7 Survival Tactics for When You Feel Overwhelmed at Work

UPDATED: April 2, 2016
PUBLISHED: June 26, 2015

Work can be stressful and overwhelming—even in jobs we love. Add in personal pressures, and work challenges can feel much bigger than they really are.

We can pretend that our professional and personal lives are in two distinct compartments, but life doesn’t work that way. We are one person—and work and personal always overlap.

Last year I had a client whom I’ll call Evan. He had a very full plate; he had performance challenges with two direct reports, and his bosses had high expectations for the business. He didn’t yet have the talent around him he needed, but he had to find a way to deliver.

Meanwhile, Evan’s father was very ill, he was the key contact for his sister’s health issues and he was adjusting to being a parent to teenagers—all while traveling a lot. Evan had much to juggle. The personal matters were not only in the back of his mind, but they took time each day and made the work challenges seem bigger.

Related: 4 Smart Tips to Reverse Workplace Brain Drain

In our families and at work, people always look to the most competent person to get things done. The busiest and those with the greatest responsibilities are the ones asked or expected to take on more. They are people you can count on. This was Evan’s story.

Sure, we all have unique personal and professional issues that are just a part of life. They are as different as each of us, but at some level they all affect how we feel, show up and work.

When you feel overwhelmed at work—and there are also personal stresses you can’t ignore—these strategies can help you manage:

1. Decide what must be done today and this week.

It can be overwhelming to think about everything that needs to be done in the months ahead. Don’t. This “all at once” thinking can make us feel like it’s more than we can do. Instead, think very short term. Think today. Think this week. Write down due dates or block work time for future needs and let them go for now.

Evan and I discussed breaking everything down into what he must tackle in the very short term. While he had some major work and personal matters in the future, thinking short term helped lift the burden.

2. Know the best use of your time right now.

My mother-in-law led workshops for caregivers of Alzheimer patients and she relied on this essential question, which you should ask yourself each day. It works not only for caregivers, but also for those of us with busy, stressful lives: What is the best use of my time right now All of us can feel overwhelmed, like there is so much to do it seems insurmountable. When you ask what the best use of your time is at this moment, it gives you clarity and focus.

As the mom of a graduating senior, I made decisions this year to spend my time differently before my son leaves for college—my take on the best use of my time right now.

3. Don’t be the hero. Let others help.

If you are the “go-to” person at work and in your family, don’t overdo the self-reliance. Stop and ask, What am I doing now that someone else could do or at least help with? Now, for the hard part: Ask them to help and then let them. You can’t lessen your responsibilities while also being the hero.

Related: 8 Ways to Balance Your Workload for Max Productivity

4. Remember what you can control and influence—and what you can’t.

We spend so much energy on parts of life that we just can’t change. Make a list of what is in your control and influence. Decide how to spend your time and energy here and set aside the rest. Focus where you can have an impact.

5. Put yourself first.

Lower the stress of life with healthy choices. This is very individualized. For you, it could be anything from yoga class or walking, to office culture or your daily schedule.

One of my clients shared that in her quest to “catch up” in her demanding job, she had gradually slipped into working every night and on most weekend days—yet it was only making her feel overwhelmed and anxious. Once she realized that her list of to-dos would be endless no matter how much she worked, we came up with ways to take her life back. She delegated more, renegotiated priorities with her boss and changed her schedule. She decided to work late one night each week, start really early one other day and then set boundaries for herself on the other days. She also added back time to take walks.

6. Talk to a good listener.

We often have answers to our problems, but we have to let them out. Talk to someone who can ask you the right questions or offer a new perspective. Go see a professional if you need more. It can make a big difference.

I spoke to a good friend recently, sharing some of my frustrations. She asked questions and then listened to me—and I felt so much better. I thanked her for helping me. She reminded me that she just asked the right questions.

7. Ask yourself if it will it matter in three days, three months or three years.

There are variations to this question. The point is that when you are really frustrated, stop and consider how much it really matters.

Will it matter in 3 days? If not, then it’s probably not worth spending any more time on. Find a quick resolution and let it go.

Will it matter in 3 months? If yes, this indicates importance and longer-term impact, so it’s probably worth a time investment.

Will it matter in 3 years? If yes, then it is essential in your life and deserves special attention. These are usually the big ones—relationships, happiness and work that makes a difference. Make time for these because they rarely show up as urgent items on your to-do list.

If work seems overwhelming, lift up and take another look. Is the frustration temporary? What can you do for yourself? It may be everything from being kinder to yourself, managing your time differently or even changing jobs.

Be your own greatest advocate starting today. If you aren’t, who will be?

Related: What BS in the Workplace Looks Like & How to Cut It

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.