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Have you ever gotten to the end of your day and felt that you've worked all day, but haven't actually accomplished anything important?

Are you familiar with the creeping feeling of knowing that your task list is growing, yet your accomplished list seems stagnant even after a full workday? Is your day full of meetings and conversations that are making progress, yet your actual time to accomplish what needs to be done seems nonexistent? You're hardly alone, and in fact this is something we typically hear near the beginning of a new year and is also a topic we often discuss with students in the Master of Engineering with a concentration in Information Engineering Management (IEM) at UAB.

When someone approaches me with this situation of time management and getting work done they often express that they feel anxious or overwhelmed at work, which in turn makes them feel unable to accomplish their work and often sucks the joy from the work that they would otherwise enjoy doing. In some cases this overwhelm can leak out of the office environment, as things tend to do, and end up impacting us in our everyday lives at home, our relationships, even how we may react while driving in a car or checking out at the grocery store after work.

Overcoming Overwhelm

As I've heard countless stories from students, friends, and even experienced overwhelm myself I've learned a few strategies that have helped me deal with the feeling and even prevent it from happening at all. 

When we look at overwhelm at its core, the best way to prevent it is to be prepared from the beginning. This then comes back to discipline, knowing our limits and boundaries, when to say no, and also when to say yes. It's more than having a structured to-do list, task management system, or detailed calendar. 

Overcoming overwhelm starts with the ability to make decisions that benefit ourselves first and foremost. If your to-do list at your job is draining, or your social calendar seems out of control - the good news is that there are steps you can take to deal with it and it all starts with self-evaluation. While it's important to have outside accountability for counsel and advice - at the heart of the matter....you matter, and you get to decide what is on the list of what you need to complete. It's then at this point that you can start figuring out how to deal with and manage the overwhelm in your life instead of letting it manage you. 

Strategies for Overcoming Overwhelm

1. Decide What Matters.

When you're dealing with priorities coming from all different directions, it's easy to feel like you have to accomplish everything anyone sends your way. Between serving people and getting your own work done, you can easily become bogged down and not know where to even begin in checking items off your to do list. 

When this happens, although it doesn't feel natural, you have to give up on thinking you can accomplish everything and focus on what is most important to you. Figure out what really matters the most and focus your attention on that. If you don't feel an overwhelming YES to something, it's a no. If you're stuck in a place and are not sure what is most important to you, you can learn more about personal mission statements here, and also consider if your personal priorities relate to the following:

  • personal values (ex. spending time with family, volunteering)
  • public recognition (ex. writing a book, invitations to industry panels)
  • vital skills (ex. opportunity to learn new languages, increase knowledge of statistics)
  • adventure (ex. trip abroad to a new country, invitation to a new restaurant)
  • avoiding harm (ex. annual doctor's check-up, creating a crisis management protocol)

2. Look Inside.

Often we get so caught up in trying to organize and prioritize tasks that we put unreasonable demands on ourselves. We expect that others expect so much out of us that a menial task can soon breed anger, fear, worry, resentment, and anxiety. These are normal emotions, but in these moments it's important to recognize that overwhelm is not a solution. Using the excuse of overwhelm may let others around you know that your stress level is high, but it does nothing to solve the issue. 

Instead of living in a task list dictated by others that cause these stressful emotions, you can decide to take back your story and make your list one that you actually enjoy completing. This may look like resigning from a board you might not care as much about now as you did in the past. You may quit an activity that you felt pressured to begin to start with. 

However, if you come across an anxiety-provoking task that you cannot avoid (ex. making a will, reading insurance policies, creating a crisis management plan), know that you may need a little extra time to complete the task and probably a little time after to process it as well. Knowing how you react internally to certain tasks will help you know when to time them out, and also how to let other people know when they can expect you to complete them.  

3. Take Action.

Often times when deadlines get tight, self care is the first thing that people drop. In reality, this is the most important thing to make sure you are physically prepared to actually accomplish the deadline. Keep your regular schedule intact in order so that when the tasks that are momentarily interrupting you are gone, you're still on track in your everyday life. 

When you feel stuck. Just move. If you feel uninspired, have writer's block, or cannot reach a solution to a problem then get active. Go for a walk. Sign up for a workout class. 

If you feel like your time is slipping away from you, try tracking it. If you feel like you haven't accomplished anything, schedule a lunch with a colleague that knows what you're working on to be reminded of what you've done over the past six months. 

If your brain feels tired, try meditating or praying. Find someone to talk to, whether it's a counselor, a friend, or even a friend and their dog. (Animals always help!)

Live a Life. Not a Task List.

When you're head-down in the grind it's hard to have enough mental space to get a bigger picture. Pay attention to what helps you get a larger picture of life and connect to what means the most to you. If you're struggling with prioritizing, accomplishing goals, reaching deadlines, or telling someone you can't reach a deadline - don't be too hard on yourself. The number of deadlines and decisions we face, combined with the emotionally and mental nature of many important tasks makes this struggle an almost universal one. 

In IEM we work with engineers preparing to become managers about how to balance new work roles that come with greater responsibilities with the equally important parts of everyday life. In fact if you need some encouragement in this area, you can find our IEM alumni success stories of how they've accomplished this very task. If you are preparing to move into a management position in the future, we invite you to schedule a time to talk with us or our alumni about your career goals and ways to accomplish them. Use the form on this page or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to start the conversation.

About IEM

The Master of Engineering with a concentration in Information Engineering Management (IEM) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is a specialized concentration designed primarily for engineers and people in technical positions. The concentration presents business systems and soft skills in a curriculum that is based on actual engineering industry needs and is offered completely online.