How to Handle Overwhelm

Getting overwhelmed can happen to the best of us. It can happen when we least expect it, but most often, I think, we at least have a glimmer of when it’s about to hit us.

Overwhelm can hit when, like Jamie recently and me back in December/January, your computer crashes in the middle of the workweek and it takes a while to get back ‘on track.’

Overwhelm can hit when you have slow periods with barely any work, then start saying ‘yes’ to any work opportunities that arrive, and within  days or weeks you find yourself with so much work you don’t know when you’ll sleep again.

Similarly, overwhelm can hit when you have a few projects (sometimes even one) that take much longer than you estimated, or that you consider ‘done’, arrive back on your desk needing rewriting or other fixes — and your schedule is full already.

What do you do when overwhelm hits you? My best advice is: step away. It sounds crazy when there’s so much to do, I know.

Step away from all of it. Breathe. Do something mindless or fun or at least not-at-all-related to your work. Re-focus. Re-prioritize. Develop a plan of attack. Move back into the work.

Family of live crabs overwhelmed and washed up by tide

Family of live crabs overwhelmed and washed up by tide

What made me think of this post was seeing an entire family of crabs wash up on the beach over the weekend. Two large crabs, some smaller crabs, and some incredibly tiny crabs all together washed up from a wave as the tide peaked. I imagine they had been swimming just under the surface, having a family day, and then they took a step into a current (perhaps rip tide) and lost all ability to control their own progress.

They became overwhelmed with forces outside of their control. They got left on the sand and struggled to gain their footing and regroup and just as they (almost) managed that, another wave washed over them, tumbled them around, pulled away and left them struggling again. This went on for many minutes. The struggle was real. The crabs weren’t going to drown, but they certainly were overwhelmed.

I thought that the couple of crabs that remained where they were each time the wave pulled and pushed against them – the ones that seemingly remained calm and let the water flow as it would – were the ones that were going to end the day on a good note. I felt the crabs that scrabbled for a grip on the sand and ran this way and that without any plan were going to end up bird food as soon as they exhausted themselves.

We can’t always let go or step away completely, but when overwhelm hits, we need to find a way to stay calm, focus, and develop a plan. Otherwise we’re struggling and may end up too exhausted to do anything at all.

What do you do when you sense overwhelm approaching?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

5 thoughts on “How to Handle Overwhelm

  1. Great post! I’m sure many, including myself, will find this handy. One other piece of advice that helped me with feelings of being overwhelmed was from Anne Lamott’s essay Short Assignments, “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

    Now when I feel overwhelmed, I just think of taking things “Bird by Bird.”All of my projects are now birds. Some are eagles, others are finches, and there are a few albatrosses mixed in, and I take them all “Bird by bird.”

  2. I pull my head in and hunker down actually. Wait for the storm to pass if at all possible. Of course that’s not really very productive and is why I am not publishing my second novel this year. LOL

  3. Reblogged this on B. Shaun Smith and commented:
    One week my computer crashed and I got sick. The only saving grace was that the computer was under warranty. It was also the week of Christmas, so It was a nice little break…some what. Just had to wait it out.

  4. I used to get overwhelmed and discouraged but as I matured I reached a point where nothing overwhelms or surprise me anymore except human stupidity. As Einstein put it: “There are two things are infinite the universe and human stupidity, but I’m not sure of the first.” I agree with him entirely. Anyway I’ve become a stoic so whatever happens, happens and if I can do something about it I do it if not I start afresh or change course or open another door. I always take into account is that in whatever I do I know that there is “Mr. Unpredictable” lurking in the background waiting to spoil my plans, it’s what he does for a living, so I’m ready for him.

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