Work-Life Balance

Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some common mistakes you may make (and how to correct them)

Written by Kate Lopaze

Feeling overwhelmed at work is something we all face at some point, from the newest employee to the CEO. Everyone has different stresses and different coping levels, but at some point, you’re likely to face something that makes you feel like you’re about to snap. When that happens, though, you don’t have to give in to that out-of-control feeling. Let’s look at some of the mistakes many of us make, and steps you can take to help get yourself into a less stressed place.

Mistake 1: Assuming that being overwhelmed means you’re failing

When you’re feeling stressed, guilt and shame are often right there.

If I were better at my job, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.

How did I let things get so difficult?

Why didn’t I manage things better?

In reality, stressful situations can accumulate through no fault of your own. Even if you’ve made some choices that end up snowballing into something bigger, there’s nothing to be gained from equating overwhelm with weakness. You are still the strong person you always were, and more importantly, you can handle this. One of the first and best steps for righting yourself is being kinder to yourself upfront and replacing criticism with talking yourself up.

Instead of how did I let this happen? try: okay, this is where we are. What skills do I have to get out of this? Instead of I’m bad at this, try: this didn’t go great, but I can do better. Feeling worse about yourself won’t help fix things. And if someone you cared about came to you and said they felt like a failure because they were overwhelmed, you’d be more compassionate. So try to channel that compassion inward—you deserve it.

Mistake 2: Trying to go it alone

A common coping mechanism is thinking you can fix everything yourself when things start to go a bit haywire. That may be because you don’t want people to see your challenges, but it might also be because you feel like you have a duty to handle either of those yourself. Either way, it’s not a very helpful outlook. You have a support network with your colleagues, manager, family, and friends. If there’s something they can do to make things better or help fix things in the short term, try them.

If you’re already feeling overwhelmed and you try to add solving everything yourself to whatever’s going on, you’re more likely to stress out further and risk making things worse. People may be able to pitch in by doing small things to help, or by giving you space on other tasks or deadlines while you work on this. Don’t feel like you need to be a lone wolf here.

Mistake 3: Retreating into old habits and defense mechanisms

For better or worse, we’re all settled into our personalities. That can mean we turn to the same ways of doing things over and over, even if it leads to the same problematic outcomes.

For example, do you tend to follow your first instinct without thinking things through, just to get something done? If so, you might want to take a more thoughtful approach. Or do you procrastinate while you evaluate all options? Try being more proactive based on the information you already have. Whatever you usually do, try to go outside your comfort zone a little bit. You might find a better, less stressful way of doing things and getting out of the overwhelmed zone.

Mistake 4: Thinking you don’t have the time to start digging out

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with deadlines or a never-ending list of to-dos, the idea of taking time to plan solutions can feel like a waste of time. However, taking some time out to plan and do some healing or helpful tasks can help you in the longer term. Think of it like common household tasks. If your home is a mess, and you don’t have the time to give it the deep cleaning it needs, you might consider hiring someone to come in and help. And although that would be a good and helpful solution, it’s one that requires your attention and resources to get going. That initial investment can feel overwhelming too, but it’s important to stop and think about little things you can do now that will help ease your burden.

At work, it’s the same thing. Do you feel like you don’t have time in your time-crunched day for a lunch break, or some self-care? Would a longer-term fix mean changing a process or rejiggering your workload? It’s easy to bury things under “the timing isn’t right”…but you know what? The timing may never be right. You have to prioritize the best available option, not the ideal option that may never materialize.  

Mistake 5: Focusing too much on one area

When we’re overwhelmed, many of us get a kind of tunnel vision, where we just want to focus on this one big thing until it’s no longer so huge. This sounds good to an anxious brain, but our own stress doesn’t stop the clock for everyone and everything else. Other needs and tasks keep going; so by the time you come up for air from this crisis, you’ll be met with more things that need to be handled.

The keys here are honesty and prioritization. What needs to happen, and when? How much time do you need to give to Task A, Task B, Task C, etc.? What time do you have available, and can anything be moved out? Juggling things can itself feel like too much, but having a plan can help things feel less brutal as you start to work through it all.

When we’re feeling stressed, we all make mistakes and get stuck in patterns because we’re human—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make things easier on yourself and those around you by taking steps to break out of those ruts. A bit of mindful action and self-kindness can help you get into a better, more productive place.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.