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How to Get Things Done When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Posted By Darren Rowse 15th of July 2010 Miscellaneous Blog Tips 0 Comments

Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by some element of your online business?

overwhelmed.jpgImage by Stephan Poff

I’ve felt that way many times, both in the early days and even now. For me it usually comes when I’m working on a new venture or expanding something that I’m already doing into something bigger. For example:

  • When I started my first blog and had no idea how to make decisions about blog platforms, didn’t know where I’d find readers, or if they’d like me when they found me, felt inadequate in making my blog look good, worried what other bloggers might think of me writing about topics that they wrote about etc.
  • When I did redesigns of my blogs (numerous occassions). Not knowing who to hire to design them, feeling confused about how to best lay them out etc.
  • When I decided to launch my first eBook – unsure if people who buy it, overwhelmed by the task of writing it, at a loss as to how to put it together technically, confused as to how to promote and deliver it.

The list could go on – you could say that I’m a repeat offender when it comes to feeling overwhelmed and panicking about projects!

Having said that – I’ve also got a history of working through the overwhelming feelings and getting stuff done (at least most of the time). I think the key is not to let the feelings overwhelm you but to work through them. Here’s how I do it:

1. Focus upon the things you can control

One of the factors that used to hold me back was that I would spend a lot of time worrying about factors that I had little or no control over rather than focusing upon the things I could control.

Of course this is not just applicable to blogging – we all can fall into the temptation about spending a lot of energy worrying about things that we have no ultimate control over. It is easy to do but the reality is that focusing upon things we can’t really control takes a lot of time and energy away from doing the things we can control.

So if I’m feeling overwhelmed by a project now I will (after a little panic) make a list of the things that are stopping me or worrying me about the project and then identify things on the list that I have some control over and those that I don’t have control over – I’ll then put aside or delete the external worries so that I can focus on things I can do!

So when it comes to starting a blog:

  • Some of the things I can control include things like coming up with topics to write about, registering a domain, researching and choosing a blog platform etc
  • Some of the things I don’t have ultimate control over are things like what other bloggers will think about me, whether people will like what I write etc

Of course I might be able to influence the outcomes of some of these external worries – but in the end they’re ultimately in the hands of others so are not my #1 priority. I generally will put them lower on my list of things to think about and get started on things I can do.

2. Break it down into bite sized tasks

The key for me to get things done and not become paralysed by overwhelming projects is to break them down into smaller tasks that I can achieve.

For example writing the ProBlogger book was a daunting thing to be asked to do by Wiley. In fact other publishers had previously asked and I’d always put it off because it was too big. But once Chris and I started breaking it down it became much more achievable. We started with an outline which in itself became a list of smaller tasks to do. I then broke each of the chapters I had to write into smaller sections and tasks until they were bite sized enough for me to feel I could achieve.

I once spoke with an Hawaii Ironman who told me that this is how he got through his events. He had three larger segments of the day (swimming, running and bike riding) and then he’d further break the day into kilometre segments. In his planning and on race day he wouldn’t think about the whole day – but he’d be constantly asking himself what he needed to achieve to complete the the next kilometre.

If it’s helpful put the tasks you identify into some kind of timeline so that you can see the order of what needs to be achieved and so that you can tick them off as you go.

3. Talk to others

A trap that I often fall into when faced with massive projects is allowing myself to wallow in my own desperation and fear of the things that I need to achieve. Perhaps it is my introverted personality – but I tend to take on the burdens that I face alone and don’t naturally share them.

However I know that when I do externalise what I’m feeling that it helps a lot. Even if I simply verbalise the feeling to my wife who has no real comprehension of what I’m doing – just the act of speaking the problems can somehow put them in perspective.

Similarly (and even better) – seeking out people who have already done what you’re trying to achieve to hear how they did it can be helpful. I remember when writing the ProBlogger book seeking out 3 other authors to get their advice on how they wrote their books. They all gave different answers but helped me to shape my own approach to it.

Also consider not only talking with others but collaborating with them. It may be that part of the problem you face is simply not having the skills to do the task at hand so partnering with someone else (or at the least outsourcing to them) might be a good solution.

4. Start

There comes a time when you just need to roll up your sleeves and start working. You can dream and worry about a project forever and never do anything – the key is to start.

Start with one of those bite sized bits that you identified earlier. Choose something you know you can achieve and that will lead you naturally to the next bite sized bit. You’ll find that once you start knocking off tasks that momentum will build and that it’ll get easier to keep things moving – the hardest part is often taking the first step.

How do you tackle overwhelming tasks?

The above is how I approach it – but I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences too. What overwhelming projects have you worked on and how did you get them done?

About Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
  1. When I have things to do, I just take a nap!

  2. Take your feel-bad with you!

    So many of us are being laid off at the same time that we’re losing parents (HELLO fellow boomers!) that it can ALL be overwhelming.

    I just take the heartache, I’m-on-the-wrong-planet feeling with me and like you said, work anyway.

    GREAT post — thanks!
    One American Writer

  3. That’s the kind of problems we usually have, even if you can handle it one day, you will feel the problem again another day, and these problems won’t finish, they’re still following you up to death, or maybe they’ll force you to stop.

    You should never let them do their goals, you should do your goals!

    But the main problem is the fact that you feel that the things you do are not good, things of other people are always better than you…

    You should do the things you want to do, if you don’t like them, other people will do!!

    Thanks for this great post, it’s really great.

  4. Great post. My favorite one is #4: Start. Just roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done! This is also one of the things that holds me back sometimes, since I’m so used to planning out my projects, assignments, and so on, but actually biting the bullet and getting down and dirty can take a while because of a lot of unnecessary reasons.

  5. Darren, you hit it right on the head today! I’ve been feeling quite overwhelmed this week. I signed on with SITTS and joined the group that’s doing 31DBBB! Now it’s going to be slow down and take it one step at a time.
    Thanks for all you do!

  6. A big issue is “analysis paralysis.” Sometimes you plan to avoid taking action. So, some good advice I once received is “Stop planning and start acting!”

  7. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this great post. Working on quite a few start-up ventures at the moment, and it has been very stressful trying to juggle everything. What makes it the most difficult, is that friends who are not entrepreneurs, have no idea what I’m going through. Working for yourself and trying to build new businesses are both full time, round-the-clock jobs. Yes, being your own boss is great but also stressful. I wish more people knew that it isn’t particularly glamorous to live this lifestyle. At the start, anyway. Good things definitely come to those who work hard!

    Thank you again. Will be referencing this blog post and utilizing your tips, for sure.

  8. Great advice, Darren. Breaking a task into bits and pieces has always helped me in overcoming the fear of the task.

  9. Great post! This is a very familiar issue for all the people who are starting their online business or any other “adventure”!

    You give very good advices here. Setting up daily tasks is very important. I use teuxdeux.com which is an online to-do list, very simple and useful.

    Also, I think it’s important to stop doing what doesn’t work and do twice of what really works! :)

    Thank you!

  10. I just started blogging and do feel very much overwhelmed, mostly over technical issues. Now I use the mantra, “make whatever is in front of me at the moment THE most important.”

  11. Wow – this seems to be a hot topic for everyone this week! I try to focus on #4. I tend to wallow around in angst for days, and then once I commit to sitting down and doing ‘it’ (writing a post, building a website, doing research, etc.), things tend to flow right along. But I’m using tip #1 tonight – I can’t help that I’m a day late putting up my weekly post. Things happened, and I can either beat myself up over it or just get it posted as quick as I can. I’ve living proof of the advice that you should always have a few posts in your pocket for times like this.

  12. Great advice, Darren. Last week I was actually going nuts with everything that was on my plate. I typically will break think about what I can handle as you suggested. With the rest, I will make short tasks to do so that I don’t get overwhelmed.

  13. There is a saying: “When you want something done, ask a busy person.” When I’m busiest, juggling several tasks, odd-shaped or fragile as they may be, setting up a to-do list by priority is essential. Somehow, I made it through parent-teacher conferences, progress reports, and watching both of my children graduate all within a month…. while our home was being remodeled. Prioritizing and planning got me through.

  14. Thank you so much for this. This is really a great post. This is a great guide from someone who has gone through many things in this business… More power and I will be watching for some new post from you sir. Thank you.

  15. heya Darren,
    i suppose in life itself, there are times where such overwhelming incidents will ought to arise.

    I remember the times where i was still a little ‘chap’. I would have the most bizarre emotion. I could be so excited and literally feeling my spirit rise when matters intrigues me and the next second feels like the whole world has something up against me.

    It this what we call acute-serious-motion-swing syndrome?

    But nevertheless, i learnt to control myself because such tension is really driving me nuts. seriously.

    Somehow as i got older, matters that aren’t really life-changing doesn’t really overwhelms me anymore. Somehow, in whatever I do, I always believe I could make it up. If I know nothing about blogging, I will learn. If I know nothing about making money online, I will try..and the list goes on.

    I believe the ability to believe and be confident in whatever your strive on is very important. You may not know what the future may be, but I am really sure if you have out in 100% of your every effort, there is literally no way you could fail.

    have a nice day.

  16. What I do is make sure that every morning when I get up I put together a “to-do list”. I then prioritize that to-do list and focus on nothing else. It takes me about 10-15 minutes every morning.

    Although a simple system this has what I have used for years.



  17. This article definitely hit home today because it is exactly how I am feeling….THANX

  18. Great post. No. 1 is essential – no point worrying about things we have no control over; it can be difficult sometimes, but it’s worth writing it down and repeating it like a mantra :)

    My favourite part is no. 2 – break it down into small chunks. I usually outline a plan (with paper and pen, no computer), then divide it into small steps, and give myself a timeline.

    When I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t focus, I just do something different – baking or cooking if I need to get clarity, or let some ideas brew and develop; read fiction, go for a walk, gardening, or watch a good film if I really need a break.

  19. hey darren

    how long do you feel overwhelmed ?

  20. I’m so glad my friend forwarded this article to me (because I told her I was in overwhelm yesterday)! Thank you Darren! The idea of puttting things on a list and chunking were not new to me, although I’ve always just put the first few steps on the list.

    I am already a big believer in not fretting about things I cannot control (or at least not as much!) And what I believe will work much better for me, is to make a complete list then separate the things I can control from those I cannot.
    I’m going to start using this method today for those overwhelming projects on my plate right now.

  21. These are all great ideas for preventing overwhelming feelings! When we feel in control we are always going to be willing to push the envelope and maintain composure. I think breaking things into small steps is one way to manage this, along with getting support from othes. There are not many things we can do alone, at least until we learn the ropes.

  22. Great post – I especially love “Of course this is not just applicable to blogging – we all can fall into the temptation about spending a lot of energy worrying about things that we have no ultimate control over. It is easy to do but the reality is that focusing upon things we can’t really control takes a lot of time and energy away from doing the things we can control.”

    Great stuff!

    When I’m overwhelmed by the number of items on my to do list, I put another pot of coffee on and jump in – taking the things that take the least amount to do, sort of knocking them off first.

    As long as the coffee’s flowing, so am I!

  23. Hi Darren!

    This post reminds me of one I had written last year:

    “What to do when overwhelmed with self pressure”

    The problem that my post tried to deal with was a little different from what your post targets. While yours looks at how to take care of the overwhelming nature of a big task, mine was intended for those who get overwhelmed as a result of wanting to take on more (in terms of quantity) than they can practically handle.

    Combining my post with yours would make a good resource for handling overwhelming situations of both types in getting things done. What do you think?

    Success always,

  24. Great post…and image!

    I find a quick stretch or inversion pose to bathe the brain in oxygen is helpful for me. And a helpful phrase I got from Dr. Neil Fiore, “What can I do for the next 15 to 20 minutes to move this forward?” helps me put into practice the small bites tip.

  25. I really like # 4. It’s funny my business partner and I were just talking about this first thing, this morning. My tactic is to make a pile of everything that needs my attention and just work my way, one by one through it. I take each piece of paper, file, note etc and do whatever needs to be done until I can’t move on it. I physically have it stacked on my left and move it to the right once it is completed. Sometime clearing out all of the little things that dangle out there – makes it easier to work the bigger projects.

  26. Great post !
    Bit surprised that even you get intimidated by projects, ( it’s kind of actually point 3. Talk to others).
    Hardest is to remember these things especially when you have really workedup about the project.

  27. When I get overwhelmed, I just leave the house for a while. Currently, I have 5 websites I am working on so it gets stressful staring at a computer a lot. However, I have 2 kids to take care so I have to juggle how much time I really spend on the computer.

  28. Darren,

    That is a great post. Thank you for sharing your strategies, inspirations and struggles.

    Every night I make a list of what I would like to accomplish the next day. It helps me stay focused and centered.

  29. Getting overwhelmed, for me, is often a result of self-doubt. Whatever I’m trying to do seems too big and too complicated for me, and once I start to think about it from that angle, I’m doomed. Instead, I focus on the small, immediate goals that will eventually lead to bigger ones. If I’m only trying to attract 10 readers and get one comment on the post I’m working on, rather than the big picture growing readership and eventual full-time-blogger status, it doesn’t seem so huge and scary, and I know I can do it. I just have to break it down to a level that doesn’t scare the crap out of me any more.

  30. In addition to the great suggestions you’ve given, Darren, I also like to

    1. Walk it out–going for a walk helped me get through bouts of doubt and overwhelm when I was working on my book

    2. Sleep on it–taking a nap or getting a good night’s sleep works wonders for me when I’ve been spending far too many hours stressing about a project

    3. Look at the task from another perspective or another location–leaving my home office to work in the library or a local coffee shop occasionally gave me the needed change to approach my project with new eyes

  31. I had one of those days yesterday when I was learning how to use a new piece of software in order to expand my online business. It felt very daunting and I got so frustrated and overwhelmed that I had a very unproductive day.

    I was able to talk about it with my partner and immediately felt better about it. I’m in the better condition to roll up my sleeves and get going again.

  32. The “bite-sized tasks” idea always works for me. I juggle many tasks daily and it always helps to break it down into smaller tasks because looking at the bigger picture can be extremely overwhelming!

    I like to list down things often — not just blog ideas but also tasks that need to be taken cared of, in order of priority. Doing this helps me get organized and minimizes the impact of seemingly huge tasks.

    Thanks for sharing these tips Darren!

  33. Great tips Darren…I think we must learn how to keep our cool at these situations and plan accordingly. Sometimes when we feel overwhelmed we don’t even start or take initiative. If I see my past then I can easily recall that I am not a good starter. We can’t measure the depth of water unless we actually step into the real water…overall nice tips, and… hey I must emphasize that I like your style of writing when you put yourself in and give personal examples…that makes you a real person.

  34. My favorite way to handle being overwhelemed is to make a list and prioritize what has to be done. Identify what is critical to be completed that day and then the rest can wait.

  35. Being overwelmed is a feeling that many of us try to avoid but avoiding procrastination and bad time management can bring about unecessary stress. One of the key things that one should do to avoid the mentioned things that can cause frustration is completing the task that is most important- this falls in-line with “breaking things down into bite size,” doing what is most important leaves you with minor and unimportant task that can wait without a time limit to be completed by-allowing you to feel relax in knowing that you have achieved a lot of your agenda and that what is left will not delay your success or create a barrier for what it is your trying to achieve. Plan out your project or time in what is most important and include the minor projects- do and cross out the major projects first- then when you go back to look at that list- you will feel more relived than stressed, because you will see that you have accomplished a lot.

  36. Brilliant post, Darren. I will retweet and blog about it now.

    Like you, I think I get overwhelmed the most when I have a few major projects on the table (like re-doing our website now and putting out our first book soon) on top of the normal, everyday tasks.

    …I have the ‘making the list’ part complete. It’s just the non-avoidance of the list that I have issues with. ;-) Andrea

  37. I really relate to your suggestion to talk to other people. I definitely have a tendency to try to do everything myself, and I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s a lack of information that is causing the overwhelm. I assume that whatever it is I don’t know about is way more complicated than it is. Once I talk to someone knowledgeable about it, it almost always feels much simpler and that weight is lifted.

    I also find that just listing all the things that are on my mind is helpful. If I let it all swirl inside my head, I go crazy. Once they’re outside of my head on a sheet of paper, they hold much less power over me.

  38. (pardon the last post. Y’know how it is . Please delete)
    I get some massive projects done, from intricate drawings to complicated web systems, and I mostly do it by myself because I can never find people to cooperate with.

    My secret is to trust a few instincts. You know that feeling you get when you’re at work and you think ‘aw damn I have an hour before I go home’ or when you’re at home and you go ‘aw damn I have to work tomorrow’. It’s not actually work-related. It’s the feeling that your time is being wasted and is getting away from you. It would happen even if you didn’t have a degrading job.

    Wait till that feeling comes, then start executing your plans and projects. If you’re outside or at work where you can’t draw or code or whatever, just come up with new ideas for the project.

    Until that feeling comes, I just play video games or whatever. If you have no life outside your projects, your projects turn out like crud

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