Dealing with Overwhelm (6 tips to prevent burnout)

In a productivity-focused world, It’s easy to slip into a state of stress. Here are 6 tips for how to stop feeling overwhelmed so you can avoid harmful burnout.

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By Becky Mollenkamp, PCC

People were more productive in 2021 than at any other point since the tracking of such data, and 5x more than in 1950. These numbers look at worker output per hour worked. Americans are working fewer hours than in decades past, but we’re working harder when we work.

Plus, more women are in the workforce so that means household and parenting duties are added on top of work hours rather than being handled by one spouse while the other works. (In single-parent homes, one person must do it all.)

People are overworked, time-crunched, and overwhelmed. Very likely, you recognize it in yourself or you have felt it in the not-so-distant past.


Feeling overwhelmed symptoms

Signs of overwhelm include feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, worry, doubt. It can manifest in the body as tears, a racing heart, headache, muscle pain, illness, or panic attacks. It can cause you to lose sleep or sleep too much, make it difficult to focus, give you a short fuse, and decrease self-esteem.

Some people use overwhelm and burnout as synonyms. Neither is a clinical diagnosis, so their definitions are open to interpretation. I think of overwhelm as stress from feeling like there is too much to do and too little time to do it, and burnout as the sustained, chronic, excessive state of overwhelm that results in complete mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.

To avoid burnout, then, you need help dealing with overwhelm. Here are a few tips for how to overcome overwhelm.


When you feel overwhelmed, do less.

Despite some of the messaging we see about doing or having it all, it’s just not possible. We can’t do all the things and be the person we want to be, and certainly not without a whole lot of overwhelm and potentially burnout.

When you’re already in a state of overwhelm, give yourself the gift of less.

More than likely, you feel overwhelmed by goals so allow yourself to scale them back, along with your to-do list and your expectations of yourself. Take one project at a time, one task at a time. Break things down into smaller steps, extend deadlines where you can, and find ways to create smaller wins so you feel like you’re making progress.

And if you’re not yet feeling overwhelmed, prevent it in the future by considering how you can play smaller all the time. Playing smaller is what I call the idea of determining your “enough” goal (vs. always chasing for more, more, more), being okay with good enough instead of perfection, allowing yourself to do and have less, and taking things in smaller steps over longer periods of time.


How to reduce overwhelm? Give yourself grace.

We very often turn our stress into a personal judgment and attack. We call ourselves names and beat ourselves up for being overwhelmed. “Why can’t I manage this better? Why is this so hard for me? I’m such a failure.”

When things get hard and you feel overwhelmed, try to give yourself compassion instead.

Life is objectively hard right now. Doing so much in so little time with so little support is freaking hard! It’s hard for even the brightest minds, the most Zen, and the most experienced people.

You’re not failing, you’re doing your best. Also, you’re probably doing too much. Not too much for you, too much for anyone.

There’s a Buddhist parable that says when we experience a problem, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the circumstance, in this case the overwhelm. The second arrow is how we react to the circumstance, in this case judging ourselves harshly for feeling overwhelmed and wishing we weren’t overwhelmed.

The first arrow is painful, and beyond our immediate control. But the second arrow is what causes the suffering, and we can choose not to allow that arrow by simply accepting what is and releasing our judgment about it. Acceptance and compassion free us from the second arrow. We can’t escape the pain, but we can end our suffering.


Overcome overwhelm by taking a break.

When you feel overwhelmed, it can really help to take a step away. Take a break and give yourself a little time and space to recharge. Go for walk, binge some TV, read a book, meditate, sleep. Do anything that helps you clear your mind and feel rested. 

It may sound counterintuitive to take time off when you feel like you don’t have enough time, but pushing when you’re already feeling overwhelmed is what can lead to burnout. If you want to avoid allowing this current state from deteriorating to a place that can greatly harm your health, then you need to create time for rest.

And when you’re not already feeling overwhelmed is the perfect time to take a break. Before you reach that level of stress is the best time to rethink your schedule and how you can add more rest and self-care. Get intentional with how you design your calendar (and the boundaries you put in place to protect it) so that you can avoid overwhelm in the future.

Also, it’s really helpful to understand the science behind “the stress cycle” and how to complete it. There’s no better resource for this than “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski.


When you feel overwhelmed, get organized.

Having too much on your plate is bad enough, but it can quickly feel unmanageable if you’re also unorganized. It’s much easier to feel out of control and overwhelmed if you’re not clear about your goals, don’t have logical action steps, don’t know your priorities and deadlines, or don’t otherwise have your thoughts in order.

Take time at the start of a new project to get things in order so you can avoid additional stress down the road. If you’re already overwhelmed, allow yourself to stop and take the time needed to create the order you need to help reduce the stress.

Love using a paper planner to keep you organized and on track? Check out my favorite planners here.


How to deal with overwhelm? Consider your “why.”

Another reason you may feel overwhelmed is if you’re doing a whole lot of tasks that feel unimportant or not meaningful.

It’s easier to get stressed out when you feel like everything you are doing is a “have to” or “should” and not a true desire.

The truth is, even the most mundane tasks can be tied to our deeper why or our life’s purpose. Figuring out how can help you maintain your motivation and, perhaps reduce some of the overwhelm you feel. Look for the ways your current to-do list is helping you live into your values. Or, consider how the tasks are in service of your deeper why.

Get more detail about how to do this by listening to The Gutsy Boss Podcast, Season 2, Ep. 40, The Power of Legacy Thinking.


Why do you feel overwhelmed? Maybe you need support.

Don’t go it alone! You don’t have to bear the weight of the world, or the weight of everything on your plate, alone and in silence. Everyone needs support, and everyone deserves it. How can you seek out help, whether that’s having others actually take something off your plate, or just some emotional support as you do the work yourself.

This could be a spouse or friends. It could be a professional peer you trust. It could be a membership group or other community of like-minded people. It might be hiring a therapist or a coach like me.

Where you get support is less important than that you get support. Have people in your corner to help you manage the stress that is causing overwhelm. It’s important to feel the feelings, validate your experience, and get love and care from someone else.


If you’ve been asking yourself, “Why I am so overwhelmed?” then I hope this article helps you understand that there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed in a culture that puts such a priority on productivity.

If you’re ready to unhook from all of that conditioning, check out my free Get Sh*t Done Workbook and Private Audio Series.

I hope these 6 tips help you understand what causes overwhelm and give you some practical strategies for when you feel overwhelmed.