Shades o blue with a clock face and the words stress, busy, rush, late, delay.

Practical Steps For When You are Overwhelmed

When you feel overwhelmed, your brain feels like it goes into a fail-safe mode by shutting down to avoid fatally overloading the system. And the system getting overloaded is your brain itself.

No wonder we look like a deer in the headlights when it happens, and unless I’m the only one, it seems to happen a lot more since the pandemic. Overwhelm keeps you from getting things done, and worse, it is a horribly stressful way to live. The good news is that there is a fairly reliable tactic for working through it.

Who is the fix right for?

Before I start, I should say that I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on TV, radio, podcast, or elsewhere, so if you are experiencing mental illness, or think you might be, please reach out to a healthcare professional. You are so not alone. The tactics I am going to talk about may very well help, but make sure they are right for you first.

How do I fix this overwhelm?

The basic concept is simple, and you have heard it before. Break things down into little steps. If you are still overwhelmed, you just need to break it down into smaller steps. Keep making the steps smaller and smaller until you have a step you feel you can do right now. Sounds easy, right? Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

The reason it’s not easy is that we are very good at getting in our way, and it isn’t our fault. Our stress system was designed for stressors like being startled by a lion. It steals energy from our logical brain and reroutes it to our muscles, cardiovascular system, and the fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brain that makes decisions without our even being aware of it. This system maximizes our odds of survival when faced with a lion. But it kills us with modern stressors that require brain-power to work through.

First steps

Breathe and stretch. It interrupts the physical elements of our stress cycle so we can break out of it. That is a big part of why meditation and yoga are so good for stress relief. They break the cycle for a moment of respite so we can regain control of our minds. But they aren’t magic, and they don’t instantly remove all stress and restore you to a state of bliss where you can seamlessly accomplish anything you want.

What’s next?

Break things down. When we are overwhelmed, we often are impatient and don’t want to slow down. We want to get it over with. Or we are overwhelmed because we already feel like we don’t have enough time to get done what we need to, and the thought of taking smaller steps is downright panic-inducing. But are you getting anywhere in your state of overwhelm? If you are like me, the answer is a big, loud NO.

The irony is that by taking smaller steps, we often go faster than we would have if things had gone the way we planned, even without the overwhelm.

What do small steps look like?

I am someone who needs to see a clear bridge between theory and practice to make the theory work, especially if I am overwhelmed. So what might small steps look like?

They can look like a lot of different things

Starting to write a book is overwhelming. Yes, it’s also exciting, but it is objectively overwhelming. Breaking things down into small steps looks different for every writer, and for the same writer with different books and under different life circumstances.

So step one could look like free writing for 5-10 minutes about the shape of the story, or talking through it with a friend, or talking out loud to yourself into dictation software. Or it could look like sitting down to start an outline. And that can be step one with any individual scene, not just the entire book.

When I am really overwhelmed, the first step for any writing project is to open a blank word processing document and save it in a clearly marked folder. Step one done. Yes, really that small.

Step two might then be free writing for 5 minutes. Then I stop. If I want to go on longer, I can, but if I say I will write for 5 minutes expecting I will then keep going, it becomes stressful. I won’t trust myself the next time I try to trick myself that way. Why should I? I have proven untrustworthy!

How long a break should I take between steps?

That depends. Helpful, right? But here is my hard and fast rule for myself. Bare minimum between steps is that I must get up and walk around the room (ok, usually to the kitchen for a snack) between steps. Sometimes I only do one step a day. Or even a week.

Does this translate to real life?

Yup. I had a huge cleaning project that I was putting off for over a year. I didn’t know what supplies I needed, and I knew it was going to be long and tedious, so it was hard to force myself to figure out the annoying steps to get started on something I didn’t want to get started on. So I broke it down.

I needed a bucket. So that was my only task for the entire week. Find an appropriate bucket in the garage.

The next week was finding a container for a bar of glycerin soap that was required for the task. Then it was to spend five minutes, and not one second longer, cleaning and testing my containers to make sure they would work. Five minutes.


It took a month. Was that longer than it might have taken if I charged through it? Yes. Was it shorted than the year I had already been putting it off? By a full order of magnitude. And it was way less stressful.

What am I using this system on right now?

Editing A Dangerous Education. It required a full rewrite, because it was my first book, and it changed sub-genres over the course of its creation. I thought I had fixed it, but a professional editor pointed out a few fundamental ways I had not. It was deflating even though she said my writing was very good and that it sounded like my second book was free of those issues because I had a clearer idea of where it was heading from the start.

It took me a long time to get started on my rewrite because I wanted it done fast. I was frustrated and I put too much pressure on myself and it was overwhelming. But then I started breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, and it is now proceeding much faster than I expected.

Where can I learn more about overcoming overwhelm?

Looking for some other practical resources on dealing with overwhelm? Try these ideas from Forbes.

Image credit: Annca Schweiz, via Pixabay

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