Taking Control of Overwhelm

image via Simon Carr – click for info

This is a guest post by Michelle Nickolaisen.

Overwhelm is one of the most unpleasant sensations I can think of, right up there with going to the dentist. Possibly the worst thing about it is that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re paralyzed with it… which means you aren’t doing anything to stop whatever’s overwhelming you… which makes the overwhelm that much worse. Just writing that sentence made me feel a little stressed out, remembering the times when such a situation has happened to me. Part of being creative, too, is that overwhelm can negatively affect your work — even if the source of the overwhelm has nothing to do with your work.

That’s what this post is all about — I’m going to share with you a quick & useful process you can use to get your overwhelm under control, so that you can start taking the actions you need to take. Which leads to everything being back to a blissful state of calm. Or, at least, a slightly-less-chaotic state of normal. (Whatever floats your boat.)

The first thing I want you to do is grab some paper to write on.

If you’re feeling particularly organized, you can use a spreadsheet, but I like to use paper for these sorts of things; the tactile sensation of actually writing makes a huge difference for me in effectiveness. And, fun fact, writing things down can spur new ideas (when scientists studied people writing, several areas of their brains were lighting up at once, as opposed to typing, which only activates one area of your brain).

Ready? Good. Once you’ve got your paper, divide it into three columns.

Left: The Impression That I Get

In the left hand column, you’re going to write down what’s overwhelming you. Just starting to tease out what it is that’s got you freaked out can make a big difference, because often we don’t analyze the feeling, we just feel it. Teasing it out can make you aware of whether the overwhelm is being caused purely by emotions, by reality, or by some mix of the two. So, this is the column where you’ll write down, “I’ve got too much to do at work this week,” “I told my friends I’d help them move and now I don’t have time,” etc. Be as specific as humanly possible about what it is that’s overwhelming you.

Middle: The Cold, Hard Reality

Now, we’re going to play scientists. Lab coat optional.

Fact: Overwhelm is almost always a head game. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat down to do this exercise, only to realize that I don’t actually have any more to do this week than any other week. I’m just stressed out about something entirely unrelated — relationship issues, worrying about a friend, family drama, what-have-you — and it’s leaking into my brain, making me feel overwhelmed about everything at once.

This might not be the case for you. You might have actually overcommitted. You might just have too much on your plate at this moment. That’s okay, we’re going to fix it. But we need to figure out, if that is the case, by how much it’s the case. Using hard numbers and facts.

With the above examples, you’d follow, “I’ve got too much to do at work this week” with “I have to do x, y, and z this week, that’s different from my normal workload. They’ll probably take an extra five hours of work this week.” Or, “I told my friends I’d help them move” with “They’re moving on this day, and these are my other commitments this week.”

Think about it like an outside observer. How is this different from other times when you’ve been in a similar situation but didn’t feel overwhelmed? What constitutes “not having enough time”? How much time and energy will things actually take up once you get started on them? And how much of the overwhelm is you guilt-tripping yourself unnecessarily?

Right: Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Junk?

The right hand column on the page is, as you may have guessed, for writing down what you’re going to do to stop being overwhelmed about this specific thing, and to start taking action. In general, there are three paths to take here: move/modify, delegate, or delete.

Move or Modify

Can you move this specific obligation? Is next week or next month less busy? Is this a project that has to be done right this minute, or can it be moved to next quarter? If you can move something, do it. But make sure that you don’t move all of the things that are overwhelming you to the same week, otherwise you’re just kicking the issue down the road where it’ll cause trouble again.

If you can’t move an obligation, maybe you can modify it. To use one of the aforementioned examples, instead of helping your friends move for four or five hours one day, maybe you can help them for an hour or two instead. Is there a way that you can make this obligation smaller or involving less commitment?


Do all of these things absolutely, positively need to be done by you? Fancy Hands and Task Rabbit can be useful here when it comes to handing off things that need to get done, but not necessarily by you. If you don’t need someone local, there’s also Zirtual. Between these three sites, you should be able to find someone to handle almost anything you need. Relinquish the need to handle every small detail and the stress that comes with that need.


Is this thing that’s stressing you out even important? Do you still actually want to do it? Do you need to do it? Or were you going to do it out of some misguided sense of obligation? We tend to take on a surprising amount of crap; one of the great things about becoming more busy is that it gives you a fantastic reason to let go of obligations and things you don’t actually want to do.

Whew! Don’t you feel better? And now, the next time you’re feeling freaked out & overwhelmed, you know what to do to get it back under control.

Now, go get yourself a margarita. You deserve it.

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Michelle is a project + operations wrangler for creative businesses, who also writes & teaches about productivity, organization, & systems (that don’t suck) for creatives. She lives in Austin, TX with her Shiba Inu & loves Buffy, dark chocolate, and tacos. Find her on the web at Bombchelle, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Taking Control of Overwhelm

  1. “I’m just stressed out about something entirely unrelated — relationship issues, worrying about a friend, family drama, what-have-you — and it’s leaking into my brain, making me feel overwhelmed about everything at once.”

    THIS. When I don’t have other issues leaking in, being hosed feels like “WHEE!!!” instead of “GAAAAH!!!”

    It makes me wish I had more time, but only so I could add some rest to my big pile of stuff, not wish I had less stuff to do.

    1. Yes! It took me FOREVER to figure that out, but once I did, it helped a lot. I actually like the feeling of being in just a *little* over my head when it comes to my work life; but if I’m experiencing any kind of relationship or friendship related stress, I need my work levels to be much more manageable.

  2. Love this Michelle. Such great, practical advice. I often feel overwhelmed and use your planner sheets, then scan them and email them to my assistant and let her literally tell me what I should do in what order.

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