Overcoming Overwhelm

In my coaching, I hear “I’m feeling overwhelmed” a lot. In my past roles, I said “I’m feeling overwhelmed” a lot myself. Today I want to walk you through my go-to technique to overcome this overwhelmed feeling.

Stressed vs. Overwhelmed

This feeling of overwhelm can stem from any number of root causes, but here’s the one I typically experience and typically hear from my clients:

  • I have so much to do I can’t keep up.
  • I’m constantly thrashing between competing priorities.
  • I’m stressed out because I can’t even keep everything I have to do straight in my head.
  • I feel like there isn’t enough time to do anything well.

Do any of those resonate with you?

I’m not talking about feeling stressed; for many of us, that’s a relatively consistent state of mind. If you feel like you don’t know the difference, I encourage you to read Brené Brown’s distinction between stressed and overwhelmed in Atlas of the Heart. I can easily recognize when I cross the threshold from stressed to overwhelmed at this point in my life. It typically occurs every three to six months. Over the years, I’ve refined a simple practice that has never failed me.

The Blank Sheet of Paper

I call this practice the “Blank Sheet of Paper” exercise, adapted from Getting Things Done by David Allen. The goal of this exercise is to articulate clearly everything on my plate, organize it, prioritize it, and act.

I recommend blocking out two hours of uninterrupted focus time for this exercise. If you are overwhelmed, that may feel like a luxury you can’t afford. I’ve learned when I’m overwhelmed, I can’t afford not to carve out this time. 

Block the time. Eliminate all distractions. Your phone is in focus mode. Email and Slack notifications are turned off. Your door is closed. You know the drill.

The Brain Dump

Take out a sheet of blank, 8.5 x 11 paper. I usually get a whole stack, as this typically takes me more than one sheet. And yes, I use paper. This is one of the only circumstances where I use paper these days. I want everything in digital form, but I must write this out by hand to process it effectively.

Start writing. Everything you can think of that you need to do. Don’t filter, don’t judge, don’t organize, don’t prioritize, just write. When I do this, some items are incredibly tactical, and I might be able to solve them in five minutes. Other things are one sentence representing an entire project that will take a whole team for six months. I don’t analyze. I just write.

Depending on how much has been swirling around in your head, this first pass could take ten minutes or an hour. Keep going until you run out of things in your head. Then, turn your attention to all the other repositories of work you have. Look through email to identify action items sitting there (don’t respond to any email, just take inventory). Do the same with Slack, Microsoft Teams, or any other messaging application you may use. Check your physical notebooks and any stacks of paper on your desk. Check your digital notebooks like OneNote or Evernote. Check your task list application if you have one. Look in your bag. Anywhere you might have action items that are contributing to your state of overwhelm. You want to capture them all.

I usually have at least two sheets of paper by the time I’ve completed this exercise. It can take me 30 minutes or an hour, depending on what’s happening. When I’m done, I take pictures of the pages with my phone (because I like to have everything digitized).

Once this initial pass is completed, I already feel better. I have a better sense of my commitments and have them written down. It’s a good start.


Organize It

Next, I organize everything. As I compile my initial list, inevitably, I start thinking about how these tasks groups logically. I get a fresh sheet of paper and begin to list out categories. I transfer items off my initial lists to the new paper in the appropriate categorization, crossing them off the initial list once they have been moved over. I like to do this in pencil because I can change my mind along the way. At the end of this round, I have organized the tasks in a way that allows me to wrap my head around it better.


Prioritize It

For the final step, I prioritize the tasks. I grew up on the Franklin-Covey method of prioritization

  • A – Must be done – Critical
  • B – Should be done – Important
  • C – Could be done – Low value
  • D – Waste – No value

My definitions for A-B-C-D are slightly different, but the same concept applies. The key is there should be a small number of items worthy of the “A” priority, likely more “B” priority items, and still more “C” and possibly “D” items. I walk through every item on the sheet and assign an A, B, C, or D to each item to get super-clear on the prioritization.

At the same time, I’m looking for any opportunity to delegate. Each task that can be delegated gets circled with the name of the delegate written next to it.

I also look for what I can stop doing. I strike through anything that’s on the list that can be removed.

If I have more than three “A” priority items left that I can’t delegate, I take it further and stack rank all of the As. If I have 10 “A” priority items, the top priority is A1; the next is A2, all the way down to A10.


Take Action

From here, I make a plan of attack. If I’ve made commitments with a B, C, or D priority that I can no longer fulfill, I’ll manage the expectations related to those commitments. I’ll let the person waiting on that commitment know we need to renegotiate the timeline or approach, and I’ll share what’s on the “A” list that is a higher priority if there is any doubt about my prioritization.

I’ll typically get the Cs and Ds entirely off my plate, or at least defer them to a future date. I don’t want them distracting me. With this prioritization in place, I transfer the As to a fresh sheet (or possibly my digital task list) in priority order. I need to start with A1, which needs my attention the most, even if I’d rather work on A4.


An Example

In March 2022, I followed this exact exercise in the planning for my coaching practice. In the first six months since launching my practice, I found I had generated so many ideas for building the practice and expanding my capabilities that I was overwhelmed with all the options.

First, I did the brain dump. In this case, most of the actions were already captured in my overflowing digital task list (I use Todoist).

Next, I organized everything. Three categories emerged:

  • Expand Arete Pursuits
  • Expand My Capabilities
  • Scale the Business

Finally, I ruthlessly assigned A, B, C, and D priorities to the list. I limited myself to ten total A and B items to focus on for Q2 2022. Those stayed on my digital task list. The other 45 items were Cs and Ds. They all moved to an “Arete Pursuits Future Idea” note.

You can imagine how great it felt to go from 55 items on my task list to 10. I have been able to focus my energy on the critical few things that have allowed me to move the needle.

Once a quarter, I’ll review that note and see what I want to tackle in the upcoming quarter. Over the course of the current quarter, I’ve already accumulated ten new low-priority ideas on my digital task list, and I expect they will all move to the Future Ideas note at the end of this quarter so they stop distracting me. 

I hope you find this technique helpful to combat your feeling of overwhelm. What are your go-to methods?

Schedule time with Josh.

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