how to stay productive when you're completely overwhelmed

6 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Completely Overwhelmed

Have you ever looked at your to do list and just laughed? You think, “Oh right, that’s not happening,” and then moments later, you realize that none of the tasks on your list are really an option. Perhaps that’s the point that your nervous laughter turns to tears. You want to be productive, but you’re completely overwhelmed.

That’s the wall I hit this week. I’ve had a number of serious personal challenges that require an intense investment of emotion and time, some stuff I wouldn’t have chosen, and certainly not at a time like this, and other remarkable surprises filled with joy and hope.

And, I’m neck-deep in the throes of the most intense and exciting time of my entire career.  We’re starting our tour for Winning Well, and the  response has been tremendous. There’s a constant flurry of speeches and media interviews to prepare for, and we head to Oregon next week to film for our forthcoming Winning Well online course.

Sure I took out Eisenhower’s good old urgent and important matrix and mapped my priorities. The truth is, the urgent AND important box would make your hair curl. My closest friends and family are all saying “You have every right to feel this way… even half of the list would feel impossible.” Although that may feel strangely comforting, it doesn’t actually make the list smaller.

So if you’re reading this because you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that I’m right there with you.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to cope. And it’s helping. I hope it can help you too.

6 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

  1. Identify Your Most Important Thing (MIT)
    In Winning Well, we write about the importance of identifying your MIT each day, “At the start of each day look over your projects, tasks, and to-dos and identify the one item that is the MIT for that day.”
  2. Follow the “Rule of One”
    The Rule of One means that you give one thing at a time your full attention. When you need to change focus do so fully and intentionally. If you spend much time with C-level executives, you’ll see that they do not multi-task. They focus. They’re all in. Concentrating. They’re confident their focus will make an impact. There’s a reason they focus on one important task at a time to stay productive. Give it a shot.
  3. Breathe
    Yes, that sounds cliché, and it is…if you keep breathing as a metaphor. But if you find yourself holding your breath as you’re working your way down the list, I encourage you to stop, close your eyes and take five slow breaths in and out.
  4. Take a Walk
    Before you scream at your computer, “Yeah, lady, I told you I don’t have time already and now you want me to go for a walk?” stay with me. This week I was feeling really blocked on the structure for an important speech I’m doing. I’m committed to adding real value for the audience, and we’re filming it, so I need to nail it to preserve the value for others as well. I was making myself insane staring at my computer writing and rewriting, and I just couldn’t get the stories to flow to align with my message. I got in the car and drove to a trailhead with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I walked without consciously thinking, and whenever I got a surge of inspiration, I wrote it down. At one point, I just stopped and sat on a rock and sketched out a brand new model that’s perfect for this speech and others. Plus, I got to check off exercise from the list.  BAM!
  5. Ask For and Receive Help
    Look around, my guess is there are people offering to help. If not think about who you can ask. This can be tough for so many reasons… perhaps you think you can do it better, perhaps you want to be doing your fair share, or maybe you just don’t want to feel out of control. I get it. I also know when you receive help, tasks go away. Our Winning Well toolkit is done and the Frontline Festival will run as scheduled, all without much intervention from me because I said “yes” to help from my co-author, David and my assistant, Beth, when they said “Just let me do this.”
  6. Decide What Must Go
    After three years, of religiously writing a blog post three times a week, the last few weeks, I’ve gone down to one. Yes, I felt guilty. Sure I worried about letting folks down. But the truth is, bringing you strong, fresh content three times a week just isn’t feasible right now. Better to take a step back and decide how to keep the blog adding value AND focusing on the rest of the list.

    People who are making an impact all feel overwhelmed from time to time. If you’re in that season, don’t spend time feeling frustrated and guilty. Take a deep breath, break it down, ask for help and work on what you know will make the biggest difference for your work and the people you care about.

See Also: How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted

Posted in Winning Well and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. These are smart and proven tips (they align pretty well with Agile). The hard part is we get used to doing things one way, just MAYBE with less than stellar discipline. 🙂 Then what happens? People are overwhelmed and when you try to help them they say, “Don’t tell me how to do my job. I’m so busy I don’t have time to worry about improving.” No room for improvement? What CEO wants to hear that?

  2. When I feel overwhelmed I usually step back and take time to reflect on what is important. I ask myself: “What don’t I have to do today?” When we take a bigger view we gain perspective.

    Thanks Karin!

  3. One of the most important posts I’ve read from you Karin. My mind’s eye is seeing an abridged version as a laminated card or similar on my desk 🙂

    When I’ve felt overwhelmed I’ve taken a walk to the bathroom,,, in tn next building, just to get some fresh air on the way or to encourage some of the breathing you mention.

    Overwhelm can seem so innocent, but on a scale of negative emotions I’m sure it would rate up there with terror.
    This in turn slows down your ability to thinkclearly as your amyigdala begins to ring it’s alarm bell.

    Your advice is practical, achievable for most, and the path away from terror.

    • Dallas,
      Thanks so much! It’s so great to hear from you again. Thanks as always for extending the conversation with your insights.

    • Thanks, Chery. I so appreciate all of your support of the Winning Well mission and ideas.

  4. Karin,

    Practical, helpful information – as always!

    All suggestions are excellent and I think your numbers 5 and 6 should be the first thing a person attends to. Once you’ve offloaded and eliminated tasks, then you can move on to the MIT for the day.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. And good luck with the crazy schedule. It’ll all work out somehow.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. I admire how much you accomplish. You are a great role model for folks in this arena.

  5. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I take a break. My breathing is much less labored when I allow a quick distraction to regain my composure and focus. I know that you have a tremendous support network and I hope you’ll count me in the bunch.

    Also – HUGE congratulations to you and David on writing Winning Well and all that’s yet to come.

    ~ Alli

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