How to Get Started When You’re Completely Overwhelmed

There are always warning signs right before someone totally loses it.

Maybe their desks get increasingly messier as the week goes on, empty coffee cups pile up at their feet, their eyes start twitching, and they can frequently be heard sighing or whimpering in their cubicles.

Maybe that’s you? It’s been me on many occasions.

And overwhelm isn’t reserved for office workers. Plenty of stay-at-home moms have weeks where they’re barely able to get their kids dressed, make dozens of meals and snacks, clean the house, and drive all over town running endless errands. And just forget about showering.

But until we have armies of robots to do our bidding (someday…), we have to find a way to get through our days while avoiding an embarrassing meltdown or freak out.

You CAN get a handle on your monster to-do list, and you CAN start feeling like a normal human being again.

Here’s how you can get started when you’re completely overwhelmed.

Take a 15-Minute Sanity Break

Before you punch your boss or throw you kids’ Xbox out the window, give yourself permission to take a 15-minute break. This simple break will save your sanity…and quite possibly your job and relationships.

If you work in an office environment, go for a walk around the block or close yourself in an empty conference room. If your manager or coworkers give you attitude, just say you’re going to get coffee or that you have an important phone call.

If you’re home with young kids, step into the bathroom or ask your kids to play quietly in their rooms. Overwhelm calls for drastic action, so don’t be afraid of pulling out a new movie for the kids to watch so you can get some relief. This is why everyone needs a Bad Day Emergency Kit. You can focus on being “perfect mom” on a less stressful day.

Take a deep breath and hold it for 2 seconds before you exhale. Do this at least 10 times, and you’ll feel the tension leave your body. If you’re up for it, try a mountain meditation or chant a mantra softly for a few minutes.

As I’ve mentioned before, the word “calm” is my favorite mantra, and it’s brought me back from the brink numerous times.

Once your 15 minutes are up and you don’t feel like punching anyone, do a few stretches, get a drink of water, check your makeup (waterproof mascara was made for days like this), and then return to the real world.

Do a Complete Brain Dump

When you’re back at your desk (or kitchen table), get out a large, clean sheet of paper. You’ll need lots of space to write so don’t just grab the back of an envelope.

Gather up all your to-do lists, Post-It notes, calendars, and other reminders. Then, do a brain dump and write all of your tasks on the sheet of paper. Don’t try to organize them or group them. Just write in one long, continuous column.

Add all the tasks that are floating around your head: work projects, your kids’ after school activities, meal planning, buying a present for your sister’s birthday, cleaning the basement—anything that’s taking up space in your mind! Use as many sheets of paper as you need until all your tasks are written down and you can’t think of anything else to add.

At this point, your list will look kind of insane, and you might consider shaving your head and joining a monastery. Resist the urge to run! As someone who has run off on silent Buddhist retreats, I can assure you that your problems will find you no matter where you go.

The best way to proceed is to face your fears and responsibilities head on. You can do this.

Categorize Your Tasks

One of my favorite productivity books is Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. The “frog” is the biggest, scariest, most dreadful task on your to-do list.

But when you’re overwhelmed, how do you pick the frog out of a hundred things you don’t want to do?

First, you must categorize your tasks from your brain dump. Get 5 clean sheets of paper and label them A, B, C, D, and E. Now go through your brain dump list and consider each task in turn and determine whether it’s an A, B, C, D, or E.

A tasks are things that will have major consequences if left undone. These are “must do” tasks. Feel free to subcategorize them into A1, A2, etc.

B tasks might have minor consequences if not completed. Never do B tasks unless all your A tasks are done.

C tasks fall under “would be nice to do” but there are no consequences if you don’t do them.

D tasks can be delegated to someone else. Maybe your kids can set the table or the office intern can make the photocopies for the meeting.

E tasks can be eliminated all together. You’d be surprised by how much we do every day that doesn’t need to be done at all.

Be honest with yourself when you categorize your tasks. Not everything warrants an A, and sometimes you or other people might have to deal with some inconveniences so that the big things can get finished.

Eat the Biggest Frog

As you look through your A tasks, think about the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80-20 rule.

This means that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers. Or 80% of the outfits your wear come from just 20% of the clothes in your closet. Or 80% of the problems you face come from 20% of the people in your life.

Which items on your A list are your 20% that need attention? Does one in particular stand out?

As Brian Tracy says, “sometimes one item is worth more than the other 9 items on a list.” This is your frog.

Ignore everything else on your lists until you fully complete this task. Eat that frog! Do not multitask and do not get distracted by other “busy” work. Don’t stop until it’s finished!

It might suck and you might hate every minute of it, but I guarantee you’ll feel like a million bucks once this unpleasant task is behind you.

Make a Plan for Tomorrow

Before you leave the office for the day (or collapse into bed), review your ABCDE lists again. Choose another frog to eat from your A list and plan to do it first thing in the morning.

Then, continue working through your A tasks until they’re all completed (again, subcategorizing helps). Only then should you move on to your B list. If you come to 2 tasks that are equally important, determine which one you can complete in the shortest amount of time and do that one first.


How do you handle overwhelm?

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  1. Stephanie on May 23, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Great post and tips! Thank you for taking the time and effort to put this together. Was feeling overwhelmed and decided to search prioritizing on Pinterest and found your post. Have a wonderful day!

  2. KrisWithaK on December 2, 2014 at 10:09 am

    The brain dump is a big thing for me – then I categorize the crap out of the things I dump out of my brain. It feels good to manage and sort the clutter in my head.

    I have to remember to move on and check the things off my ToDo list too 😉


  3. LUCY on December 2, 2014 at 6:28 am

    Before I quite my corporate job I used to go and sit IN the hedge around the carpark to get away from it all. My excsue is that I’m a farmer’s daughter and I felt at home there amongst the twigs and the leaves. Not long after this I quit my job….

    Strangely, I find that doing things that are less ugent makes me achieve more. It means the more urgent things are still on my list so I can’t stop until they’re done. Backwards, I know, but there you are!

  4. Valerie on January 13, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Great advice- I need to take breaks from my cubicle just to free my mind a bit! I’m sure it will go a long way!

    • Sage Grayson on January 14, 2014 at 8:19 am

      Yes! When I worked in a cubicle, I made sure to walk around the building for 5 minutes every hour to stretch my legs and clear my mind. It really works! Thanks for stopping by, Valerie. 🙂

  5. Sara on January 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Oh what an amazing post! I think I already do most of this, but having it confirmed as a good way to handle a lot of tasks is always a good thing!

    • Sage Grayson on January 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      I love it too when I read a productivity book and I think, “I’m already doing that!” It means we’re totally organized and on top of everything. 🙂

  6. Molly on January 3, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    This is just what I need lately! Great advice, as always Sage.

    Also, thank you so much for the card you sent. It was lovely! I’m a putz and did absolutely nothing for the holidays this year. Not even decorating. :-/

    • Sage Grayson on January 5, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      You’re welcome, Molly! I sent my cards really late and we only put out a few decorations. Meh, I just wasn’t feeling it this year. We still had a lot of fun watching movies and baking cookies.

  7. Sarah @ Long Island Nerd on January 1, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Such a great post as always Sage! Your timing is always impeccable too 🙂 I feel like I get overwhelmed all of the time and I love all of the suggestions and advice you give. I think taking a walk to clear my mind will do wonders for me. I already feel overwhelmed by all of the changes I’m planning on making as part of my resolutions so I think the prioritizing and the brain dump will be a huge help for me! Thanks for another great post and Happy New Year!

    • Sage Grayson on January 1, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, Sarah! Everything’s easier for me after I do a brain dump. I can’t seem to get moving when I have random things taking up space in my mind. Good luck with your resolutions!

  8. Shybiker on January 1, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Smart advice. We all experience this. I take on more cases than I can handle and juggling so many balls occasionally overwhelms me. Your tips are valuable things I had to learn on my own. I wish I’d read your blog ten years ago!

    And thank you, Sage, for the wonderful card and gift. Your words touch me and I’m honored to be your friend.

    • Shybiker on January 1, 2014 at 9:18 am

      I just realized that ten years ago, you were probably a puppy! And puppies don’t have blogs, do they?

      • Sage Grayson on January 1, 2014 at 11:14 am

        If I were a puppy, you bet I’d have a blog…and it would be fabulous! 🙂

    • Sage Grayson on January 1, 2014 at 11:13 am

      You’re so welcome, Ally! Thanks for being a wonderful friend.

  9. Amanda on January 1, 2014 at 8:43 am

    I love this post so much! What great advice and something I need to focus on for 2014. Saving this post for later when I”m totally overwhelmed 😉

    • Sage Grayson on January 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Thanks Amanda! I’m working on managing my overwhelm in 2014 too. I definitely want to use my time wisely and take care of all my really important tasks (frogs!) first.