What to do when you feel overwhelmed at work

New tasks pile on your to-do list twice as fast as you can finish them. You’re never going to get all of this work done. You wish you had someone who can take some of this work off your plate or that your boss would roll up his sleeves and help.

You feel like you’re drowning in work. Every time you get close enough to see the surface, you get pulled back down.

You’re starting to get short tempered and are less patient with your coworkers. You just want to put your head down and get rid of some of this work. But then someone interrupts you again. You try to escape by checking your email over and over again to ignore the building to-do list.

There is just too much work to do and you are feeling overwhelmed. You might even be burning out.

But you can get back in control of your work day. We’ll focus on the big picture first and then dig into the specifics projects you need to accomplish.

Start by putting your projects in perspective.

Write a list of all the tasks you have to do in order of priority. Take a step back and see if any of them can be outright ignored. Perhaps they were important when they got on your list but compared to the new items on the list, they just aren’t worth the time anymore. Take those tasks and move them onto a separate list that you can look at when you don’t have anything important to do. But for now, we’ll take them off your immediate priority list so it’s less overwhelming.

Now look at the remaining list. To tackle these items, we’ll borrow two concepts from personal finance: the snowball method versus avalanche method in debt reduction.

The snowball method is where you take the smallest item and finish it first. You then move on to the next smallest item and finish that task. As you keep going, you’re to-do list gets shorter and shorter quickly. You’ll feel less overwhelmed more quickly.

Or you can choose to use the avalanche method. This is where you take the most important project, however you choose to define that (due the soonest, will generate the most revenue, most important to your boss, etc.) and complete that item first. The advantage of this method is that you add value to the business faster but the disadvantage is that your task list will continue to be long for a while.

I personally prefer the snowball method but please choose whichever you prefer.

Once you’ve knocked a couple of items off your task list, take a moment to identify the cause of all of the work.

As one of my mentors says, “If there are babies floating in the river, you can spend all day trying to pull them out, but at some point you have to go upstream and fix why they are falling in the river.” Weird analogies aside, you’ll need to fix the source of the problem: Identify what’s causing you to get so many new projects and also why it’s difficult to finish them on time.

Are the people reporting to you asking for too much help? Is your boss piling on more work? Are coworkers coming to your desk too often and interrupting your thought process?

Once you’ve identified the problem, you’ll need to handle the situation with tack. If your reports are asking you for too much help, see if one of the senior employees who reports to you can field questions from her coworkers for a week and only send the really important questions to you.

If coworkers are stopping by your desk too often for work related issues, ask your boss if you can come to the office early before anyone else so you get some quiet time. (And if work-life balance is important to you, also ask to leave earlier in the day.) If coworkers are stopping by your desk for non-work issues, let them know, “I’m sorry. I’d love to chat, but I’m swamped with work right now.”

If you’re boss is giving you too many projects to work on, you have a few options. First, see if you can delegate to someone who reports to you. If not, ask when the project needs to be completed by.

If that doesn’t make the project manageable, try asking, “Where does this fall on the priority list?” and show your boss your priority list. Seeing your projects will make it immediately obvious to your boss if this project really is important, and if it is, which other project should get dropped.

Keep in mind that even though you try to fix the source of all the work and interruptions, they won’t go away 100%. But if you cut it down 50% it will help you out a lot in the long run. You’ll get more time to do your existing work at a higher quality and you’ll feel overwhelmed less often.

Once you’ve solved the source of all the work, it’s time to go back to your projects. Slowly but surely you’ll finish them, one by one, and you won’t feel overwhelmed anymore. In fact in a week or two, you’ll look forward to coming into work because you’ll be in control of your work day again.

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