Coping with overwhelm

deadlinesOverwhelm is a funny thing.

I’m a list maker, always have been. I get great satisfaction out of crossing items off of a list. I have a two-sided rolling whiteboard in my office.  While the back is for my annual planning calendar, the Big Picture stuff, the front side that always faces me is split into two lists: This Week and Longer Term.  Every Monday morning (well, almost every Monday morning) I scrub off last week’s lists and write out this week’s lists.  If I don’t get to my planning session till partway through the morning, and I’ve already accomplished some of the tasks for the week, I’ll still write them on the list — just so I can have the pleasure of stroking them off.

It’s a rare week indeed that I get everything crossed off my This Week list. Sometimes that’s deliberate: I’ll put a project phase on there, to remind me that I have to work on it this week — but the individual tasks in that phase are too small and too many to break out.  Sometimes it’s not deliberate: I fully intend to Get This Thing Done, but business — or life — gets in the way, and I don’t finish the entire task.

The funny thing about overwhelm, though? Between one day and the next, my list doesn’t change much. But some days I head into my office first thing, and I look at the list, and I think, “oh, okay, I’ll be working on that today” and I feel good about what I accomplish that day, that week.

Then there are days when I walk into my office first thing, and I look AT THE SAME LIST, and I get this panicky feeling in my chest that no matter how fast I run, no matter how hard I work, I am falling behind and I will never catch up.

It’s the same list! Only my perception of it has changed.

My business coach has a mantra for me to work on: “Everyone is doing the best they can’ with the resources they have, at any given moment — including me”.  I’m learning, honest.  It’s a challenge for me, some days more than most.

I’m learning to acknowledge and celebrate what I DO accomplish, and calmly and dispassionately and without guilt inform the folks who need to know when a date has slipped.  I’m learning to prioritize better, to recognize the difference between the urgent and the important.  And I’m learning to ask for help and to outsource where and what I can.

I don’t believe, I CAN’T believe, that I am alone in this.  So how do YOU deal with the ever-growing list?   Tell me YOUR strategies for coping with overwhelm!


  1. I struggle daily it seems, but I try and try again. Rome wasn’t built in a day or a week so I can’t expect my empire to be either.
    I have a white board that I write lists on, sometimes I find I open my email and there goes the entire day. Sometimes I get a phone call and the same thing happens. And sometimes, (more often then I like to admit) business is so overwhelming I walk away and my entire house gets cleaned top to bottom. Those days I find it very hard to get mad at myself for not completing work tasks when my house is so clean 🙂
    Can’t eat an elephant in one bite!
    One foot infront of the other!

  2. Great topic! When I get stuck in overwhelm, I ask myself what single thing I can work on right now and complete quickly – then I do that. It may be work related or something entirely different. Sometimes it is enough just to know I accomplished something and then I can settle back into work mode.

    Sometimes I have to re-evaluate what I am trying to do, overwhelm often hits me when I am doing the wrong thing and subconsciously I am fighting it! If it is the wrong thing, I stop trying so hard to make it work and do something that is better aligned with my goals.

  3. I haven’t found a plan that works in every situation, since we talked about this same thing at TODCON years ago. I still find myself caught between enjoying my work, and barely surviving the things I said I would do.
    The saving grace is that human aspect – I am doing what I can with what I’ve got, and a big helping of good intentions. I created this reality, this to do list, this business model… all of it. Now it is up to me to enjoy at least some of it, and get really really good at surviving the rest.