A beautifully simple way to stop feeling overwhelmed at work

A beautifully simple way to stop feeling overwhelmed at work–this is the best go-to strategy for when work is piling up, deadlines are looming, and you finally want to stop feeling overwhelmed at work. (This post may contain affiliate links.)

I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday, glaringly awake, grumpy, and annoyed at myself that I’d stayed up watching the Olympics.

My mind instantly turned to work: emails I needed to return, proposals that needed editing, book delivery dates, production dates, and launch dates stretching far into 2020. (Yes, that’s how far in advance we work!)

And then I got really overwhelmed. Like, can’t-turn-it-off, panicky, sweaty, deep overwhelmed.

I got out of bed, and as the sun was starting to come up, I sat in the living room, wrote everything down, and got started.

Guys, I have never been more productive before 8 am than I was that day. I’m a morning person like Pepper is a human person. It’s that far off.

Of course, I wasn’t gracefully productive. I was angsty productive. I was just desperate to get a handle on all my projects so my brain would stop reeling with to-dos.

But even in that jittery, panicked state, I kept trying to breathe deep and repeat to myself the best piece of productivity advice I’ve ever heard.

stop feeling overwhelmed at work 1

I think of it almost as my Overwhelm mantra. When the panic starts rising, but I don’t have any time to spare with analysis paralysis, I run this break-in-case-of-emergency phrase through my mind on repeat.

I rely on it because it’s uncomplicated; it’s easy to remember; it’s not a fancy 10-step strategy; and it just works.

My beautifully simple strategy to stop feeling overwhelmed at work:

Take the first tiny step.

It’s not: plan out the entire project and set goals and deadlines. It’s not: look at the big picture before zooming in.

It’s the opposite of those two things. Because as important as it is to keep the long view in mind—to remember where it is you want to go and why you want to go there—sometimes the long view can cloud the short view.

Instead, you can fight fear and resistance simply by narrowing your focus. Put your blinders on and focus on nothing but that first tiny step. Don’t think about the end goal; don’t worry about what comes next. Just do the first small thing you need to do to get started on a project.

This quickly takes your focus away from your long list of to-dos and pending projects and zeroes it in on one tiny action, so you can immediately stop feeling overwhelmed at work.

But this first step is likely much smaller than you think. It’s not “write the first chapter” or “respond to emails” or “draft the report.” The first step is the smallest possible building block of a task—the very first action you must take to get started.

Often, the very smallest step is simply to create time and space and quiet. Once distractions are stripped away, your mind settles down and squirms away from the task less frequently.

4 examples of the smallest step
& how it can help you stop feeling overwhelmed at work

  1. Turn off your wifi. Open a Word document. Write one sentence.
  2. Close the windows on your computer. Open a spreadsheet. Add one line.
  3. Turn off the TV. Pick up a book. Read one page.
  4. Close your email program. Open a Word document. Write one sentence of a difficult email.

Most of the time, you’ll keep going. It’s the getting started that trips us up, but once we’ve jumped that hurdle, we start gathering momentum to keep going.

It sounds simple, but it’s changed the way I look at intimidating projects. It’s helped me stop feeling overwhelmed at work all the time, so that I have fewer deer-in-the-headlights moments and more productive, relaxed moments.

So next time your brain wakes up and goes right to the OVERWHELMED channel, remind yourself that you only need to take one teeny tiny step forward. And that is something you can handle.

(Credit goes to Leo Babuata of ZenHabits, who first introduced this idea in this piece on how to form the habit of starting.) 

For more reading on creative productivity, try:

how to get more writing done

How to get past writer's block

guided meditation for writers with anxiety

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What I’m Reading This Week

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings): If you’re despairing about making progress on a difficult project, I’ll allow you one 5-minute break to read this piece. But after that: get to work!

20+ Dorothy Parker Quotes for Your Daily Routine (Sarah Ullery for Book Riot): “When Your Alarm Goes Off: ‘What fresh hell is this?’” Yes, exactly.

Have You Chosen the Right Main Character to Tell Your Story? (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied): “Main characters can make or break a story’s success. Oftentimes, the doubts we face as we work to bring our main characters to life can seem endless. Are our protagonists’ well-rounded enough? Are they interesting? Will readers root for them to achieve their goal?”

28 Parenting Blogs and Magazines That Pay Freelance Writers (Brianna Bell for The Write Life): Freelance writing is one of the best ways to start building your platform and inching your way toward making a living from your writing, so it always makes me happy to see people generously sharing leads like this.

The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein” (Jill Lepore for The New Yorker): “After two hundred years, are we ready for the truth about Mary Shelley’s novel?” A deep and fascinating article about Mary Shelley and her famous monster.

35 Books To Build Your Character: The Definitive Reading List on Humility and Ego (Ryan Holiday on Thought Catalog): A great reading list from the author of Ego is the Enemy.

What We’re Eating This Week:

Remember last week when we played the Imaginary Menu Game because no real cooking was happening around here? Well, this week I finally get to cook like mad from Stonesong client Coco Morante’s book The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook. Happiness ensued!

(And as luck would have it, as I was drafting this post, Coco’s ebook went on sale for $2.99! I am trying very hard not to buy ten of them as gifts. But you can get one here.)

coco morante cookbook cover instant pot

Sunday: Coco’s Whole Chicken with Mushroom Sauce, plus roasted broccoli and beet salad. Every person that I know in real life (and likely you, too) would like me to shut up about this chicken recipe but I WILL NOT.

I made it again this week and if you hate me for not sharing the recipe, I am here to redeem myself: it’s coming in my February cookbook column for The Kitchn! I advise you to buy your town’s entire inventory of whole chickens.

Monday: One-Pot Roast Dinner, which we’re making with venison from The Farm instead of beef. And also, brussels sprouts instead of carrots, plus artichokes, because I am very bad at following recipes.

Tuesday: The Cajun Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya on page 66, but with pheasant from Jarrett’s Christmas hunt in place of chicken. See above re: very bad at recipes.

Wednesday: We’re going to Peter Chang’s for Valentine’s Day!! It’s our favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese place, run by America’s most elusive chef, says The New Yorker. But The New Yorker has not seen how elusive I am when I don’t feel like cooking.

Thursday: Spaghetti with something from the pantry? A vegetable of some kind? Cheese? Hiding under the kitchen table until tomorrow? (See? Elusive. Where is my New Yorker profile?)

Friday: Well, it’s Friday so…  (That is my canned excuse for getting out of most things on Fridays. You can borrow it if you want.)


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