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As the world we live in continues to get busier, it is easier than ever to find yourself feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do. This is extremely dangerous, as overwhelm is a major source of stress which can lead to anxiety and burnout. But what can you really do about it? Often we feel overwhelmed because we’ve lost a sense of control, but we have no idea how to get it back. In this post, we’re going to show you what contributes to that feeling of overwhelm and give you some practical tips for how to escape it.

What is overwhelm?

Let’s start by defining the problem we’re trying to solve. The dictionary definition of overwhelm is as follows:

bury or drown beneath a huge mass; defeat completely.

If you’ve struggled with overwhelm in the past like I have, then you know exactly what this feels like. You know the anxiety that can come from having too much to do and not enough time to do it in. You feel exhausted before you even start your day. You go from one urgent responsibility to another just trying to keep your head above water.

Your only goal: survival.

David Allen, author of the landmark productivity book Getting Things Done, calls this Emergency Scan Modality. When you are stuck in Emergency Scan Modality, you are constantly scanning the horizon for the next fire to put out. You may not see it yet, but you know it won’t be long until there will be an emergency for you to deal with. There’s a couple of significant problems with this approach:

  1. The work you’re trying to do suffers
  2. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy (you think things will break, so they do)
  3. It’s extremely stressful

Why do we get overwhelmed?

The amount of information in the world today is staggering. And all this data affects the way we live and work. According to a research study done by Domo, every minute:

  • 154,200 calls are made on Skype
  • 456,000 tweets are published on Twitter
  • 3,607,080 searches are made on Google
  • 4,146,400 videos are viewed on YouTube
  • 103,447,520 emails are sent

The net result of all this information is a condition called FOMO, or the Fear of Missing Out. FOMO is the anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere. It’s the driver behind the compulsion to check social media or see what other people are up to. FOMO feeds on the never-ending stream of potentially important information that is given to us by our computers, tablets, and smartphones. But at some point, we have to be ok with the fact that it’s just not possible to keep up with everything.

Often when people are dealing with FOMO, the solution they strive for “work/life balance.” But that’s a unicorn they can never catch. Trying to achieve work/life balance just leads to frustration. They chase some vague form of their ideal future, not realizing that the whole idea of work/life balance is actually a myth.

You see, the work/life balance myth assumes there are very clear distinctions between your personal and professional lives. While that may be true for some people, technology has blurred these lines to the point where most of us can barely recognize them anymore. And it assumes that you have an unlimited supply of time and energy in order to do all the things you have to do.

But in reality, there is no work/life distinction. There is just “life,” and it’s up to you to manage it well. You must decide where “work” stops and “life” starts.

Awhile back, Thanh wrote a great article about using the Covey Quadrant cut out the urgent and focus on the important. We’ll give you some tips to do this shortly, but for now, you need to understand that if you’re dealing with overwhelm, it’s not your fault. The deck is stacked against you. You have an endless supply of other people’s demands for your time masquerading as “urgent and important.” That’s the bad news. But the good news is that you have the ability to take control and change things in your favor.

4 Steps to Escaping Overwhelm

Now that we understand what overwhelm is and how we got here, it’s important to note that it didn’t happen overnight. The situation you find yourself in today is the product of the choices you’ve made. But that’s actually GREAT news! It means that we can adopt a systems thinking mindset to manipulate the machinery in our lives and produce the results we want. In this case, we want to make some changes to our processes and inputs to eliminate overwhelm and create space or margin in our lives. We want to allocate time for the things that are important to us and be ok with delegating or deleting the things that aren’t.

Here are 4 things you can do right now to help you get on the path to escaping overwhelm once and for all.

#1: Identify your roles & responsibilities.

Every 3 months, I take a day off for what I call my “Personal Retreat.” I drive up to a cabin up north and spend an entire day just thinking about what I want to accomplish during the next 3 months. I don’t see or talk to anyone – I just think.

One of the things I do every time is make a list of all the things I’m committed to. I write down all of my current roles and responsibilities, based on the commitments I’ve made. Then I re-evaluate every single one. I ask myself if I am still ok with each commitment. Often I find that something I committed to has evolved into something I am no longer comfortable with. If that’s the case, I circle that role or responsibility as something that I need to stop doing. Almost always, I force myself to decommit to at least one thing per quarter.

#2: Learn to say “no.”

Once I know what I shouldn’t be doing anymore, it’s time to have a (sometimes difficult) conversation. It’s never easy to say that you can’t do something anymore (especially if you’re a people pleaser like me), but this is critical. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you have to decide who you would rather disappoint:

  1. Yourself
  2. The people closest to you
  3. The acquaintances who have asked you to do the thing that isn’t in line with your goals or values

You can’t please everyone. At best you’re randomizing who gets let down and at worst you disappoint all three. The tipping point for me was realizing that I could minimize the damage by taking control of the situation. By overcoming my feeling of not wanting to disappoint someone and choosing what I would say “no” to, I maximized the chances that everything else I was committed to would actually be successful. For example, I want to be successful as a husband and a father first. So that means I have to say “no” to an officer position for my local Toastmasters group. Even though I love Toastmasters and have grown tremendously from being involved, it’s not as important to me as that extra time spent with my family.

#3: Get out of your email.

Email is a todo list that other people can write on. It’s also a one-sided communication medium, which makes it more difficult to say “no” in the moment. You probably find yourself taking on tasks that are better suited for someone else because (you think) it is easier to just do it yourself. Maybe you just don’t want to take the time and find the right person. Or maybe you work in a corporate culture where it is just expected that you do the task once the request is made.

Regardless of your specific situation, your goal should be to shift the expectations around email with the people you correspond with. Just because everyone else responds within 2 minutes of a message coming in doesn’t mean that you have to. I know this can be extremely difficult, but look for any opportunity you can to be “bad at email.” Here are some things you can do:

  • Turn off your unread badge. Seeing how many messages are waiting for you will just stress you out. And unless you are intending to go into your email client, you really can’t do anything about it (except worry and feed your FOMO).
  • Budget time for email. Some of the most productive people I know only spend 30 minutes per day in email. They do as much as they can, and after 30 minutes they just close their email client. They’ve made the decision to be bad at email so they can be good at something else.
  • Turn off notifications. You don’t need to hear that ding every time you get a piece of spam. This will do wonders for your ability to focus, and you’ll instantly feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

But what if you have a boss or some other important person that expects you to respond right away? In that case, maybe you can’t completely turn off your notifications. You can still use something like SaneBox or VIP filters to only get notified of important messages.

#4: Establish rituals.

Once you’ve eliminated the things you shouldn’t be doing and taken control of your inbox, the next step is to implement rituals. Once you know what you should be doing, creating rituals makes it more efficient to prioritize the things that are important (but not necessarily urgent).

For example, I’ve implemented a morning ritual which helps me make sure that I put myself first. It doesn’t take very long, but it makes sure that I am glowing green taking care of myself first so that I can pull others up more effectively.

Here’s what my current morning ritual looks like:

  • 6:00am: Wake up and read my Bible
  • 6:15am: Shower
  • 6:25am: Stretch
  • 6:35am: Pray
  • 6:50am: Meditate

It only takes an hour, but it makes everything else I do in the day easier. My morning ritual puts me in the best possible position to have a successful day.

If you need a little help getting your morning ritual set up, check out our Morning Ritual Starter Kit. It’s a simple system to help you implement an effective morning ritual, even if you’re not a morning person or you’ve never had one before.


We know how frustrating it can be when you constantly feel overwhelmed. We want to help you reach your full potential and create more time for the things that are important to you. We have multiple experts from a variety of backgrounds, and we’ve helped tens of thousands of people in many different situations to get unstuck with both our free and paid productivity training material.

If you want more personalized help, take a few minutes to complete our Productivity Quiz. In just a couple of minutes of your time, we can help you identify the areas to focus on for winning back your time and give you tips and strategies to help you get unstuck and on your way towards your ideal future.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. In my opinion, what can help to make you feel less overwhelmed is a better organisation of your work. A task management tool might help with it. I recommend kanbantool.com , I like it a lot.

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