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6 Tips To Overcome Being Overwhelmed At Work

Article by our guest writer Lawrence Cheok. He writes about living a balanced life and provides tips to improve your career, relationships and money at A Long Long Road. Other than writing, Lawrence does business development and project management in his day job.

Have you ever had the feeling of being overwhelmed at work? Many things are whirling in your mind concurrently, and you cannot pin down important factors necessary for decision-making. The more anxious your feel about it, the more your mind seems to go blank - even simple decisions seem like a big challenge.

Researches show that when under stress, the part of our brain responsible for logic and decision-making degrades. Instead, the part of the brain responsible for emotional and instinctive responses takes over.


In the days when humans were still hunters-gatherers, this natural defense mechanism of our brain was necessary to protect us - when facing an angry lion, there is no time for planning and logical decision-making. Every action taken is decided instinctively to increase our survival rate in the face of danger.

However, such instinctive reactions are usually detrimental in the modern workplace.

This may be the reason why some people flare up in conflict situations or make seemingly illogical or incoherent decisions when under stress. Obviously, such acts do not help in resolving the situation. Instead, they often leave a bad impression and hurt your career prospects.

If you are guilty of such behaviors, take consolation that this is a very normal brain function. You are not dumber and there is nothing wrong with your intelligence.

The sense of feeling overwhelmed is simply your brain operating in "survival mode"

We switch to survival mode when working under intense pressure or fear. In such situations, our adrenaline level increase. Our brain misinterprets the adrenaline rush as signs of danger, and toggles our brain into survival mode – the decision-making part of our brain relinquishes control to the instinctive part of the brain.


Knowing how survival mode comes about is important to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed. Below are some tips to help you get out of survival mode and resume the normal, intelligent you:

1. Slow Down
– Our body’s stress level increases when we are constantly rushing from one task to the other. Working in this way puts your body into overdrive and your brain responses by going into survival mode. It is important to avoid the adrenaline rush by slowing down and taking time to rest. If you are desk-bound, take time to stand up, move around and stretch. Slowly down reduces your adrenaline rush, which in turn helps to recover your thinking abilities.

2. Plan For Mental Breaks – As knowledge workers, we need to process a lot of information everyday. However, our brain needs time to absorb information. When it is overloaded with more than it can absorb, it sends out stress signals.

I have found that taking a 5 to 10 minutes mental break for every 50 minutes of work can help to alleviate the sense of being overwhelmed. Take your mind off the immediate work and just let your mind wander for 10 minutes. Your brain recovers during these mental breaks and you will be good to go for another round of productivity thereafter.

3. Divide And Conquer
- When put to a big challenging task, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as you don’t know where to start from. Break big goals into a series of smaller tasks, and tackle the small tasks first. Completing these small tasks helps build confidence and creates momentum to take on the more complex tasks.

4. Talk to Someone
– Humans are social animals. Research states that honest interactions with another human have a therapeutic effect on stress. If you haven’t tried it before, try talking to a close friend about your challenges; it is a very good emotional outlet. Even though it doesn’t get any real work done, it helps you to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and put you into the right frame of mind for decision making and complex problem solving.

5. Build Trust And Be Constructive – Are you working in a high trust and constructive work culture? Or are you working in a problem-oriented and fault finding work culture? When people are finger pointing and always trying to shove faults to others, the natural reaction is to get defensive and watch your back. As you can imagine, this is a very stressful environment to work under.

Create a high trust and constructive work environment by being constructive about mistakes. Instead of taking a blame attitude, help others overcome their errors and be honest about your own. You will be surprised by the amount of stress you can relieve when you eliminate fear and second-guessing.

6. Get Adequate Sleep – Other than mental stress, your body can suffer from physiological stress due to lack of sleep. Without adequate rest, your body operates in overdrive and adrenaline raises.

Eating and sleeping well contributes a lot to your mental abilities. Make sure that you set aside ample time to rest and relax. Resist the temptation to achieve more by sleeping late; even though it may seem that you are working, you’re not really achieving as much because of the drop in productivity.

So what do you think? Do you have any other stress-relieving tips that you use to overcome being overwhelmed?

Pictorial Addendum:
Various Ways to Cope With Stress -

(image credit: patagonia.com)

(image credit: Kenneth Wong)

Plus a few innovative gadgets that might "help":

Article by Lawrence Cheok Long Long Road for Dark Roasted Blend.

(image sources: Al Lowe, exler, karaul)


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the ultimate solution, which is to quit and look for another job, was left out intentionally.

Anonymous OldSailor said...

OldSailor from www.marinebuzz.com:
If possible delegate your job. Train persons under you or your team mates also. Many times we try to do all jobs ourselves as we feel the other person may not do it correctly. By training your team mates and by instilling confidence in them jobs can be completed successfully in time.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what I translated it to.

1) Don't do much
2) Take cigarette breaks
3) Do small things not big ones
4) Spend more time at the water cooler
5) Solve problems instead of finding them
6) Sleep in

OK, OK, I messed with the details a little.

Good advice

Anonymous Buddy S. said...

Yay Danielson (the dude in the tree)!!! He definitely is one way to get less stressful (but not everyone's cup of tea).

Anonymous Lawrence Cheok | A Long Long Road said...

@oldsailor: great point about delegation. Some people finds it hard to delegate because they feel that no one else can do it as well as they do - which is probably right.

But if you don't give others a chance to try, then they'll never have a chance to improve and you'll continue to be stressed out with too much to do.

So make a choice...

Anonymous Michael Scott said...

Do something really Dumm and Stupid at least once a month. Its good for
the Soul, tempers our pride and can be a lot of fun.


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