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Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project? What to Do

What to Do if You are Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project

It can easily happen to a Project Manager. The work builds up. The problems increase. Deadlines loom. Before you know it, you’re feeling overwhelmed. There’s just so much you have to do.

Where to start? How to get back into control? You feel breathless, shaky, maybe a little scared.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is a common one for new Project Managers.

It can range from a few minutes of hesitation, when you’re not sure what you should do next, to a full scale breakdown. It could easily happen to you, on your project, so it is as well to be prepared. So here is our Project Managers’ guide to what to do when you are feeling overwhelmed.

What does ‘Feeling Overwhelmed’ Mean?

What to Do if You are Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project

What to Do if You are Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project

‘I’m feeling overwhelmed’. It’s something we rarely like to admit to others, but we’ve all had it. So, what does it mean?

The first thing we need to do is distinguish it from a similar state: being overloaded. So how does overload differ from overwhelm?

Overload and Overwhelm

Overload is an Objective State

When you are overloaded, you have too much work to do.

You cannot do everything that you need to do, in the time you have, with the resources that are available.

As a Project Manager, you know that the solution to overload is one of four things:

  1. Allow more time
  2. Secure more resources
  3. Reduce the scope
  4. Accept a drop in quality

Overwhelm is a Subjective State

Overwhelm often has little to do with how much work you actually have. Instead, overwhelm is about the way you feel about that work.

It is quite possible to be heavily overloaded, but to fell fine with that. It’s just a challenge, so you roll up your sleeves, discuss with your team, prioritise your work, and dive in. No dramas.

But sometimes you’re just not at your best. There isn’t an especially challenging workload. But it does seem to have got on top of you. You feel you cannot cope. Inside, you sense a rising panic. You may not be overloaded, but you are certainly feeling overwhelmed.

Overload is an objective state: too much to do. Overwhelm is subjective: not feeling in control… Click To Tweet

The Anatomy of Overwhelm

So, overwhelm is a stress response. And we feel stressed when we do not feel we have sufficient control over events, ourselves, our environment, our time, or our choices.

So a feeling of overwhelm is most likely when we are already starting to feel stressed.

Sometimes, just one extra task can be enough to tip you over the edge.

And suddenly, you feel lost, uncertain, out of control. You don’t know what to do next or how you will cope.

Overwhelm robs you of your sense of autonomy.  It makes you feel impotent in the face of the tasks you can usually eat for breakfast. There just seems too much, and you don’t know how you can handle it.

But don’t worry…

We can tackle overwhelm in three stages:

  1. Prevention is better than cure
    So we’ll start by looking at what Project Managers can do to stave off stress.
  2. Overwhelm coming…
    Often, you can sense overwhelm looming. So let’s see how you can react to take back control.
  3. Feeling overwhelmed…
    Finally, what if you have that feeling of overwhelm and don’t know how to handle it?
    We have a simple seven step process that will dig you out of that hole.

Prevention is Better than Cure: Keep Overwhelm at Bay

When you are mentally, physically, and emotionally at your best, stress is unlikely. So one of the top priorities for any project manager is to take care of yourself. Maintain your personal resilience, so stress doesn’t build.

We have five strategies to help you with this. Consider each one as a long-term side-project. Make sure each has enough priority in your life. That way, they start to become habit, and the daily tribulations of project management are like water off a duck’s back.

Self-care

First and foremost; look after yourself. Your priorities here are:

Eat well and drink sensibly

Grabbing junk food on the run is an easy way to re-fuel your body during or after a long working day. It’s also a false economy, in time terms. Because it will store up trouble. An unhealthy diet will harm you in the long term and even over a short period will leave you feeling drained and over-tired. Take time over meals, and choose food and drinks that you know will do you positive good. This isn’t the place to find dietary advice, but chances are you know what you need to know. Spending time and money on good quality nutrition is a great investment for a long, healthy, and successful life.

Get enough exercise

Another thing that can go by the board when in the midst of a demanding project is exercise. Do you drive to work, or get the the bus or train? For many Project Managers, their only regular exercise is the walk from the car park, the bus stop, or the nearest station.

Exercise is not just important for your physical health; but also, for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Building a small amount of regular exercise into your routine can boost your resilience. It gives you:

  • better sleep
  • enhanced stamina
  • strengthened immune system
  • improved decision-aking

If the last one seems surprising, the reason is clear. During exercise, you can either:

  • Switch off from the troubles time for your project
    This allows your brain to process what’s going on in background. This means when you come to make a decision, a lot of the careful consideration has happened. It also gives time for creative inspiration to incubate. Your brain ready to alert you to new ideas, at unexpected times.
  • Reflect on important questions
    One thing busy executives, professionals, and project managers often tell me they lack, is time to think. Why not get exercise to boost your health, and time to think in one package?

Make rest, relaxation, and sleep a priority

The final part of the self-care tripos is rest. Getting home late, crashing down in front of the television, and snatching six hours’ sleep will not give you the best:

  • alertness
  • concentration
  • problems solving
  • decision-making
  • resilience

Getting adequate sleep is vital. Sleep-deprived people make mistakes comparable to drug or alcohol-impaired people. Proper breaks and good quality sleep are essential if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed when things get tough.

Support network

There are friends and people who love you. These can form your support network. Spending time with them will not only build emotional resilience, but strengthen your bonds with them. So, when tough times come to call, you can lean on some of those relationships for emotional support and wise counsel.

As times start to get tough, it can be tempting to take from those relationships more than you give. Which is fine up to a point. After all, our friends and family love you and they want to help. But if you only take, you can reach the bottom of the pail. Even in tough times, you must find time to invest in hose relationships to keep them strong. If you let them become a one-way transaction for too long, they will diminish and wear thin.

This need not be hard. Recreation is a part of rest and relaxation. And who better to do it with than the people you love, and who love you. If you can’t relax with them, when can you relax?

Me time

If recreation and recreation with family and friends is important, so too is some time to yourself.

Some of us need more time on our own than others. But Project Management needs to be an intensely social activity. You need to be constantly meeting and speaking with team members, peers, stakeholders, and bosses. For some people, this is hard work.

If you are introverted, then it takes emotional energy to be with other people. So you will need time on your own to recharge.If you don’t get enough of that time, you start to feel jaded and not in control of your time. That’s a route to stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Focus

Another important part of preventing stress is choosing what to focus on… And what to let go over.

It’s too easy to get emotionally drawn into things that you care about, but can’t influence. That’s stressful, because of your inability to control those aspects. Focus on what matters and what you can influence. Let other things go.

Circle of Influence & Circle of Concern

As things do start to get stressful, focusing on the good things in your work and your life can help enormously. Again, we get drawn into focusing on what’s going wrong, what our difficulties are, and what we dislike. This can leave you feeling powerless.

By making time to actively recall what you can be grateful for, you will start to reset your perceptions. Better still, get into the habit of spending a short time each day reviewing something you feel grateful for. This will calibrate your focus onto the positive and help you feel optimistic about the future, even under pressure.

Delegate

Everyone doing an important job needs a deputy. This is someone who can stand in for you when you need them to. This can be:

  • When you are away on leave – so you can let go and relax
  • If there’s a lot on – so you can share the load
  • Where you have a big decision – so you can sound-out a second opinion
  • In case you need to step away – to provide continuity

If you don’t formally have a Deputy or Assistant Project Manager, put aside an hour to think through the strengths and styles of your team members. Ask yourself who you’d be happy to hand over half your responsibilities to today? And who you could support in preparing to stand in for you when you are next away from the project.

Not only is this a valuable stress reduction approach, it is also a critical part of your Project Risk Management.

 

What to Do when You start to Feel Overwhelmed?

I hope you’ll see the sense in taking a proactive approach to staving off the stresses that can lead you to feel overwhelmed.

But what if you don’t succeed?

At the earliest signs of overwhelm, what steps can you take for fend it off?

Pause and Take Your Time

First and foremost, do not succumb to the temptation to rush.

‘More haste less speed’

they say. But, when you dive into something unprepared, you aren’t in control – you merely create the illusion that you are.

Pausing and taking your time will give you perspective. You can make deliberate choices, and stay in control.

Slow down to speed up, and rad the map before starting the journey.

Review

Reflection and review are a deliberate process that will slow you down, and help you get everything you need to attend to into perspective.

What do we mean by the phrase ‘getting things in perspective’?

We mean seeing what’s closest more clearly, and letting less important things start to diminish into the distance. The problem with feeling overwhelmed is that everything looks like it is right on top of you. Nothing seems any further away, so you find it hard to choose what to do first.

Our overwhelm routine in the last part of this article works because it automates the process of getting perspective. But consider it a last resort. Try prioritise for yourself.

Make Choices

To avoid overwhelm, it is worth making compromises. and this means active choices to put some work first and therefore other work second, third…

You must also be prepared to abandon some of the things that are contributing to your feeling of overwhelm. Because some of them just aren’t that important. Not doing them won’t make nearly as much difference as not being able to function fully due to stress. Doing them will have so little effect anyway, that it just ain’t worth the stress.

Your secret weapon is your ability to say ‘no’ to the right things, for the right reasons.

Use your delegation

I hope you’ll have chosen a deputy. And I also hope you will know your team well enough to know:

  • who is good at what
  • which people have spare capacity
  • what roles each one prefers or aspires to

IAs overwhelm closes in on you, it’s time to allocate more of the load to your deputy and to delegate more work to team members. This is not about shedding work you don’t want to do. Instead, it’s about creating the time and space to stay clear-headed and retain your focus on what matters most inyour project.

Go to your support network

As stress starts to bite, it’s time to re-asseryour commitment to your self-care, and to go your support network for help. That’s what friends are for. They and your family will be there for you, to listen to your frustrations, and share your disappointments. They can offer sympathy, support, and wise words.

But, they almost certainly want to help you. If not; what kind of friends are they? So take them up on it.

How to Handle Feeling Overwhelmed: The Overwhelm Routine

So, that’s it. Brain Freeze. You’re feeling overwhelmed. You don’t know what to do. Nor where to start.

You need a simple process to follow unquestioningly.

It needs to be one that will work…

And, by ‘work’, I mean ‘get you out of your feeling of overwhelm, and back into a positive, resourceful state’.

Here’s how:

1. Make a list of everything that is on your agenda.

This should be every big or little thing that is contributing to your sense of overwhelm.
Put it in a single list on a clean sheet (or pad) of paper.
This is your ‘overwhelm list’.

2. Go through it and cross off anything that is simply trivial or unimportant.

These are the things that don’t matter enough.
Not doing them won’t matter, or the consequences are pretty minor.
It’s more important to get out of the overwhelm that to do these things.

3. Now get another sheet of paper…

Go through your list again, looking for anything that can wait 24 hours or more.
Find things that won’t cause problems if you delay them by a day, and write them onto your new sheet of paper.
This is tomorrow’s list. Today, you can cross them off your overwhelm list.

4. Highlight the littlest tasks

Third time through your list, look for any task that you could do, to a ‘good enough’ standard, in under 5 minutes.
These are ‘tiddlers[1] – little tasks. And often there are a load of them.
Clearing them will allow you to cross a load of lines off your overwhelm list.

5. Spend 20 minutes on your tiddlers

Set an timer on your computer or phone for 20 minutes.
In that time, clear as many of your littlest tasks as you can.
Work quickly and do the jobs only to the minimum acceptable standard, before moving to the next one.

6. At the end of the 20 minutes…

Cross off everything you have done, and then survey what’s left of your list that is not a tiddler.
Choose one thing you most want to work on.
Because you are stressed and overwhelmed, don’t worry about priority here, focus on progress. Pick the task that you’re least resistant to tackling.

7. Work for 40-50 minutes

Work on your chosen task for around 40-50 minutes.
In this time you can make real progress on a substantial piece of work – maybe even finish it.
Then, take a proper break, for 10-15 minutes. Mental fatigue is your enemy when you’re stressed.

After your break, return to Step 5

You can do two or three of these cycles in a morning or afternoon.
In that time, you will probably be able to:

  • clear all your little tasks
  • make good progress on two or three substantial tasks
  • feel back in control of your workload

 


[1] In the UK, a tiddler is a tiny fish (often a hatchling) found in streams and ponds, which small children (also sometimes called tiddlers) like to catch with a net and put in a small glass jar.

Overwhelm Routine

What are Your Tips

Do you have your own tips for how you handle feelings of overwhelm or stress?

Please do share them in the comments below – we love to read your ideas and will respond to every comment.

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About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was an successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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