Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the things you’re expected to get done?

Maybe you’re a high achiever who’s said yes to too many interesting projects. Or the “go to” person your manager trusts to do the important assignments – and everything is an important assignment! Or perhaps an unexpected family commitment has drastically reduced the amount of time available to do your work.

Whatever the cause, when you have the weight of multiple deadlines looming, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And even a hint of panic about being able to do a good job or failing to get it done at all.

So how can you break free from overwhelm and get back to being your best, most authentic self?

This is where the 5-step technique I learned from my friend and Arizona State University colleague can quickly shift you from overwhelmed to back in control.

Step 1: Distract your brain

When you’re overwhelmed and panicking about all the things you need to do that are weighing on you, your brain isn’t functioning at its best.

This is the moment when you need to pivot and do something different physically. The idea is to distract your brain.

It can be as simple as getting up and pouring yourself a glass of water and drinking it. Or walking up and down the stairs, taking a walk, or taking a shower (an advantage of working from home!).

It’s like when your laptop freezes because you have too many applications open and you have to reboot the system.

Step 2: Calm your brain

Once you’ve physically distracted your brain from the overwhelm, it’s time to calm it down. The best way is to do a breathing exercise.

In particular, slow rhythmic breathing. This calms your nervous system and lets your brain know that things are okay. You’re not being chased by the modern-day equivalent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.

Step 3: Give your brain a job

Your brain is an active organ with more than 6,000 thoughts a day, which means 6 or more are potentially pinging around every waking minute (assuming 8 hours of sleep). So this is the time to help it focus on just one task.

Set a timer for a small slice of time, like 10 or 15 minutes. And tell your brain that “in this slice of time, we’re going to focus on just this one thing”.

And if you’re not sure which one thing to start with, I recommend focusing on the urgent and important.

Step 4: Reward your brain

When the timer goes off, take a break. Make it something physical, just like in step one.

In an ideal world, you would combine this with a change of scenery and some fresh air. But really, any physical action will do. It could be standing up and stretching, dancing to your favorite song or making a cup of calming tea. Or walking to the restroom, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, “you can do this!”

Step 5: Give your brain another job

After a break, your brain is ready to do one more of the tasks for 10-15 minutes. In essence, you go back to steps 3 and 4 and “rinse and repeat”. 

Give yourself grace

When you’re overwhelmed with worry, anxiety or even panic, your body experiences a mini trauma. The feeling is intense. So make sure you treat yourself with kindness and give yourself the chance to recover.

The best thing is to catch the signs of overwhelm coming on so you can nip it in the bud

So when you start to feel overwhelm creeping in, remember these five steps:

  1. Distract your brain
  2. Calm your brain
  3. Give your brain a job
  4. Reward your brain
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4

You can use them anytime and anywhere to give yourself grace, gain some perspective, and keep going with confidence – no matter what you're facing.

What will you do to distract your brain when you start to feel overwhelmed?

 Leave a comment and let me know.