How Do YOU Deal With Overwhelm?

Here’s a question for you guys: how do YOU deal with overwhelm? Whether it’s that end of the day feeling of “gaaaah I have so much more to do,” that “looming doom” feeling that always preceded finals or other big career events, or other forms of overwhelm, what do you do to calm yourself and move forward? How do you deal — particularly if you don’t have time to join a kickboxing class or otherwise get serious physical activity?

I am a work in progress on this front, as well, but here are some of my tips for how to deal with overwhelm — I’d love to hear yours!

  • For end-of-day overwhelm: write down three things that you absolutely need to get done first thing tomorrow. If you have a minute or two before you run out the door, clear your space and put the first thing you need to focus on in the middle of your workspace, so you’re ready to hit the ground running.
  • For looming doom overwhelm: Breathe. Meditate, if you can. Make a great “you can do this” playlist (so many great suggestions from readers on this post about girl power songs). Don’t let your stress dreams freak you out too much. One trick from my school years: focus on the end date. I would enter the finals period with so much stuff to do and read and write and knowledge to shore up and would say to myself, “I have no idea how it’s going to get done, but I’ve always always gotten it done in the past and done well, and two weeks from now it will all be done again.”
  • For too many balls in the air overwhelm: Reassess! Do you really need all of those balls in the air? Do they have to be YOUR balls, and your airspace? Delegate where you can, or kick tasks to good stopping point so you can take them out of the air for the moment — it helps to focus here on tasks (the next step in the project is X) instead of the project itself.

Readers, do you deal with overwhelm on a regular basis? What are your best tips for moving forward despite your overwhelm? 

Pictured: Shutterstock / Glovatskiy.

How can you deal when you're overwhelmed at work or in life? We're rounding up our top tips for three particular kinds of overwhelm, but there are more: end-of-day overwhelm, "looming doom" overwhelm, and "too many balls in the air" overwhelm.



  1. Perpetually stressed :

    Buspar. Cry. Make lists that give me a panic attack when I realize I can’t get to my three things because I’m doing or re-doing things on other people’s lists. Bitch-fest with one of my partners at 4:45 in which we both decide we’ll either (a) quit and start a new firm, or (b) fire all the staff and start over. Vodka.

  2. Perpetually stressed :

    Buspar. Cry. Make lists that give me a panic attack when I realize I can’t get to my three things because I’m doing or re-doing things on other people’s lists. B*tch-fest with one of my partners at 4:45 in which we both decide we’ll either (a) quit and start a new firm, or (b) fire all the staff and start over. V0dka.

  3. I just remind myself that life is an endless series of tasks and no matter how hard I work, I will never finish them all and there will always be more work to do. If you have to roll a rock to the top of a mountain every day, it doesn’t really matter if some days you are a few feet short.

    Sounds really bleak but it helps me refocus my anxiety, away from worrying about my to-do list and towards a deeper, more existential dread.

  4. BigLaw Sr Assoc :

    I really try to avoid getting in situations like this in the first place. In my personal life, I really focus on eliminating or not doing unnecessary things/things I don’t want to do or are not really beneficial to my family. This means my kids are involved in less activities, we don’t go to birthday parties every weekend, etc. For work, I make a list of all my pending tasks and write by what day I need to do them and just march through them in that order. I quit work at the same time everyday, barring a large filing/deadline, etc. If something non-urgent didn’t get done, it waits until tomorrow.

    • BigLaw Sr Assoc :

      After I wrote this, I have just gotten really good at saying no in both my professional and personal life.

    • Holding it together, just barely :

      This. I try to plan so I don’t get there, and that involves looking ahead for the week. If things come up (I’m transactional–things do come up and some of them are huge and swallow other things), then I think about alternate resources–pulling in other team members, delegating, buying time with the client(s) I can’t service that day by communicating. I also try to have a really good set of organized precedents and resources so that I can find exactly what I need and be very efficient and consider items to highlight to clients based on those precedents. It’s taken me years to develop this precedent/checklist library, but it’s invaluable for figuring out how to bypass complex processes by piggybacking on work that’s already been done in similar situations, by smart colleagues.

      I am also very good at guarding my time/saying no, even in work contexts. If there’s someone more junior or more suited to a “volunteer task” I will bow out.

      I also try to think about my own priorities, not just what’s rolling toward me–will a new deal broaden my skillset or deal sheet? Will I learn something? Do I enjoy working with the people on the deal, or will the stress level from those folks drive me bonkers for four months? If you can head off problems before they manifest, all the better.

      Last, I always try to remember two quotes–“Worrying is like a rocking chair–you can rock and rock and you won’t go anywhere.” and “Do the thing instead of worrying about doing the thing!” (thanks to a fellow hive mind for that!)

    • Saying “no” works if you’re not at the bottom of totem pole…but if you are, all of the “no’s” above you turn into crippling stress and anxiety for us at the bottom, and there is no way for us to say no to these. I work as an executive assistant (while in law school) and we routinely are the ones who in addition to our regular jobs supporting numerous execs, must take on the tasks that others have said no to…including scheduling the interviews for HR, deal with hiring contractors, processing all vendor issues for commercial, setting up video conferences and dealing with all IT issues, setting up and then staffing volunteer activities that higher-ups want to do because it looks good but don’t actually want to do. Granted, we are there to help and do so as much as possible even if it’s not “our job”…but all I’m saying is, as you say “no,” please be mindful of us down below who your tasks inevitably fall to. We end up with everyone’s No’s and have no way out of them.

      • Anonymous :

        Frankly everything on this list seems like something that should be done by an executive assistant rather than someone higher up the totem pole. I also think exec assistants generally have the “out” that they are non-exempt employees and can’t work more than a certain number of hours without getting overtime.

        • True in some cases, but I was just trying to make a point that your no’s really add up for the little people at the bottom. And while we may make an extra 10$ for staying an hour late to finish them, it’s hard for us too

          • Then your boss needs to hire more support staff–not take on some of these tasks for him/herself

  5. Anonymous :

    I retreat and put off doing anything, which makes the problem worse!

  6. anonymous :

    Kind of on this topic, but…

    For those of you who’ve gotten divorced, when did you know your marriage was over? My husband and I have two young children (son is 2 years, daughter is 4 months), and I just feel like things are done. We haven’t gardened in almost a year, we don’t talk about substantial things, and when he’s in town, he’s always out and about for work events (which are unnecessary in my view – we work in similar, but different, industries) I feel like he schedules them so he doesn’t have to be home.

    I feel like I’m living with a roommate that I don’t even really like that much. I can’t muster that much anger about the situation other than to want it to be over.

    • I can sympathize even tho I was NEVER married. I was dateing a guy for years who I thought would marry me, but once I figured out that he was just interested in drinkeing and haveing s-x with me while I worked all day, I decided it was better to be singel then married to a drunken schlub (who was terrible in bed anyway). We grew apart after I figured this out and eventually chased him out of my apartement after he kept barfing all over my white carpet, and peeing on the floor of my guest bathroom. He also NEVER did laundry and always ate everything in my fridge. He made ME go shoppeing for his food after I had a hard day at work, even tho he lounged all day in front of my flat screen TV. When you have a looser like that, it was NOT a hard decision, even tho I was overwhelmed by the entire spectacle of it. I was hesitant to dump him b/c I had no other boyfreind, nor any other men who wanted me for anything more then s-x, but I eventueally got up the guts to dump his sorry tuchus, and I have NOT looked back since!

      If you are in a similar situeation, you can just follow my lead and DTMFA! If not, you must follow your heart whereever it take’s you!


    • Anonymous :

      Periods without s*x and passion are pretty common in long term marriages, especially when you have small children. This phase of life is very short, relatively speaking. What have you done to reconnect with each other? Regular date nights? A vacation without the kids (maybe once your daughter is a little older)? Learning a new hobby together? Scheduling s*x? I know I’m just a third party who has only a few small details but from what you’ve said here, your marriage really doesn’t sound unsalvageable. In fact I think what you’re describing is probably more common than not among parents of toddlers and preschoolers. In five years or so your kids will be a lot more independent and have their own interests, and you will have a lot more time for each other.

    • Anonymous :

      I’m so sorry you are dealing with this. My therapist had suggested a book, Too good to leave, too bad to stay. It gives some specific feelings/situations to think through in making this decision. Have you tried couples therapy? Do you even want to try it? If you have decided you don’t want to try and make the marriage work, there is your answer. It isn’t a wrong answer.

    • Honestly, I feel like it’s over when we’ve talked, tried, counseled, and still failed.

      So far, he has just avoided and you both haven’t talked or been counseled yet. With two young kids, your complaints are shockingly common, sadly….

      Do you think you can start a conversation, at a peaceful weekend time? Sometimes a simple….”what’s going on with us? I am so sad, and lonely…”.

    • You have a 4 month old so I can imagine that lack of sleep plus hormones plus all of the work of feeding, changing, diapering, etc. plus taking care of older kid has taken its toll on both of you. Did things improve after a certain period of time with your older son? Clearly gardening took place – what got you back to normalcy then? Was it more time spent together, more date nights or ? See if getting a babysitter and a regular (maybe monthly) night out will help improve things between you. It is worth the expense and effort to try and rekindle your relationship again, if that’s what you are hoping for.

    • THIS is exactly why parental leave should be universally available to both genders. I’m guessing you just returned to work after spending a couple of months at home while he worked all through your pregnancy and mat leave. My guess is he’s not feeling connected to his new child and therefore you (since that’s where most of your time and energy is going). I seriously thought we would get divorced at this point too. What helped tremendously, almost overnight, was my unexpected promotion which led to a few 3-4 day work trips clustered together within a few months. Husband had to take over everything that I (and pretty much only I) was doing for the last 4 months. After (and during) the first trip, he was super whiny. Nevermind that I had to find places to pump in an unfamiliar 90% male office and ask for fridge space – he was the one who was really uncomfortable! After the second trip, he was stressed and proud of himself. After the third, he was comfortable and finally started saying things like “ohh, look at her little smile”. Things have really been much better since and he kind of crossed over into being a real parent and partner instead of a bystander. And as for gardening- same here. I felt awful during pregnancy and the thought of doing it was completely unpleasant. Getting back into it after birth took months and honestly, it’s still not great (both quality and quantity-wise) almost two years later. I know GYN says 6 weeks – I don’t know anyone who was ready by then, regardless of mode of delivery.

      To be honest, this whole experience kind of shattered my faith in the partnership bond. The fact that someone whom I trust and who loves me, who made the decision to have a child with me, was completely OK just standing on the sidelines and watching me spiral down physically and emotionally without doing jack was an extreme wakeup call. I’m already a cynic but this has taught me yet another lesson about relying on yourself and having a backup plan for everything. If I were to do it all over again, I would MAKE him take all the time off work he was allowed, he would be required to bottle feed as often as I had to BF, and for god’s sake he could do a tiny bit of work and find a dog walker so he could maybe focus on me while I’m giving birth. But knowing that he would probably still fail to actually do any of this after being repeatedly asked, I’d also hire a doula and ask my Mom to come out here.

      • Anonymous :

        Yup I’m 3 months postpartum and we haven’t even attempted it yet. At the six week appointment the doc was like “I’m sure you’re anxious to have sex again…” um no not really. It still seems like just yesterday that my nether regions were ripped apart. I don’t think a one year sex drought is something to get hugely worked up about when you were pregnant and newly postpartum for that entire year. All my friends have told me it doesn’t get normal again until you wean, if you’re breastfeeding.

  7. Mary Ann Singleton :

    I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?

  8. Ginger in Tech Support :

    I learned this technique in therapy a million years ago, and it really helps. I write down everything that is making me feel overwhelmed. I then take that list cross off everything I can’t control or do anything about. I take what is left and make a new to do list. It seems to help me focus on what is important and what I can let go of for now.

  9. Anonymous :

    Is using overwhelm as a noun a new trend? I feel like I’d never heard it until recently but have heard it several times in the last couple of months. I find it super grating. Why can’t you just say “how do you deal with feeling overwhelmed?”

    • Anonymous :

      + 1!

    • Yes, yes, yes to finding it grating. It may be a new trend (indeed, this usage is common among teens) but strikes my ear as irredeemably wrong.

      • Anonymous :

        +1 I hate how this whole post reads. It’s giving me internal chalkboard fingernails.

      • I feel like I’ve heard it used in a sort of tongue in cheek way that acknowledges that “overwhelm” is not a noun. Like when people say “I have the dumb” or something. But that’s not how it reads in this post.

        I still hate how gift is now a verb. Ughghhghg. Makes me irrationally angry.

    • Anonymous :

      Agreed. It’s annoying and distracts from the actual content.

  10. Anonymous :

    The mention of stress dreams is timely for me. I am in the midst of a tumultuous transition period at work, and every single night I have long, convoluted stress dreams that eventually wake me up. Is there a way to make the dreams go away so I can actually recharge with relaxing, uninterrupted sleep?

    • If you are committing 6 hours for sleep, try a small dose of melatonin. Try a guided meditation before sleep (UCLA has some free ones on their web site). Repeating the mantra, this too, shall pass!

  11. Anonymous :

    Is overwhelm really a noun?

  12. Anonymous :

    Confession: I find myself fighting with people on FB as a distraction to the things I am overwhelmed about.

  13. Somehow I doubt Medill sanctions use of overwhelm as a noun.

    What happened to the perfectly fine noun overload?

    While we are here, I am bugged by ask as a noun. “My ask of you is that you …” Why not just say request? Ditto for solve as a noun, when the noun solution exists.

  14. These ideas about handling overwhelm are great! (sorry for noun usage). The list of what you can/cannot control and this great quote: “Do the thing instead of worrying about doing the thing!”

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