How To Breakthrough Overwhelm To Start Making Progress

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Do you ever get that feeling of overwhelm because you have so much to do, and not enough time to do it? If your answer is yes, you’re most certainly not alone.

A 2018 survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of adults in the UK felt overwhelm at some point during the previous year. In fact the percentage was higher for women at 81%, compared to the male 67%.

74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

When overwhelm hits it can feel debilitating, stressful and may make it impossible to make progress on anything. When too many options, or things to do lie in front of you, how do you even choose where to begin? So the default approach is often to stay frozen and do nothing. Procrastination rears its ugly head and a downward spiral can ensue.

In this post I’ll take a look at some of the causes of overwhelm, and I’ll lay out a strategy for how to breakthrough so that you can make progress on what is important to you.

What causes overwhelm?

There are many different causes of overwhelm. Every person is different, a situation which causes one person overwhelm would be absolutely fine for another person. There are also varying degrees of feeling overwhelmed, and again each person experiences overwhelm in a different way.

Here are just some of the possible causes which can trigger that stressful feeling:

  • Perceiving that there are too many things to be done in the timeframe available
  • Feeling unskilled or not having the answers for how to tackle a task or situation
  • Having a clouded mind that is racing with thoughts
  • Letting yourself get run down and tired out so that you’re not operating at your max
  • Feeling the need to be perfect
  • Allowing yourself too many distractions and noise from notifications and phonecalls
  • Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself

Do one or more things on this list resonate with you? Once you know the things that tend to cause you to enter an overwhelm state, you can be on your guard to tackle or prevent them occurring at all.


How to breakthrough overwhelm

If you do find yourself feeling overwhelmed, there are various things that you can do to break yourself out of it. When you’re in the middle of feeling overwhelmed you may not have the emotional or psychological energy to learn how to push through it. So familiarise yourself with these steps now, maybe even print them out and put them somewhere easy to find - or bookmark this page - so that you make it easy for yourself to take action when you don’t feel like it…

1. Step away from the situation

Before you try to do anything from a state of overwhelm, you need to break your pattern of feeling panicked and stressed. Change your attention by completely stepping away from the stressful situation momentarily. Get up and walk away for 5 minutes, take a bathroom break, make yourself a hot drink…anything you can do to disrupt your negative thought process.

While you’re taking your time-out, consider doing a slow breathing exercise if you are able to or even a short meditation and quiet your mind.

From this space of calm, imagine you are looking back at the thing(s) that is making you feel overwhelmed, but do it from a perspective of being “zoomed-out” like you’re floating above the Earth looking back down at yourself and the situation. When you approach your feelings from this disassociated angle, and considering everything else around you in the world that’s going on right at this moment, it can bring a feeling of peace, perspective and reassurance that the things that are bothering you may not be as bad as you think.

2. Get it out of your head

Now that you’ve got some perspective on the situation, take some time to get all of the thoughts swirling around your head down on paper - or typed into an online document. Somewhere you can see them written in front of you. When doing this exercise it’s best to put down everything that comes into your head, in the order that you think of it. You’re aiming to just clear everything out of your mind so that you can give it some breathing space.

3. Take stock of your list

Hopefully by this stage you may start to feel a bit better, because if nothing else, you’re starting to get a grasp of all the things that have been causing you to feel overwhelmed. The next stage is to start doing something to fix it.

Take a look through the list you pulled out of your head. With a critical eye, work through one by one deciding whether it’s really important to you right now. Do you actually need to do it? Could it wait for another day/week/year? Is there someone else who could do it for you, or help you with it?

As you work through your list, cross out any items you feel you don’t need to do right now (or never), put a future date next to any which can wait for now, and put someone else’s name next to any which you think you can delegate.

4. Prioritise

Having completed step 3 your list should hopefully be looking a bit shorter and more manageable. Step number 4 is absolutely critical to breaking through your overwhelm, so you must not skip this!

Work through the remaining things on your list and determine the priority of each item. You may want to do this with a numbering system, or a must/should/could grade. It’s up to you how you choose to prioritise, but you want to end up with every item prioritised, so that you can create a short-list of the highest priority items.

5. Break it down

How to breakthrough overwhelm to start making progress, tiny steps massive change image

How do you eat an elephant?… bite at a time

Armed with your list of what is most important for you to consider, you can now start to think about taking action. If you’re still feeling the pangs of overwhelm, I’d like to share with you my motto for 2020:

Tiny steps, massive change

If we do just one tiny thing every day to cross something off our list (or to work toward crossing something off our list if it’s a big item), we will feel that we are making progress. Progress is a magical thing. When we feel like we are making progress it feels good, and we start to gather momentum. Stacking one tiny thing day after day can add up to big changes in a relatively short space of time.

My thinking is, if I do 1 tiny step every day to move me toward my goals (of which I have many!) then by the end of the year I will have achieved massive change.

I would like to propose that you take this motto and make it your own. I’m happy to share it! When times feel tough and you feel the beginnings of overwhelm creeping back - say this motto over and over to yourself. If necessary go back and repeat the steps in this process - because there’s always new thoughts, things to do and fresh priorities to consider.

Each day do at least one thing to tackle your highest priorities. Try to do this at the start of the day - because it will make you feel amazing when you know you’ve hit something off your list early on. Even better if you pick something that you’ve been putting off because you dislike it or don’t know how to do it - get that thing done! You will thank yourself, believe me.

When you follow these 5 steps and start taking action to clear things off your list, don’t be surprised if you find your overwhelm lifting after you complete just 1 thing.

This has happened to me on many occasions. I start to feel overwhelmed because I have a ridiculous amount of things to do, some of which are things I dislike or have been putting off for sometime - or worse there’s a deadline on one of them! Then, I cross the one big thing off my list that’s been bothering me the most, and voila! All of a sudden the weight lifts, and even though my list is only one item shorter, it no longer feels like the burden it once was.

Let’s Start Taking Tiny Steps Together

Are you an Instagram user? Why not join me on Instagram to share your daily tiny steps?

Remember, just 1 tiny step a day makes a difference over time, and sharing your wins publicly will help you to acknowledge your successes. When we celebrate our successes it tells our subconscious mind that progress is a good thing, and your mind will work to give you more of it!

All you need to do to join in is to create an Instagram story saying what your tiny step is and tag me in it - @inspiringlifedesign. Here’s an example of how to do it:

How to breakthrough overwhelm to start making progress, instagram story example

I will share a selection of tiny step stories on my Instagram account. Be sure to follow me on Instagram so that it’s easy for you to find me when you tag me in your stories.


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