Three tactics for being productive when feeling overwhelmed

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

In our quest to be as productive as we possibly can we often end up taking on more than we can possibly do. These tasks and commitments can come at us from friends, family, and colleagues but a lot of what fills up our inbox, calendar, and to-do list is self-inflicted. Prolonged anxiousness or feeling overwhelmed is something we definitely have to deal with or else it will lead to burnout which can take months or even years to overcome. However these feelings come from within–they are not something we are given by others (but do try to avoid people that project their own anxiousness).

Here are three tactics that might help you overcome those periods where you find yourself feeling like you’re barely treading water as the weight of work and your personal responsibilities drags you down.

Say no

This is easiest advice to give but the hardest to actually do. When you find yourself feeling like you have 48 hours of work that you need to fit into a 24-hour day, you need to take action to stop further piling work onto your pile. That action is saying no to others and, more importantly, to yourself.

It is okay to miss dinner with friends or family from time to time. They will understand. It is okay to not be the hero at work every day. Someone else can step up today. It is okay to have an idea and to not act on it. (Turning every idea into a to-do is the entrepreneur’s curse.) You’re going to have many more great ideas tomorrow.

Abandon digital to do lists

Productivity apps are great for reminding us about everything we have to do but their relentlessness is not optimal for our mental health. If your phone was a person he would be following you around all day nagging you about the tasks you haven’t got to yet. Eventually you’d probably snap and yell at him for just doing his job or maybe even punch him in the face.

That productivity “coach” delivers results but sometimes you need a break. When this is the case turn him off and become your own coach. Do your tasks on your own schedule and at your own pace.

Paper is inherently less stressful than screens. Start using paper to-do lists in a notebook that you close at the end of your workday.


Your energy and state of mind have a profound effect on your ability to get your work done. Personally I am twice as productive in the morning than in the afternoon and three or four times more productive in the morning than I am when I’m burning the midnight oil. Keeping your mind in a good place is the number one way to remain productive and speaks directly to the situation that this article addresses.

Discussing mediation can be a minefield that I would like to avoid but it is a practice that I picked up and continue to do it for at least ten minutes a day. If you think that mediation isn’t for you then just close your eyes and take deep breaths for a minute. When you’re feeling overwhelmed it can recenter you and help you move onto your next task with a renewed focus. (A middle of the day walk also works wonders for me.)

If you want to give it a try then you can start the same way I did–listening to the free guided meditation on QuietKit.

Ask for help

This fourth tactic is actually me pleading with you to talk to someone (a friend, family, or a professional) should the feeling of being overwhelmed carry on too long. A friend or family might be able to help you lighten your load. A professional might be able to help you with some strategies for dealing with your day.

The more overwhelmed you feel the less productive you actually are going to be. Acknowledge the feeling and then take action to address it.