Burned Out or Overwhelmed

I sat back down at my desk and stared at the screen.  I had plenty to do – too much in fact.  I was painfully aware that I couldn’t get everything done in the timeframes that I wanted to get them done in.  That should be good motivation to get busy and get done what I could.  However, that wasn’t the case this day.  What I realized was that I had become overwhelmed with the work that needed to be done, and I was dangerously close to pushing myself into burnout if I wasn’t careful. 


We’ve all experienced those times when our commitments – both internal and external – have outstripped out resources.  We’re juggling, and we’re in that fleeting moment when we know we’re going to drop some balls, it just hasn’t happened yet.  It happens to everyone, but we’ve not let go yet.

One of the natural outcomes of being overwhelmed is to stop.  Like a deer in headlights, we don’t do anything.  We can’t move from where we are.  It’s breaking free of doing nothing that can be the hardest part and the most essential to escaping both being overwhelmed and the potential burnout it can spawn.

Deciding What to Drop

The first step is figuring out what to let go of.  Here are four strategies to release the pressure and stop being overwhelmed:

  • Do Less – Buy a greeting card for a friend rather than making a custom one.
  • Do It Later – Move back the deadline that you’ve got to get something accomplished.  The project that you wanted to get done this month can wait until next.
  • Delegate – Get someone else to help get it done.  Maybe they won’t do as good a job at it, but you just can’t get it done now.
  • Drop It – Decide that you can’t do it now or in the foreseeable future.  Even if it’s something you want to do, realize that you just can’t.

It’s not easy to decide what to let go of – but until you do that you may be stuck staring at your screen asking what is next.

The Next Best Thing

With the relief that you’ve released one of the things on your plate, you’re often not out of the woods yet.  Instead, you’ve got a brief reprieve so that you can move forward on the next best thing.  With a bit of breathing room, you can decide what thing you need to work on next.  What thing can you accomplish and get off your plate so you don’t have to worry about it any longer?  If you’re committed to doing it, it doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest, hardest, or even the most important thing that you must do.  It just needs to be accomplishable.

Once you’ve got that thing accomplished, you can move to the next best thing to accomplish.  You can move on to something else that you can get done, so you can feel like you’re effective and accomplishing things.


Feelings of inefficacy are at the core of burnout.  The generally accepted criteria are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, but the feeling of inefficacy drives burnout.  We’re only cynical about those things we are ineffective at changing, and we’ve all been elated and exhausted at the same time.  That’s why it’s critical to approach being overwhelmed head-on.  We’ve got to remove the pressure that’s preventing us from doing anything, and then work on those things that help us know we are effective, so burnout doesn’t set in as a result of a temporary state of being overwhelmed.  It’s just being overwhelmed until we let it stop us from being effective and drag us into burnout.