How to Shift from Overwhelm to Action

When you don’t know where to start, sometimes the easiest thing is to do nothing.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the temptation to sit down and (literally or figuratively) shut your eyes to minimize the stress can be very real. And in the short term, you’d probably feel some relief.

Another option might be to do something, anything.

You may want to jump on the first idea that comes through your head – or even the first suggestion that someone else gives you. It might feel productive to be in motion.

The potential trouble with both of these options is that they prioritize your short-term comfort over your long-term goal achievement. Because the one thing missing is the critical step of defining your goals.

Here are 4 steps for shifting from overwhelm to action:

Step 1: Slow Down

Why are you feeling overwhelmed?

It may be a combination of several things, but factors like uncertainty, fear of making a “bad” decision, a sense of being rushed, feeling like you don’t have all the necessary information, or many things happening at the same time can all contribute.

For me, I feel most overwhelmed when I’m worried about how my actions (or inaction) will affect the future, especially when my kids are involved. I imagine all the things that could go wrong and end up focused on worst-case scenarios. My thoughts swirl in the fearful, panicky parts of my mind and it feels like I’ll never have enough time or information to make the “right choice.”

You may experience feelings of overwhelm in a completely different way, but for all of us the first step is the same: slow down.


Do whatever it takes to get out of your head and into the present moment. A deep breathing exercise or mediation, yoga or a long walk, or get on the floor and play with your kids.

Sometimes doing a perspective exercise that helps you reframe the issue and give equal attention to all the positive possibilities can also be helpful.

The goal is to shift your focus from what might happen to what is happening right now. In most cases, when you are feeling overwhelmed you are not actually in immediate, physical danger so you have plenty of time to take this step.

Step 2: Get Clear on Your Goals

What is your desired outcome? How do you want to achieve it?

Be as specific as you can and try to focus on what you want, not what you think you should want or other people might want you to want.

The more concrete you can be here, the easier it will be to design actions that will help you get started. Your goals should be specific, important to you, and measurable.

A good test for whether you’ve got a clear goal is to see if you can fill in the blanks:

I’ll assess my progress toward achieving _____(my goal)_____ on _____(date)_____ by _____(method of measurement)_____.

For example, “I’ll assess my progress toward saving 10% of my salary on the last day of each month by reviewing my bank statements and updating my budget tracking software.”

Sometimes defining what, exactly, it is that you’re trying to decide can be an immediate stress relief. Talk this through with your coach or write it down on paper until it’s crystal clear what your goal is.

Step 3: Break it Down into Bite-sized Actions

What are the key milestones? Are there deadlines or specific timeframes that you need to consider?

List out every little step that you’ll need to take in order to get the measurable result you defined in Step 2.

Nothing is too small to consider. Write them all down on paper or in an empty document file. Don’t worry about timing or priority for now. This is a brain dump and the aim is to get everything out of your head.

Next, review the list – do any of these tasks seem “bigger” or more time consuming than the others? Maybe you can break them down into even smaller steps. Each item on your list should be a single action.

Now that you’ve broken your big goal into actionable steps, take a few minutes to put them into order. Are there some steps that have to happen before others? Things that will take more time to complete? If you have deadlines to work with, make sure your action plan is aligned with those dates.

Whew. This is a huge portion of the work done!

After that, choose the first bite-sized action that you want to take. Ideally, this step will help make it easier to complete the next ones in your plan.

Step 4: Take Deliberate Action

The difference between being in motion and taking action toward your goals is having clear intentions. Being busy or “doing something” is not the same as making progress.

Thanks to the work you did in clarifying your goal and defining the steps that will help you achieve it, you can act with purpose.

Once you’ve come this far, I can almost guarantee that you are no longer feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I hope that you’ve shifted all the way to calm, confident and motivated.

In order to maintain that momentum, remember to follow-up on the assessments you outlined in Step 2.

If your measurable results are not what you expected, take a moment to reflect on why. What can you do to get back on track? Or, has something changed that should be reflected in a modified goal?

Whenever you start to feel overwhelmed, recognize it as a signal to slow down. Refer back to your plan to get realigned or, if needed, set a new goal and work the process from the beginning.

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