How to turn overwhelmed into overwhelmingly successful

Make a written list, set priorities, breathe and relax, and then focus on one task at a time

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David FullerI recently woke up sleepless at 2:30 am. If you’re in a leadership role in a business or even in your household, you probably know the drill. My mind was spinning with the long list of tasks I had to complete.

The 75-unit project I’m working on for a client; the three people who need training; the two basketball teams I’m coaching; the health issues my father-in-law faces. In addition, my brain decided to go further and think about the three presentations I’m giving this week, as well as the strategic planning day I’m hosting at the end of the month.

My mind went on and on, around and around – for hours, it seemed.

I woke up tired and scatterbrained. At breakfast, my eldest daughter mentioned that I didn’t seem grounded. My 11-year-old son told her that when I got like this, I always talked gibberish in the morning.

I was definitely overwhelmed, which is common for many small business owners who face a continuing onslaught of information, decisions, customers, constant change and staffing issues, in addition to the day-to-day family and community matters they’re involved with.

Often, being overwhelmed can be the result of transition in our lives or a feeling that we lack purpose.

So how do we turn overwhelmed into overwhelmingly successful?

To get help, I looked at the research. It appears being overwhelmed is so common that there’s significant research on the topic. The symptoms can include anxiety, feelings of helplessness, worry, self doubt and even anger.

In business, this can reduce our effectiveness in making decisions and dealing with staff or customer complaints, and can even bring on feelings of shame and guilt at not being able to get things done in a timely manner. In my many years of experience, I’ve seen business owners break down and give up their initiatives and, sometimes, even their businesses.

According to experts like Nancy Schlossberg, author of the book Overwhelmed, many of us feel overwhelmed in part because we feel we’ve lost control of our situation. When we feel we can’t manage the details in our lives, we become anxious, stressed and worried.

However, if we make decisions to take control of the situation and turn our challenges into opportunities for change, we can rise above our feeling of being overwhelmed and proceed to a sense of accomplishment and success.

That probably sounds simplistic, so what do we need to do in business every day to achieve a sense of accomplishment?

Here are a few tips:

Make a written list

One of the easiest ways to gain control is to write down all those tasks you need to accomplish and give them priority. Getting stuff out of our heads and onto paper allows us to see what we need to do so we can stop worrying about forgetting something.

The worry of forgetting something can be a significant cause of stress, contributing to our anxiety. When we have a written list and set priorities about which tasks to accomplish first, we have a plan. Plans reduce anxiety.

Breathe and relax

When we feel we have too much to do in a short period, we tense up. Our muscles contract, our jaws tighten, our heartbeat increases, and all this affects our judgment and decision making. (This isn’t to say that all stress is bad for us – we need a level of stress to motivate us to get things done.)

By taking time to focus on our breathing, we relax our bodies. The Dalai Lama spends extra time in meditation when he has a busy agenda as it grounds him and reduces his stress. Focusing on breathing might mean we do some exercise, which has also been shown to reduce anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Quit multitasking

Research shows that very, very few people can multitask effectively. Trying to do more than one thing at a time increases our stress level.

As I’m writing this, I have emails coming in, texts, and requests from my clients and family to do other things. I know that in order to get this task done, I need to focus and eliminate all those other options for a few minutes.

Too often we let interruptions or distractions take priority over what we need to focus on right now. Many of my clients have begun closing their office door to ensure the timely completion of essential work. This effectively reduces their stress and enhances efficiency.

Feeling overwhelmed is natural in the busy world we live in. Recognizing and naming this feeling can make a huge difference for us.

Taking steps to regain control by setting priorities, blocking time and breathing more deeply can reduce our stress and the anxiety that accompanies feelings of being overwhelmed.

Focusing on one task at a time will ensure that we accomplish more in less time and reduce the long-term impact of our unhealthy self-imposed stress.

Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award winning business coach and a partner in the firm Pivotleader Inc. Comments on business at this time? Email

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