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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, Google+ and LinkedIn.
Comments
  1. Hi Darren,
    I’m definitely having one of those moments. I’m in the process of moving and I’m trying to get everything in order so that my blog doesn’t suffer during the few days that I’ll be unavailable.

    I live by the bit-sized chunks rule and I take it one step at a time and refuse to look ahead to anything that is not the immediate next step. I go by the “cross that bridge when I get to it” method, because it’s so tempting to jump ahead to non-priority items. It really helps me to stay focused. Usually when I get the bridge, I realize the task isn’t as daunting as I thought it would be.

  2. Hey Darren,

    Taking bite size projects is important when completing a goal or task. When I focus on the big picture I start to get a little nervous. The moment I start breaking it down I know that I can take action and complete the project.

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  3. Great post! We especially love tip #2: “Break it down into bite sized tasks.” When faced with a big challenge, the natural inclination is often to attack the problem from all sides, but that approach is almost always counterproductive. It’s intimidating, it’s illogical, and it’s exhausting. But, when you break down the challenge into small, achievable tasks–“mini-tasks” as we like to call them–you can accomplish them with ease and gain momentum from each and every one of your small wins.

  4. Wow! Great timing on this one as I was feeling overwhelmed up until yesterday. Then I went to bed, turned the phone off, didn’t turn on my computer and go through the routine of update blog, check email, facebook, twitter, etc and took some time out…went to the library, read some light, fun stuff then went for a fantastic dinner with a friend.

    The time out gave me perpective on my issues and the solutions just came to me. I can now tackle them confidently because I know what needs to be done and how to do it.

  5. I like the fourth one. If I start to do things most of my worries are gone

  6. Really great post, thanks!

    My favorite tip was the last, “Start”. I often find that when I am putting something of, if I just start and get into the work, it suddenly unrolls and flows out. Also, it gets something off my plate and out of my mind so the overwhelm becomes less.

    I just read another article about overwhelm that folks might be interested in as well. It’s called, “Imagine Drowning” and has a handy coaching exercise at the end. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/c3nyx1.

    Thanks again!

    -Matt

  7. I been going thru this the past 2 weeks,, seems the success you find the more things there are to do.

    I pretty much have done your tips,, relax, touch what you can control, and take it in bite size pieces… doing this will slowly get things done.

    I also walked away from my work, amazing how good it feels to pull away and watch 10 yr olds play baseball haha

    I was def more productive when I got back to work.

  8. It’s good to know that we’re not alone in facing these types of issues. I’ve been trying to keep up with all of my responsibilities with a broken leg, not to mention that we just returned from a 3 week vacation.

    At this moment, everything seems to be a priority. I am in an overwhelmed state.

    I’m definitely a #3’er and that doesn’t help.

    Thank you for this post. I needed it!

  9. Great steps that you take regarding completing overwhelming tasks.

    “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!”

    Wow, this is so obvious, but so true. Yet, we still worry about external factors. In fact, I would say, we worry the most about external factors rather than worrying and concentrating on the things that matter and things that we have control on.

    “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.”

    The other day, I read a post which said that dreams and goals are different. Goals are easier to implement and actually take action on. They are more measurable.

    Kindest,
    Nabeel

  10. Great post Darren – a good reminder!! #3 really resonates with me because I’ve learned the hard way (isn’t that the only way?!) that isolation in those moments makes it worse. Collaboration always brings a new perspective – even if it’s an outside ear to listen, and then affirm “well, that’s not so scary. I’d try it this way.”

    Sometimes it’s a cheerleader in that moment, a fresh idea, or just a swift kick in the butt to just start – #4 – collaboration has always helped get me through the tunnel vision and see the overwhelming list with a different set of eyes…it’s often not as scary as I thought!

  11. I’ve had those overwhelming feelings many times. I’ve found what works best for me is to:
    #1 Simply not worry. As you mentioned, if you can’t control it don’t worry about it.
    #2 Make small daily task lists. If my list is too long I’ll end up doing nothing, but if the lists is small for one day I’ll get everything done and marked off.
    #3 Take a break when I get overwhelmed. A short breather always helps. I personally will take my daughters swimming or play a game with them. Once my head is cleared I can come back and accomplish what I need to.

  12. This post came at the perfect time. I have so much going on in my personal life at the same time I am trying to grow my readers for my blog and increase my posting frequency. I am trying to break it down into manageable, smaller tasks and simply celebrate that progress is being made. That is helping me keep my sanity.

  13. I really appreciate this: “…just the act of speaking the problems can somehow put them in perspective.”

    How many times have I avoided talking with someone about what I’m dealing with (blogging or life) because I feel overwhelmed, silly, frustrated, annoyed. And when I finally share it, I work through so much of it all on my own. Saying things out loud can be so powerful sometimes! (As with your wife, my Physicist husband is pretty lost as to where I’m head with my multilingual stuff – and I with his Physics stuff – but he lends an ear and often that is all he or I need.)

    I find that I need to spend some time focusing on the big picture because it keeps me inspired (where I am headed, what my overall goal is, am I staying true to my vision, etc.) and then, as you mention, I have to break it all down into smaller bite-sized pieces which I can write down on paper with a little box next to each so I can check them off one-by-one as I get them done (because each of those check marks feel GREAT). The smaller I can break things down, the more check marks, the more sense of getting somewhere.

  14. Oi, do I know how you feel about worrying about other people. I am busy writing a book at the moment and every time I start to panic, I just look at my book outline and do one section.

    To test the reaction of the public I released a free sample of a chapter on my other blog and it made me feel better that at least a few people (ok only two at this stage) actually thought it was interesting enough to download.

    Perseverence through the steps, one tick at a time is all I can do now.

  15. It is so ironic that you posted this today because I am really feeling it. I have been working very hard on my blog and writing along with my family responsibilities and other projects and today I just woke up feeling completely overwhelmed with all I had to do.

    This info could not have come at a better time for me. Thank you for sharing it.

  16. Oh, #3 is so important for me to remember. I am right in the middle of an overwhelming project (several, actually…) and I am definitely guilty of internalizing the stress and freaking out in silence. I’ll consider commenting here my first step to letting it out! Thanks for this ~

  17. For me (a book writer/blogger), it’s all about the bite sized chunks.

    An old boss of mine used to say, “A cinch by the inch, a trial by the mile.” Corny, but it’s true! :)

  18. Definitely breaking down large tasks into small chunks helps because then you feel like you have a handle on things. I do the same things with goal setting as well.

  19. Like you said Darren, sometimes, you just have to start. Some of the biggest success stories in history happen because people took a first step in the wrong direction, and then corrected course along the way.

    Cheers.

  20. Rose Jones says: 07/15/2010 at 3:07 am

    Thanks so much for your wonderful stuff. I bookmarked your problogger site several years ago and am now returning to it as I build up sites. Thanks to continuing to give freakin’ good content! I am now ready to use your stuff to build my blogs!

  21. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, like last night, I sit and pet my dogs and just empty my brain. Once my heart starts racing and I’m no longer beating myselves up for not being able to handle it all, then I can start making lists.

    I carry a spiral notebook that has all my notes and lists and that’s what keeps me sane. I handle each task one at a time and then cross it off. By the time I’m done with writing the list, I feel loads better.

    I love photography, I love blogging, but I have loads of other things that have to be done too, so a list is a life saver for me.

    Great post.

  22. I try to do the most important thing first. FOCUS is the key. Finish the current then move on to the next. Don’t be greedy and do everything at once :)

  23. Wow, great topic! I found your article very helpful. I think being overwhelmed is a natural consequence of working at (or beyond) your edge. But that’s where the most growth happens.

  24. Your post will no doubt inspire many who erroneously feel that doing big things must somehow be “easy” for successful people like yourself. But as you point out, even high achievers have struggles in life.The main difference is that they WORK through those struggles, rather than letting obstacles paralyze them into a wimpy and pathetic state of inaction. Keep up the good work, I have enjoyed your blog for sometime now.

  25. Awesome prescription for overcoming that overwhelmed feeling.

    Any mountain is easier to scale if you break it down into a pile of boulders. Any journey is shorter when shared with a friend. And you can’t change direction if your truck isn’t in gear, so get moving already. Git’er done!

  26. Good pointers! I’ve always used a 3 column list system for organizing my tasks when I start to get overwhelmed.

    Have to do, Should do, and Could do.

    I talk about it here:

    http://www.devonhopkins.com/2009/10/how-to-not-get-overwhelmed/

  27. Tina Christiansen says: 07/15/2010 at 4:12 am

    Thanks for posting this right when I needed the reminder. I think I need BITE SIZE CHUNKS tattooed on my hands so that I can see them every time I sit in front of a keyboard.

    For me, listing priorities (in bite size chunks) for each day instead of having a complete long (long) and overwhelming list of things that need to be done helps me focus on just what I need to do NOW instead of looking at all of that “other stuff” that is also important.

  28. Thank you for this useful post at a perfect time!

  29. The last point certainly resonates with me!
    My biggest obstacle has always been just ‘starting’. Because of that I’ve set up a few accountability partners on different projects- it just keeps me on track.

    Breaking things down into small chunks always makes me realize it’s not as bad as I thought.

  30. What a great post! I am very new to blogging and have no writing experience, so it is really overwhelming. Add to that my bookkeeping business and family, I definitely find myself paralyzed sometimes! I also like the idea of an accountability partner. I could use some in all areas of my life!

  31. Fantastic list of the best ways to overcome overwhelm. The steps can be applied to any situation that has you frazzled. I am going to share this with my lists. Thanks.

  32. Excellent points and great timing. I’ve been dealing with this issue a lot lately. My wife and I recently had a death in our family and it has made an already hectic schedule almost unmanageable. The only way I could stay on top of things was to remember a few key things (several of which you mentioned):

    1. Perspective – Remember that life goes on with or without you. There are occasions that arise in one’s life that trump all others.

    2. Priority – Look at what time you have left and then decide what projects need attention.

    3. Lists – You talked about “small sized tasks” and I do something similar. Look at the project and create action lists for each.

    4. Work.

  33. In the beginning everything will seem daunting. As time goes and ass you start building your blog, many thing will become clearer.

    What you’ve listed here are great advice. I can recall falling into the trap many times myself. Eventually if you break it into small project, all of a sudden it will seem so easy to do.

  34. Hi Darren,

    Like many people my life has been full of many stresses. I recently made a huge move to another country to help out an injured family member in need. Since I have children this was a lot to do so I have felt overwhelmed with the change at times.

    The good news for me is that my passion and most of my daily work involves stress management and personal development so I have a ‘few tricks up my sleeve’ to save me as the saying goes.

    I recently wrote an article with bloggers particularly in mind to help us all remember key steps to manage our health and stress.

    This is the article
    http://thewondertechnique.com/ten-personal-health-tips-for-professional-bloggers-or-tech-and-it-workers-part-one/

    I only wrote this article recently as a gift to bloggers and readers, in particular of your blog, since I wanted to give back to you and them since I have learned so much from reading this blog.

    In addition, I even have a free e workbook with 19 extra action step readers can grab when they visit my blog.

    Thank you in advance for sharing this note.

    All the best,
    David

  35. Usually when I feel overwhelmed I ball up in the fetal position and cry uncontrolably. I never seem to get much work done though. :-). Recently I have spent a lot of time focusing on the reason why I do what I do. Having a “purpose” helps me regain my focus. So I say make sure the reason for your labor is sufficient for your effort.

  36. I just begin to feel overwhelmed when I’ve had a long day and I come home wrecked and I’ve no posts written and I’m just not in the mood for it. As of late I’m beginning to feel more overwhelmed as things have finally begun to take off on my blogs somewhat, and Im trying to juggle writing posts, redesigning a site, organizing payments from advertisers etc… and then my paypal account gets suspended for no reason, and all payments to me are bouncing!

    It’s too much to deal with late at night, so I think I’m going to publish this comment and then hit the hay!

  37. Hey Darren,

    Some sound advice here. I have found myself becoming easily overwhelmed by things. I notice in myself it’s particularly overwhelming when you are passionate about something and want to do so much. It really takes someone to say, hang on a minute, take a step back and break it down and work through a list of small tasks.

    I guess you could say enthusiasm leads to being overwhlemed. On the flip side, the pressure of succeeding can be overwhelming.

    The key really is to try and turn the pressure into motivation and handle it constructively.

  38. thanks all for your feedback. Ironically I woke up feeling overwhelmed today… must re-read my own post :-)

  39. Darren,

    Thanks so much for sharing. These are great points. This is an issue I am faced with right now. A few weeks ago, I went away and spent some time at a monastery here in British Columbia, Canada because it is known for its breathtaking views and code of silence. It helped a lot, as I was able to silence the ‘chattering monkey’ inside of my head and focus and gain some new clarity. I believe perspective is everything and the 3 hours I spent at the Westminster Abbey really helped.

  40. Thanks for this post. I’ve just started a new blog about dealing with depression and anxiety…because I have depression and anxiety disorders. :) Baby steps always works. I’ve been paying attention to your advice and bought your ebook. I also signed up with SITS for the challenge.

  41. Ha! This is so me right now. At the moment, I am:

    -running my online jewellery design business (so making, marketing it, etc…)
    -running a daily craft/design blog
    -in the editing/proofing stage of my first real ebook
    -editing/publishing a craft zine
    -starting work as a website designer for crafters
    -sourcing submissions for another print book/ebook

    Whew! Balancing all of this can get my heart racing at times – especially with stuff like the zine where graphic design/print-readyness comes in to it, stuff I have very little idea about! I’ve found letting others help me a big relief… I’m usually a ‘one-woman-show’ too.. thanks Darren :)

  42. That overwhelming feeling can come while mired in neighborhood alleys of dense cities or while flying at 30K feet. Technical minutiae can confound us with fear at the ground level as well as The Big Picture at eagle heights.

    Of course that overwhelming feeling can be our warning signal that we should turn back and cut our losses. Or plug and chug over the hill.

    I suppose a major difference is often a record of results. If we have had some success, we keep trying. But what about the newbie … or seasoned traveler in a new area? Or that intermediate at a crossroads?

    I suppose that’s why so many new businesses fail. And why successful ones write blog posts like this one encouraging those who can and will to cross over the border into success.

  43. How timely to fall on your post!

    I am often overwhelmed, mostly because I have a never-ending ideas bank and wonder how I’ll ever get them all done!

    The technique I most use is just put my head down and do something. Usually I’ll pull together a list of 3-5 things I need ot do that day (that are doable all in one day) and only focus on those.

    When I get them done, I give myself a reward – time to goof off or go shopping or get some exercise.

    There’s no better feeling than achieving things.

    Works for me.

    Cheers
    Mel

  44. Darren

    Great tips for anyone who is running his own business. I have a blog focusing on small business and franchises and could certainly use these tips myself. I have written a post on the same subject targeted for small business owners; although anyone can use them, You can find them here – http://www.angelbusinessadvisors.com/blog/2010/06/5-effective-techniques-to-get-more-done-in-less-time/

  45. Hi Darren,

    Yeah the reason people overwhelmed is when they do all the things with or without a plan on a go. Used to feel that way. Now, I break down my tasks and move on to the next task after I finish my first task. That way, I always finish my task on the dot.

    That’s my advice for anyone who’re overwhelmed.

  46. Hi Darren,
    I like your tps #2. We should should always break down the bigger project in a smaller projects. Just complete one small projects daily. You can achieve the goal within very short time.

  47. Yay! You did post it early, thank you. :) I’m unfortunately one of those people who has a really “brilliant” idea and jumps in full force, only to get neck deep and go dear Lord what have I done???

    I need to go back to the BMT mantra “chow to chow and chapel to chapel.” In other words, take it one step at a time. Get to the next meal, get to the next post, get to the next step of the project. Thanks! :)

  48. Thanks for a writing this Darren. I’m about to undertake some big new projects and you have helped me to clarify how I should go about tackling them. Keep it up.
    Kelvin

  49. The best thing that I do to get things done when I am overwhelmed with stuff is to try to finish one thing at a time and then move on to the next thing

  50. I’m at an overwhelming point right now. I’ve got so many exciting new things I’m trying to do – building a blog, starting to earn money online, trying to learn new ways to do both of those things. Add to that lots of changes I’m making in my “real life” and a lack of time to do any of it, and you’ve got a messy situation!

    For now, I’m just doing my best to power through and not let silly things like time and sleep get in my way.

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