How to avoid getting overwhelmed by work

Where are you??? We’re all waiting.

I felt a bang of stress when I saw a message from my friend popping up. I knew I was late for the Christmas drinks, but there was no way I could leave the office right now. I grabbed the mobile, annoyed.

Just start without me, I’ll be there in 15 min.

An hour later I arrived to the pub, ready to party to release the stress. No one was there. No one answered my calls or messages. After a while I looked at my news feed only to see pictures of my friends having fun somewhere in London.

It hurt. I felt excluded.

I decided to go home, depressed, only to receive a message few hours later.

Sorry, we didn’t think you’d show up. You never do.

It’s the season of stress

It is extremely easy to get overwhelmed by work especially at the holiday season when we are hit by a massive pressure to sell as much as we can. If we don’t deliver at this time of the year, it has a direct impact on the business keeping its head over water the upcoming year.

That combined with the personal pressure to get presents, organise details for Xmas, attend parties or school plays, and leave a manageable handover list before heading to holidays … either the work suffers or the relationships do.


3 Biggest mistakes I made that got me overwhelmed by work (and how to avoid them)

1.   Reacting quickly to other people’s requests

Few years ago I was operating in a reactive mode whenever I felt stressed. I was convinced this was a positive trait, showing how quickly I could handle things when under pressure.

Ha ha – the contrary.

Ever checked your inbox at the end of the day and despite you working extra hours, there are even MORE emails to answer to?

In fact, replying back to emails quickly makes the other person reply back quickly with questions or even more requests, creating a constant stream of emails.


To avoid yourself and the person on the other side getting overwhelmed, stop. Scan the email through to see if you can answer it in less than 1 minute (e.g. Yes, approved.) or whether it needs more information.

If it is not urgent and needs more info, park it.

Block a dedicated email-replying time for each day and spend it for this type of emails or requests, adding all the information, links and contacts they need.

Very often I use my “dead time” for this instead of scrolling my social news feed: when I’m commuting, on the airplane, waiting for my friend to arrive or a show to start …

2. Letting other people to set up the agenda for the day

On that topic – last thing in the evening and the first thing in the morning I used to do was to check my inbox. I thought it gave me a great insight on the priorities of the day and yes it indeed did: other people’s priorities.

First of all – remove the email and social notifications.

Instead, start the week by prioritising YOUR tasks into Musts, Shoulds, Coulds and Won’ts, before even having a look at your email.

An excellent practice from agile project management you can apply also to other areas of your life:

  • Must: what is absolutely vital right now. Good questions to ask: Who asked for it? Is the deadline this week? Is it blocking a campaign go live e.g. cost approval or sending feedback on the designs?
  • Should: very important, but not vital. Good questions to ask: is it vital or just painful?If the answer is “painful” then it’s not a must. It’s a should.
  • Could: Might become painful in the future, but right now if I won’t get it done, it’s not that bad. Good question to ask: can it wait?
  • Won’t right now: out of scope. The smallest things add up – even that little 15 min meeting or replying to that email chain takes time from the big pieces. Good question to ask: is now the right moment to even discuss this?

After doing this, check the emails. It’ll help you to focus on the essential, ensure your priorities are done first and say “no” for the won’ts.

But hey – what if something is super urgent and can’t wait for an hour?? Let people know what your other emergency channel is and they’ll contact you there.

3. Complaining and getting bitter

Yes, I get it. No one works as hard as you do. You’re the only one who is actually working while others are out having fun. But does anyone actually appreciate what you do? No.

My thoughts exactly few years ago…

Overworking makes our judgement worse: We tend to see what we focus on and stress blurs our vision. When we complain and get bitter, we see only negative things that confirm our hypothesis.

What we see is our colleagues leaving the office at 5pm, but in fact they might have started work earlier, they’ll be working all evening at home or they are better at prioritising than we are.

Judging people and playing a victim will only add on your stress.

Distance yourself from negative people and have a dinner with people with a positive mindset. Talk about something else than work – it’ll help you to put things into perspective.

Overwhelmed by all this advice? Start step by step

I’m no stranger to stress, being overwhelmed and having an absolutely disastrous work-life balance. As an over-achiever I’ve often found myself in situations where I’ve pushed it too far, but luckily every mistake I’ve made has taught me invaluable lessons.

To be honest, the most more sustainable way to change is to do it step by step.

Let’s say by stopping doing something:

For example:

·        I stop replying emails immediately if it takes more than 1 min to do

·        I remove the email and social notifications

·        I stop going out for a drink each week with that person who drains my energy

Doesn’t sound that bad, right? Now read through the post again and see if there are three simple things you can start doing.

For example:

·        I reply to pending emails in my “dead time” instead of scrolling the news feed

·        I start the week by writing a list of things that need to be done this week

·        I invite a positive friend for a dinner or a drink this week

More manageable? Not too overwhelming?

Great – now go and do it 😉

Best of luck x


Ps. If you found this helpful in anyway, please do like this or share your thoughts in comments 🙂 Would really appreciate it!

[This is part of my challenge to share one personal failure per week to help you see you’re not alone: we all fail. I hope this will help you to get unstuck and succeed in life 🙂 ]

Related: 10 most annoying things you should NOT do if “it’s urgent”

Related: How I managed to screw up my work-life balance (part 1)

Related: 4 Painful lessons I learned in project reviews

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