You know that sinking feeling you get when you say yes to too many requests, take on too much when you know you won’t be able to tackle it all, feel obligated to push yourself to the limit out of fear, anxiety, depression, loneliness, competitiveness or something else? Being in over your head is never pleasant, yet it doesn’t have to reduce you to a blubbering mess.
Here are some practical tips for what to do when you find yourself in over your head.
1. Take a deep breath.
It’s probably not as bad as it might seem, although the situation may, indeed, have ratcheted up to the level of serious. Regardless whether you’re afraid you’ll get fired if you don’t complete the top-priority project by the end of the day or you’ve simply put too much on today’s to-do list, you need to take a deep breath. Better yet, take several. This adds much-needed oxygen to your lungs, slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and reduces the levels of stress you feel. This won’t solve your problem, but it’s always a good first step. Besides, you’ll think better when your heart’s not racing and your head pounding.
2. Admit you took on too much — and ask for help.
Now is not the time to act the martyr. When you know you’ve taken on too many responsibilities or said yes to too many requests, you must admit it. First, tell your boss or the person you feel you owe an explanation. Then, ask for help. You’ll likely be surprised at the reaction. Many times, supervisors don’t realize when their employees are already overloaded with work assignments. Don’t make it a habit to say you can’t finish your work, however, as that will lead your boss to wonder if you’re not suited to the job at all.
3. Prioritize what must be done — not everything on your to-do list.
Get smart about what must be done today, this hour, in the next 10 minutes. If multiple items compete for your attention and it’s tough to choose between them, this only produces further doubt about whether you’ll get anything done. It’s time to set some clear priorities. Something must come first, so figure out which one that is and put your immediate efforts into it. Allocate a number for the other most-important items on your list. However, avoid the temptation to assign a number to everything on your to-do list. That may just make you feel defeated before you start. Instead, after you’ve listed the top five items to tackle today, leave the others for another day. If you feel you must do something with them now, give them their own page or color-code them with easily-identifiable tags such as “later,” “whenever I get time,” “nice, but not a priority,” and so on.
4. Pace yourself.
In the Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare, the slower-moving tortoise beat the quicker hare because the land-dwelling reptile kept a steady pace while the bunny thought he had the race won and goofed off along the way. Even a mind-bending sprint at the end wasn’t enough to overcome the at-the-finish-line tortoise. Morale of the story: slow and steady wins the race. Apply that same principle when you’re in over your head. You must learn to pace yourself, taking short breaks when necessary while ever moving forward to complete one task at a time. Avoid getting sidetracked or thinking you’ll finish up in a burst of activity at the end of the day. Better slow and steady progress than adding pressure and stress by trying to beat the day’s-end deadline all at once.
5. Make use of stress-reducing relaxation techniques.
Everyone experiences stress daily. Some stress is good. It motivates us to keep going. But too much stress is not only unproductive, it can be a killer. Chronic stress is linked to all sorts of medical conditions including heart disease, stroke, gastrointestinal problems, immune system difficulties, diabetes, eating and sleeping disorders, substance abuse, even cancer. Get a jump on reducing stress by making use of evidence-based stress reduction relaxation techniques. These include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
- Tai chi
6. Watch caffeine and energy-drink intake.
Getting a quick energy boost from cup after cup of caffeine or constantly downing energy drinks when you’re feeling the pressure to perform your work, school or home assignments and tasks is a poor substitute for good nutrition, regular meals and throughout-the-day hydration with water. Besides, too much caffeine will only make you jittery, on edge, confused, restless, and increase your blood pressure, contribute to headaches, muscle aches and more. Keep a few water bottles with you (or in the company’s refrigerator) and take several good swigs every hour. Granted, you may visit the rest room more often, but that also has the silver lining of giving you a regular short break.
7. Enlist a friend to help.
If you don’t want to involve your boss and recognize you do need help, why not ask a friend to lend a hand? If you’re willing to reciprocate — and let him or her know you’re on-board to do so — there’s nothing wrong with asking for this type of assistance on an infrequent basis. Be sure you’re not skirting your own responsibilities or pawning them off on your friend or co-worker. The next time you really need help, they might not be so ready to provide it.
8. Learn time management.
Part of the reason you’re in over your head may well have to do with your inability to budget your time wisely. It’s no secret that time management is a key to success, as much as challenging work and diligence. For example, if you plan to deliver supplies or a report and have other errands on this route, choose a time when you can accomplish multiple pick-ups and drop-offs in the same trip. If you frequently run into traffic jams that cause you to arrive late at work, allocate an extra half hour in the morning to give you a buffer. Time management techniques can save you more than just time. They also give you peace of mind knowing you’re making effective use of the time you have. In addition, if you plan adequately, you’ll have some free time in between assignments for space and resolution.
9. Know when it’s time to stop.
While you may think you know when you need to stop working on a project, task, or put an end to the work of the day, it’s amazing how many times you push yourself past that limit. Another 10 minutes, you may tell yourself, and that stretches to an hour or two or three. Not only does your productivity and focus dramatically decrease the longer you toil, your unrecognized resentment at having to keep doing what you’re doing builds. Know your cut-off point and put away all work- or project-related things. Tomorrow’s another day. Stop when it’s time to do so.
10. Strive to maintain healthy work-life balance.
Another key point to remember when things get off-kilter and you’re in over your head is that you’re likely experiencing an unhealthy shift in work-life balance. If it’s all work, the rest of your life takes a hit. The same is true in reverse, although you’d likely lose your job if you spent more time on non-work activities. Strive to maintain a healthy balance between work and home and you’ll be less likely to wind up feeling in over your head with whatever task, project or activity on today’s agenda.