Apr 30, 2024 | Business, Mindset

Dealing With Overwhelm When You Don’t Know What To Do

Do you ever feel so overwhelmed that you don’t know what to do? You don’t even know where to start and see no way out of this mess. I know I’ve been there, and I’m willing to bet you are too. Maybe you’re in that situation right now. So, the big question is, what do you do?

The first thing you should do when you feel this way is to step back and clear your head. It’s important to gain a little distance and get some perspective. If you can, sleep on it. It won’t seem quite so overwhelming in the morning. Of course that isn’t always an option. If your blender exploded all over the kitchen, or the project you have to turn in by end of business is a mess, you don’t have that luxury. Even when you are pressed for time, walk away. Take a few deep breaths. Trust me, it will be time well spent.

Then come back and survey whatever is causing your overwhelm. There are a few different ways you can tackle things. All of them are valid. Each works better depending on the situation and particular circumstances. One isn’t better than another. And if one method isn’t working, don’t be afraid to switch gears. Dealing with major overwhelm isn’t easy, but it’s always worth it. Because being overwhelmed isn’t a good feeling. Do whatever it takes to get out of overwhelm mode into “let’s deal with this” mode.

The first way to approach things is to take a bird’s eye view. Can you see patterns in the chaos or a clear path to take? Sometimes it helps to break a big project down into several smaller ones. Redoing your entire house is a big job. Redoing the hall bathroom feels a lot more manageable. From there you can break it down even further into shopping for new tiles and fixtures, demolishing and hauling off the old stuff, and finally installing and finishing the new. Rinse and repeat for every other part of the house. The same approach can work for any project or work assignment where you have at least a general idea of what’s involved in getting things done.

Another option is to look for the easy stuff. Let’s say you’re dealing with an entire messy room that you need to work through. Get the easy stuff out of the way first. Maybe it’s a stack of old newspapers or pizza boxes that need to be thrown out. Maybe it’s dragging the tattered armchair to the curb. Start with whatever seems easiest and make some progress. Not only will you start to build momentum, you’ll be able to get a clearer picture of what’s left to do once the easy stuff is out of the way.

But what do you do when you can’t see either? There is no clear path or big milestones you can work towards and none of the tasks seem simpler than the others. In that case the best you can do is start. It doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter what you do. Do something. Finish it. Then do something else. Again, the goal here is to build momentum. This momentum will carry you through the next step and the next until you are done and the overwhelm is gone.

Dealing With Overwhelm When You Know What To Do

Just because you know exactly what to do and what it will take to get something done, doesn’t mean you can’t feel overwhelmed by what’s in front of you. Many of us feel like this when it comes time to do our taxes. We put it off until the last moment because we are overwhelmed by the idea of what it will take to get it all done.

Often the best thing you can do is to write down everything you need to do. And when I say everything, I mean everything. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get overwhelmed when I have too many things going on at the same time. That one big project is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and pushes me into full overwhelm mode. Writing it all down is a great way to start dealing with what you need to do. And there’s something magical about having it all in front of you that makes the tasks less scary. Get out a pen and a piece of paper and write down everything and anything you need to do.

Step away from the list for a little while. Then go through it using some colored pencils or highlighter (or make several new lists). You want to divide everything up into the following categories.

  • Don’t really need to do this (cross those items off your list and forget about them)
  • I can delegate this (assign the tasks to someone else)
  • I can do this later (things you can post phone at least for a while)
  • I have to deal with this now (these are the things you’ll work on first).

Forget about everything you were able to cross off. Then spend a little time delegating tasks. Get the kids to rake the leaves, or have someone else in the office pull the reports you need. As you delegate each task, cross it off your list.

Stop and take a moment to appreciate everything you’ve accomplished. That list is starting to look a whole lot better isn’t it? Check in with yourself. Are you starting to feel less stressed and more confident you can do what needs doing?

Next, take out a new piece of paper. Or if you prefer, grab a stack of index cards. Transfer the things you can do later to that list, or write them down one per index card. Things on this list could be stuff like you’d love to redo your bathroom, but it isn’t urgent. You can comfortably live with the existing one for another six months or more. Or maybe it’s a project at work you’d like to get completed, but it won’t hurt anything if you don’t get around to it until next week, next month, or even next quarter. As you move line items from your master to-do list to the “not now” version don’t forget to cross them off the main list. Stick the list in a drawer or the index cards into a box. You know where these items are and you know where to find them when you have more time on your hands. In other words, you can stop worrying about them.

Now all that’s left are the items you actually have to deal with. If there is still a lot left, go through the sorting process again. See if you can’t eliminate a few more things. When you’re comfortable with your final list of things that actually require your attention and need to be done now, write them on a fresh piece of paper.

How you deal with them from here is up to you. You could start with the largest and most difficult project first to get it out of the way. Or you could pick a few easy things and get them done to make the list even smaller. Or you could deal with the most urgent task first to give yourself some breathing room. Try the different strategies and see what works best for you. What motivates you to keep going? What helps you sleep better at night? Do that and keep working until everything on this last list is checked off.

Tips For Preventing Overwhelm In The Future

Being overwhelmed isn’t a good feeling. It takes a lot of effort and work to get past it and feel like your life, your job, or your home is back under control. The last thing you want is to find yourself where you were a few weeks or months down the road. Thankfully there are some simple things you can do to help you prevent overwhelm in the future. Will they work for all situations? Of course not. There will always be unexpected challenges and obstacles in our lives and they will feel quite overwhelming. What they will do is lighten the load and take care of all the avoidable overwhelm for you. Let’s dive right in.

Be Aware Of Procrastination

We get overwhelmed when we fall behind on the things we need to get done. Deadlines creep up and the pressure rises. Maybe this motivates you to get things done. If so, use it. If not, watch for times when you tend to procrastinate. What do you do instead of what you’re supposed to do? Some people clean, some read, some binge Netflix or scroll through Facebook endlessly. Figure out what it is you do when you procrastinate and then train yourself to stop and notice when you do. That will give you control over your procrastination or at the very least a choice.

Simplify and Minimize

Overwhelm and stress are closely linked to how cluttered your surroundings are. Make an effort to minimize. Declutter your office. Reduce the amount of items you own in your home. Simplify what you do and what you own and see if that helps you feel calmer and more in control.

Don’t stop at physical possessions. Simplify your life. Work on reducing and slimming down processes at work. If you don’t need to be involved, don’t be. Clean out the files on your computer and keep everything organized. If nothing else, you’ll spend less time looking for things. But it will do so much more for you in the long run.

Prioritize Self-Care

I mentioned the relationship between overwhelm and stress before. One way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to reduce stress and what better way than to make time for self-care. Take the time to relax and most importantly, prioritize sleep. Think back on a time you weren’t able to care for yourself or get much sleep – like after the birth of a child for example. Everything around you and any problems arising seemed so much bigger than before, didn’t they? Make the time to recharge and you won’t feel so overwhelmed no matter what happens.

Build Strong Habits

Habits help us stay productive and get stuff done. They are our best tool against procrastination, but there’s more to it than that. Habits help us do things without having to think about them. Decision fatigue is real and habits reduce the amount of decisions we have to consciously make. This in turn helps us feel less overwhelmed. Give it a try. And while you’re at it, turn some of those habits into daily and weekly routines to simplify your life even more.

Assemble A Team And A Support System

Last but not least, you’ll feel less overwhelmed when you have a team and a support system in place. What that looks like will depend on who you are and what you do. For example, if finances and worrying about being able to pay for your child’s college education stresses you out, get a financial advisor to help answer any questions you have and get you prepared. Having loved ones and friends you can count on to help you out of a bind is important as well.

I hope you’ve found these tips and ideas helpful. Not everything will work for you all the time, but the more of them you can employ ahead of time, the better prepared you’ll be for whatever curveball life decides to throw you.

Hi there, I'm Jennifer.


My guess is you are thinking about starting a business but have no idea how to get going, or you have a business but are stuck or frustrated in an area of your business or maybe you stumbled across my podcast?

Whatever path you took to find me, I’m so glad you’re here! This website is packed with tips on how to start, run and grow your business in style.

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