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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

5 Unexpected Ways to Deal When You're Overwhelmed at Work

When you’re overwhelmed and overloaded at work, it can be easy to feel trapped. After all, what can you really do besides continue to crank away at your massive to-do list until it all gets done?

Well, a lot. In fact, putting your nose to the grindstone from morning to night is probably the worst way to deal when you feel like you have way too much on your plate.

Some of the best ways to handle feeling this overwhelmed actually fall into two camps—neither of which have anything to do with working until your brain melts: taking action to get a handle on your work, and taking a break so you can keep working to the best of your abilities.

Next time you’re not sure where to start with your to-do list, try a couple of the strategies below.

1. Take Action: Take Time to Plan

Using your precious time to plan may seem like a rookie move—you could be using that time to, you know, work!—but actually setting aside some time to create a plan of action will make the rest of your time working much more efficient.

Even just writing down what needs to get done and deciding what order you’re going to tackle it in can be pretty powerful. Why? It takes all the things flying madly around your head and puts them into an actionable list. It makes you stop having to think about how you’re going to do your work, and lets you just think about doing it.

So stop panicking for a minute. Breathe. Then pull out a piece of paper and dump every task you have in your mind onto it. And prioritize them. Then, instead of jumping from task to task, you’ll know exactly what you’re focusing on now and what you’ll focus on next. It’s not wasting time—it’s making the rest of your time more efficient.

2. Take a Break: Get Out of the Office

When you’re feeling overwhelmed and your stress and adrenaline levels are high, the office can quickly become the worst place to be. It feels like your boss is watching your every move, like everyone is being just a little too rambunctious, and like your cubicle walls are closing in on you.

Okay, maybe I’m getting a little dramatic, but truly: If you’re feeling anxious about your work, the office can quickly switch from an ideal place to work to a place that’s actually preventing you from getting your work done.

So, leave.

At the very least, take 10 minutes and go for a walk around the block. The fresh air will clear your head.

Or, if you can, take your laptop and go work from somewhere a little more serene for the afternoon: your favorite coffee shop, a museum lobby, or even a public park. If you don’t need it for the task at hand and you can get away with it, go somewhere without Wi-Fi. Getting away from the hustle and bustle for a bit will help you hone in on the work that really needs to get done—and remind you that there’s a world outside of your work bubble.

3. Take Action: Talk it Out with a Colleague

This is one of my favorite strategies for dealing when my mind is spinning with all the tasks I have to do. I learned it years ago as an intern when I was getting ready to go on a vacation and mentioned to my colleague how I wasn’t sure how I was going to get everything done before I left. Seeing how frazzled I was, she turned to me and said, “Tell me what you have to do.”

You may worry that talking with your colleagues about how you’re struggling will make you sound incapable or whiny, but ask long as you’re not asking them to do your work for you, it makes you look proactive. I was shocked how much simply talking through the tasks on my plate made it all seem more manageable. In the case above, my co-worker didn’t even have to say much back—the simple act of saying everything out loud helped me process and organize my to-dos into something I could tackle. A colleague may also be able to give you pointers into ways he or she has dealt with similar feelings in the past. And, at the very least, you’ll have someone to cheer you on as you power through your work.

If you feel comfortable talking to your boss about it, it can be even better as she might be able to help you prioritize tasks or see places where work could be allocated differently. Simply approach her and say something along the lines of, “I feel like I have a lot on my plate right now and would love your help figuring out the best way to tackle it all.” It sounds proactive—not like you’re complaining or trying to get out of work.

4. Take a Break: Get a Full Night’s Sleep

This should really go without saying, but I still see too many of my friends pulling late nights because they “just have so much work to do.”

Stop. Stop it right now. Put the cup of coffee down, and go to bed.

That time you’re sitting in front of your computer instead of sleeping is not helping your get your work done any faster. In fact, it’s probably slowing you down. Why? When you’re tired, you’re more distractible. When you’re tired, things seem bigger and scarier and much less manageable than they are. When you’re tired, you’re just not as good at your work as you could be.

Especially when you’re overwhelmed, you’re working your brain really hard. So give it the break it deserves and tackle the work when you’re well-rested. Trust me, it will get done tomorrow (probably better than you could get it done tonight).

5. Take Action: Work on the Weekends

When you’re feeling stressed and overworked, it can feel like you should covet your free time like someone trapped in the desert would covet water. And while, no, you absolutely should not work the entire weekend in order to try and stay on top of your work (see: take a break), it can be worth carving out some very specific and limited time to work. It’s a great way to get a head start on the week.

During times of extreme overwhelm, I have been known to work half days on the weekend (doing so at a coffee shop, to at least make it feel a little fun), but generally I think even that’s a bit of overkill.

My favorite way to get some work done while still feeling like I got my full share of weekend is by popping in a movie on Sunday night after dinner and spending that time plowing through some of the more mindless tasks on my plate. I’m still somewhat enjoying myself, and I get into work the next morning not feeling totally drowned in tasks.

Finally, just remind yourself—it will all get done. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and with the help of these strategies, you’ll be sure to get there with your work done well (and without losing your mind).

Photo of to do list courtesy of Shutterstock.

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