Feeling Overwhelmed?

Learning how to take 1 thing at a time is a critical skill for leaders.

My dad died a couple of months ago. I bring this up not for sympathy but because it left me feeling overwhelmed. I simply didn’t have the brain power to do much of anything besides grieve. And that’s ok. It’s kind of expected with grief.

The problem is that the world doesn’t stop when I feel overwhelmed. I still had things to do, a family to care for, work related tasks and publication deadlines to make. As much as I might want to scream – stop the world I want to get off – it’s not going to happen.

One thing at a time

I find that when I am overwhelmed, I need to not look at the enormity of the task or tasks in front of me, but just focus on 1 thing at a time and get that 1 thing done.  Once it is done, I can do the next thing.

The hard part in doing one thing at a time is not worrying about the other things that also need to get done. To help me with this – I write out a timeline – what all needs to get done. Knowing that I am not going to miss something helps me focus in the present on the 1 thing I need to do. When I am done, I look at the list for the next thing.

And when other things come up that I need to deal with – I look at my list. It’s either time for me to work on that other thing or it’s not. My to do list helps me to reject intrusions that I can’t handle at the moment. I might add them to a to do later list, but I’m not taking them on right at this minute.

What I find when I do this is that by allowing myself to be overwhelmed and allowing myself to restrict my activities to just those things that I really have to do and by doing them 1 thing at a time, I fairly quickly stop feeling so overwhelmed and am able to return to normal activity levels sooner rather than later.

Be Realistic

At this stage in my life I have no illusions about what I can handle and what I can’t. And I know that I don’t do anyone any favors by pretending I’m ok when I’m really not.

We all get overwhelmed. That’s ok. Not taking care of yourself just makes things worse. Trying to soldier on through and get things done when you aren’t capable of it only means that the things you do get done don’t get done well and you will continue to feel stressed out and overwhelmed and you will not be performing at the level you should be.

The most effective way to get back to a high level of performance is to take a break and to focus on 1 thing at a time and do it well so that your brain can relax. If your brain is so stressed it can’t think well, give it a break. The sooner you acknowledge your frail humanity, the sooner you can do what you need to do to take care of yourself and get better.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, take it 1 day at a time and 1 task at a time. You have my permission.  These are boundaries you need to set for yourself so that you can take care of others. Good luck.


  1. I appreciate this post! Especially these words: "As much as I might want to scream – stop the world I want to get off – it’s not going to happen." I struggle with feeling overwhelmed a lot, and no one has died, I just struggle with anxiety. One step at a time helps, but also knowing others struggle too is reassuring.

    1. I'm so glad you found this helpful. I went through a period where I was having anxiety attacks a few times a day. I went to a therapist who helped me a) figure out what was triggering it and b) she taught me some breathing exercises that helped interrupt the anxiety cycle I was experiencing. My husband gets depressed and anxious to the point he can't function sometimes. His problem is medical - so he takes medicine when he feels that way. He says it takes the edge off so he can function despite the anxiety. Good luck in your coping! And yes, knowing other people - actually lots of people deal with this - is reassuring.


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