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How to Actually Get Work Done When You’re Overwhelmed

It’s the cruelest trick in the world that our brains often struggle the most when we need them the most. When I’m at my most overbooked and overwhelmed, my brain is running on overdrive like a computer getting ready to overheat.

As much as I wish there was an easy fix to this situation, sometimes the only way out is through. I can’t really forgo my responsibilities to spend a week fixing my cortisol levels, and I also can’t spend 3 days working balls-to-the-wall and pulling all-nighters, because the rebound impacts of that would be SCARY.

There’s shit to do, so how can I get it done most effectively with the least amount of physical and mental distress?

I’m not an expert on this — obviously. But there are several productivity tips and techniques I like to keep in my toolkit that can help me power through these times of overwhelm, so I wanted to share them with you.

How to Actually Get Work Done When Your Brain Feels Like a Bowl of Spaghetti

Do you ever have those days when it feels like your brain straight up didn’t show up for work? Or you can feel it draining away and you’re desperately slurping up the bathtub water of brain cells Saltburn-style?

I’m so sorry.

First, I want to acknowledge that there is often a gulf between what we think we can get done in a day and what we can actually get done in a day.

I, for one, am either chronically overestimating or underestimating how long a task will take, and never to my own benefit. 🤪

So if you’re ending every day feeling “unproductive” because you didn’t check off every item on your to-do list, you might need to start with reevaluating your list.

But, if you, like me, know there are times when you’re not being as focused or productive as possible, I hope this list of tips will give you some ideas of things to try to “reset” your day and get your brain back in the zone.

Micro Productivity Tips for Overwhelmed Entrepreneurs

1. The more you start, the better you’ll get at starting

The classic saying “practice makes perfect” does actually hold some truth here. I tend to put off starting tasks because I think they’ll take too long or I don’t want to turn that “focus” part of my brain on. Task initiation is something a lot of people with ADHD struggle with, and I’m no exception.

But since starting is something I struggle with, the solution isn’t to do it less, but actually to do it more. Start even when I’m not fully “ready” or in the “right mood.” Because the thing I need to get better at isn’t focusing or being in the zone, it’s just starting.

2. You can do anything for 10 minutes

Guess what? You don’t have to start a task with the intention to completely finish it right then and there. It’s okay to take breaks or come back to it later. If getting started is difficult for you because the idea of spending hours on a task is daunting, give yourself a short and attainable goal — do the task for 10 minutes. Or 25 minutes if you want to incorporate the Pomodoro method.

The Pomodoro method is a time management technique that alternates 25 minute work periods with 5 minutes of rest.

I like to use this browser timer to track the intervals.

After those 10 minutes are up, you can either keep going with the task, or allow yourself to stop. I typically want to keep working, so I do! By giving yourself permission to stop, it’s actually easier to start.

3. Schedule “reset” checkpoints

I freaking LOVE the feeling of starting a new morning, sitting down at my desk, sipping my coffee, and going over my to-do list for the day. That energy isn’t quite the same post-lunch, though. The afternoon slump is real. So how can we bring that morning energy into the afternoon?

By scheduling checkpoints and offering yourself a chance to reset or “restart” the day. You can either schedule these at specific times throughout the day, or attach them to certain activities like lunch.

4. Physically reset

If you do find yourself needing to reset, try doing something to actually physically mimic restarting the day. Did you sit down at your desk and get lost in a TikTok scroll? Don’t try to immediately go back to work. Instead, leave the room and come back in to try again.

Do you feel like your body has become part of your office chair? Stand up, stretch, maybe soak up some sunshine, and come back. You might even need to switch up your environment completely by moving to another area of your house or taking your work to a coffee shop.

5. Keep your workspace for work

I’m guilty of eating breakfasts and lunches at my desk alllll the time. Sometimes I do need to take a working lunch, and that’s fine from time to time, but if I’m trying to eat and not work, that needs to happen somewhere other than my desk.

Because if I’m just munching away and reading or watching an episode of my show at my desk, it’s going to be massively difficult to transition from chill lunch time to work time.

If I’m going to be taking a brain break to scroll or do something else, I’m also trying to move to a different chair or room for that. I’m training my brain to associate sitting down at my desk to focus and work.

6. Use other environmental cues and triggers

I’ve said before that putting on my over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones is like entering another room, and I stand by that. I pretty much live with noise going on all the time, but when I switch from my earbuds to my Bose headphones, I know I’m starting a focused work period.

To accomplish this for yourself, think of other rituals or routines you could create around starting your focused work. Maybe it’s lighting a candle or putting on a particular playlist. Whatever it is, try to do it consistently to form that association!

7. Use Do Not Disturb liberally

You heard me — turn off your notifications. I can’t tell you how many minutes (or hours?) I’ve spent messaging back and forth in the group chat or group Slack about the most random BS. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also ridiculously distracting.

You can use the default Do Not Disturb setting on your phone/computer, or set up a custom focus mode to allow only the notifications you want. I have a “Focus Zone” mode enabled that blocks all notifications except calls.

If you can’t fight the urge to pick up your phone, you can also try leaving it in another room! I don’t do this because I am addicted often use my phone for work tasks, but I’ve heard it works.

In conclusion…

Productivity isn’t everything and it doesn’t determine your value. But sometimes things just have to get done.

So if your brain isn’t cooperating but you have no choice, try one or all of these tips to get working more efficiently. Because beating yourself up about it at the end of the day isn’t going to help, either.

One day, I swear I’ll write a whole ass “How I Manage ADHD as an Entrepreneur” blog post, but… I have ADHD… who knows when that will be.

So this is my slightly chaotic, therapy recap for you. I am constantly trying new ways to improve my functioning and my life, so I’ve always got something to share.

And if you, too, are in a season of overwhelm, know that you can do this. It won’t last forever. You’ve gotten through it before and you will again. We both will. 🫶

In the meantime, you can go check out Between the Lines Copywriting’s blogs about ADHD and entrepreneurship. She’s already said basically everything else I could possibly add but better, as usual: