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  • Writer's pictureJenn Donahue

Navigating Overwhelm: Recognizing, Understanding, Overcoming.

There are many types of overwhelm. At its core, overwhelm is the experience of feeling like there is too much to handle. It is very common to experience in our work lives. We can often be inundated with information overload, too much decisio

n-making, or feeling like there is too much to do and not enough time. We have all been there.

What I have learned is, there is power in accepting what you’re feeling and where you’re at. Understanding what overwhelm looks like and how to navigate it is empowering. 

The first step is to recognize when it’s overwhelm. How does it show up for you? Is it an anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach, an inability to focus, a headache, fatigue, or extreme procrastination? These are all signs of overwhelm. Learning what it is and when it appears is key to addressing it.  

Once you can identify it, here are three strategies for what you can do next. 

1.   Take a breath and zoom out 

Despite the feelings of being overcome by overwhelm, sometimes you’re still able to carry out your tasks. But there might be a persistent feeling of struggling to keep up. You know you need to do something, but there’s so much on your plate you might think, “I’m never going to get through this.” 

In severe cases of overwhelm, self-care often takes a backseat. You don’t take breaks, you forget to eat, and basic needs like resting become low on the priorities. Not taking care of yourself only adds to the stress and exhaustion, which can lead to doom spirals and can compound the overwhelm. It can seem like each new task or challenge adds to the feeling of drowning, making it difficult to find a way out. 

Trust me, I get it. 

When it gets like this, the best thing I’ve found to do is stop. And breathe. Take a step back, away from your computer or the project you’re working on and take a moment for yourself. 

Breathe, drink some water, go on a walk, and then come back. 

Once you feel regulated and back to a normal state, zoom out and ask yourself, “How can I do this better?” 

When I was an engineer, I had massive amounts of analysis to do. I was working up to eighteen-hour days, and my mindset was on powering through. It almost broke me. I eventually took a break to let my mind relax. And in doing that, I found better solutions. Taking two hours to step back and look at the bigger picture allowed me to create new systems for myself and I ended up saving eight hours of work.  

Taking a step back can feel impossible when you’re overwhelmed, but it can save you tons of time, stress, and angst if you can zoom out, gain some clarity, and then attack the problem from a new angle. 

2.  Make a (prioritized) plan 

There is always something that needs to be done. And here’s the thing: you don’t have to be the one that does it all. Prioritize and delegate. Knowing what, how, and when to prioritize and delegate to your team is key to getting out of overwhelm. 

The first step is making a list. Write down the “to-dos” and get them on paper to visualize what the tasks are. Write down everything from the big projects to the follow-up emails. 

Once on paper, the tasks don’t have as much control over you. One of the most effective ways to organize tasks is by ranking them. Urgent to non-urgent, and most important to not important. When having trouble figuring out where tasks should be, you can ask yourself, “Does this task need my expertise?” If not, delegate it. 

When it comes to delegating, there is no shame in asking for help. It’s what makes a good leader great. Great leaders trust their teams and create a space where people can use their strengths to grow and succeed. Delegating tasks to others who can do it better than you, strengthens the team.  

I am in one of my busiest seasons. And I have been so overwhelmed that I’ve been dreading all the exciting things I have coming up. So, I did something. 

I took an hour and a half to plan out the months ahead of me. I broke it down day by day, color-coded it, prioritized it, and found what I could delegate. When I sat down and organized it, I found my excitement again. Knowing the projects I am working on, and trusting that I have a team to support me takes away the feelings of being overcome by overwhelm and allows me to remember why I love doing what I do.  

3.  Remember: you can do it!

Overwhelm comes and goes. It’s important to remember that just like everything else, this too will pass. When overcome with deadlines, and managing all the things, remind yourself that you can do it. You have likely gotten through challenges before, and you have made it through. And seasons of overwhelm are no different.

You can do it. 

If you feel far away from self-affirming statements of confidence, then it’s time to take a break and do something that reminds you of the incredible person that you are. Sometimes that looks like setting everything down completely, walking away from stress and fear and doing something you love. 

For me, it’s usually taking my dogs on a walk, skiing (when in season), baking sweet treats in the kitchen, or calling a mentor to remind me of all that I’ve accomplished. 

When we take a moment for ourselves, we are still accomplishing something. It might not feel “productive” at the time, but it’s allowing you the reset you need to keep going and do great things. You can do it!

Clear Outcomes Requires Clear Leadership

If a leader is overwhelmed, the team can feel it. If a leader is overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to find clarity and calm, disaster can happen.

It’s up to leaders to determine the strategies necessary to get themselves out of a state of overwhelm and into a state of clear action. 

Challenges are an opportunity to build on your skillset and to use the tools you already have. To approach crises, we need clarity to remind ourselves of these tools so we can use them. Leading in pressured situations, and coping under pressure develops resilience. Resilience creates a leader others want to follow.    


Are you ready to lead teams out of the overwhelm and achieve great things? Reach out and let’s talk!


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