Feeling Overwhelmed? You Are Far From Alone


Joseph Folkman, Contributor

July 24, 2015

Recently a friend of mine told me about his role as a new project manager in a large healthcare organization. He’s constantly asked to take on the projects of senior leaders and was living in fear that saying “no” would harm his career. As a result he was overwhelmed and wasn’t sure he could keep up the pace. There were so many people to please and he didn’t want to disappoint them. As I thought about my early career and the stress of pleasing those at the top, I wanted to assure him the feelings of being overwhelmed will soon go away and everything will work out. But the truth is we all feel overwhelmed at various points in our careers. Thankfully, there are some things we can do.

In a recent global survey we found that 14% of the 2,957 people we queried feel chronically overwhelmed. At the end of a busy day they feel drained. Of the group, 16% of those who feel overwhelmed were female; 13% were male. Notice from the graph below the percentage changes significantly with age. Older respondents feel much less overwhelmed.
Attitudes of the Overwhelmed

Those who feel overwhelmed are significantly more likely to agree with the following statements:

-  I don’t do my best work and worry about making mistakes when performing under a deadline.

-  I hate to be rushed and in a hurry.

Others described these individuals as steady and consistent rather than fast moving. They enjoy work the most when there is sufficient time to get everything right. They are more concerned, when making decisions, about moving too fast and making mistakes then making the decision quickly.

Not surprisingly, those who felt overwhelmed rated themselves significantly lower on their perceived control of circumstances in their current environment.

Even though they didn’t feel they had control over their circumstances, they also rated themselves as significantly slower on activities such as getting work done, making decisions, holding meetings, getting ready in the morning, taking a test and taking a shower. When asked if they could be more effective if they were able to move faster, 74% agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.

For those who would like to be less overwhelmed there are two possible solutions:

  1. Find a way to reduce your obligations and workload or
  2. Find ways to work faster and more efficiently.

We know that young people feel more obligated to volunteer for assignments and resist saying no. But one of the biggest problems with being overwhelmed is that psychologically the feeling of being overwhelmed makes people slow down. Think about a time you felt extremely overwhelmed. Were you moving faster than normal or did you struggle to make it to the end of the day? It’s as if you are dragging around in lead shoes. Taking on additional work and performing the work poorly will not help your career.

Most people worry that saying no to additional assignments will hurt them. I have always liked the way an individual in our organization, Mike, has approached this with me. Occasionally I go to Mike and say, “Can we do a new project?” Mike’s immediate response is, “Yes, I am glad to help.” I say, “Thanks so much” and start walking away. Then Mike says, “Before you go, can you help me clarify my priorities?” Mike then lays out his priorities and asks, “Where does this new project fit and what should move further down in my priorities?” Ninety-nine percent of the time I say, “It does not fit, all the other priorities here are more important.” I love Mike’s willingness to help. But in his situation, like yours, remember that other people don’t remember the number of priorities you have or your workload. It helps to remind them in a positive way, without complaining. The reality is, however, that most people are going to have a difficult time reducing their load.

The second way to become less overwhelmed is to increase the speed and efficiency of your work. We analyzed our 360-degree feedback data from more than 700,000 colleagues to see what set fast-and-effective leaders apart from those who don’t move fast enough. What we found was that these leaders used a few key skills to help them move faster.

Innovation and Knowledge

Several years ago I was talking with a colleague about how much I hated voice mail messages. I mentioned that whenever people would leave their phone numbers they would typically speed up their communications and mumble so it was impossible to capture the number. My colleague agreed, he then said, “and when you miss the number you need to listen to the entire message over again!” I said, “But what about the “7”? My colleague looked confused and asked, “What do you mean the “7”? I responded, “Pushing the “7” while playing a voice mail makes the recording back up 5 seconds.” He was astounded. He never knew. For three years he had wasted a lot of time listening to messages again and again to catch the few digits he needed at the end of the call. Think of the number of things we use everyday in which we don’t understand and use valuable features. There are likely many features that could save time and energy if we would take a few minutes to learn our systems and processes better.


It is natural for all of us to believe that others understand our motives, intentions and plans when, in fact, they don’t. How many people communicate too much information? There are a few that do this, but most people don’t communicate enough, to let people know what is going on, when a project is due, the status of assignments and our expectations and concerns. Leaders who are skilled at keeping others informed are able to execute faster and more efficiently.

External Perspective

It is easy to focus primarily internally on your group, your assignment, and your circumstances. When this happens you lose perspective. I notice this most when I am riding my bike up the canyon by my house. From my perspective, I am tearing up the path at a tremendous speed. The reality of my speed becomes apparent to me only when someone passes me like I’m standing still. When people take the time to look outside their own arena, they realize much better how they could potentially work faster and become more efficient as well.

Being overwhelmed is a continual battle for us all. The world is speeding up, but the good news is that we can increase our speed and we can take back the feeling of being more in control of our lives. (Moving faster has an interesting impact on a person’s attitude, we’ve discovered. When people move faster, they feel they have more control.) To get a better sense about the pace you work, your focus on quality or quantity, and your level of patience go to and take the speed self-assessment to see where you stand.

Five Ways To Overcome Burnout

This article was written by Joseph Folkman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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