove the job” but knowing we can is freeing!

    Thanks for the post!

  6. March 7, 2011 4:59 pm

    Such great advice! And congratulations on the Christianity today post! I’m so proud!

    Just so you know, I’m trying some of these this week. I’m one of those people who always seem to get taken advantage of–at work and other places. So…this counselor is following your advice!

    Been out of the loop but just wanted to drop by to say hello and how ya doing?

    Hope things are peachy in your world.

  7. March 9, 2011 12:15 pm

    Oh, I am so there! Overwhelmed? Yes. Over my head? You betcha.

    Now, I just need to pray first. (I always save it for last.) These other tips are great too. I love the Woody Allen quote. When I started with the firm, someone told me — the key to success here is outliving other people who will leave. In other words, just show up!

    I also agree that getting ONE thing done — no matter how small — is empowering.

  8. 20y/ocreativedreamer permalink
    April 5, 2011 7:40 am

    This post is exactly what I’m looking for. I think I’m on the brink of losing my account because of the terrible mistakes I made recently. And the funny thing is that I still keep mistaking. There’s a lot of things in my head now and I’m trying to concentrate and finish all my tasks correctly. I just feel helpless but thanks for all your posts and of course to God’s words, I find peace.

    Keep up the good work and I know God is smiling at you. 🙂

  9. December 12, 2012 8:10 pm

    i needed this! Thanks! 🙂 Pray is the best advise! Gave me peace instantly. 🙂

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