Career Guide

6 Secrets to stop feeling overworked and overwhelmed

How to manage a never-ending task list

Imagine if you could cure that feeling of being overworked and overwhelmed, without sacrificing career advancement or progress on your most important goals.

In her new book, Practical Perfection, author Kelly Exeter defines overwhelm as the experience of passion and productivity, but in the absence of priorities.

Overwhelm = passions + productivity

Conducting original research for her book, Exeter discovered that 52% of people surveyed say they feel overwhelmed a lot or all of the time. Overwhelm has become the new normal.

So what causes us to become overwhelmed? Exeter suggests three main reasons. First, is FOMO—fear of missing out. Second, FODO—fear of disappointing others. Third, being so passionate about our “stuff” that we want to use up every available minute of the day doing it, forsaking any time to rest or recover.

I can relate to all three of these things. I was once invited to the opening of a new entrepreneur centre at a local college, to a planning session for a Shark Tank style business plan competition, to the Indy 500 to watch a friend race, and to a writer’s conference in Austin, all happening on the same day.

And of course, my “work”, which is my passion, is always calling for me to write more articles, more books, and on and on. I don’t want to miss out (FOMO) on amazing lifetime experiences, it’s hard for me to say no to helping others (FODO), and I just want to release more work (passion). Sounds like overwhelm is heading my way.

So what’s the cure?

1.Don’t compare highlight reels with your everyday life

We need to remember that everything we see on social media is really just the highlight reel of people’s lives. I once heard someone describe Facebook as the life everyone would have if they were living in the TV series Sex and the City.

2.Understand that no one has it all

Similar to #1 above, we have to remember that nobody truly has it all. A perfect family, a perfect career, a perfect body and great mental health? I don’t think so. I have a good friend who is always “great.” Over a lunch where I confided in her my struggles with stress from work and troubles in my marriage, when it was her turn to share, everything was “just great.”

I later found out she was battling breast cancer at that time. I used to have a business partner that “had it all.” Gorgeous wife, perfect kids, expensive sports cars and he golfed at courses around the world. He had everything. And then his wife caught him cheating and worse than “losing half”, he lost his relationships with his kids completely. He never had it all, and ended up with nothing.

3.Understand that other people’s goals are not your goals

It’s only natural to be influenced by our peers, but we must remember that as much as we may love our friends and families, it’s okay to have different values and priorities in life. Just because your sister has a PhD, doesn’t mean you should stay in school pursuing higher education. Just because your brother makes a fortune as a venture capitalist, doesn’t mean you need to pursue a career in business. Your values - what you truly want from life - are your values. That’s what makes you, you.

4.Understand that your priorities may not be priorities at all

Sometimes we need to realise that what we think is a priority, is maybe just something that might be nice to have and is not really that important after all. As a writer, I am routinely approached by friends and strangers who tell me - with a note of envy - that I’m so lucky and they would love to be a writer and have my lifestyle, too.

And yet none of them have ever read a book on writing. They don’t belong to any writing groups on Facebook. And they don’t even write! Perhaps they think it would be nice to be an author but clearly it is not a priority for them. I often feel badly that I don’t have the body of a male model. But I should remember that if it were truly a priority, I would probably, at least occasionally, spend time at the gym. We shouldn’t stress things that are not our true priorities.

5.Get comfortable with disappointing others

This is a tough one. From the time we are little kids, we are told that it’s good to help others, it’s good to be polite and accommodating, and that arguing or having disagreements is bad. No wonder so many of us struggle with saying no. You have to become comfortable with protecting your time and with establishing boundaries. What you’ll discover is that true friends and true professionals don’t expect you to say yes all of the time. Even if someone is disappointed with you, they won’t hold it against you.

6.Learn six simple words

Perhaps the most specific advice in Exeter’s entire book - she says we need to memorise six simple words, “let me get back to you.” If by default we are programmed from childhood to say yes to everything and everyone, we need to reprogramme ourselves perhaps not to say “no” – because that is very difficult for many – but instead to just say, “let me get back to you.”

Of course after saying “let me get back to you,” you could get back to them in a few minutes, or the next day, or even a week. That’s the beauty of it. You aren’t locking yourself into a specific time frame and that gives you the time and the comfort to think it through.

Perhaps you will decide to say yes, but at least it will be an intentional yes. And for those who have trouble saying no to someone’s face, you can always say let me get back to you, and then give them a polite no via email.

Exeter shares a framework that she calls “practical perfection”. Imagine three overlapping circles – a Venn diagram – that represent passions, priorities and productivity. The zone in the middle – where all three circles overlap – is the practical perfection zone.

If any one of these three items is missing, we are going to feel it. The goal is to take notice, and adjust our lives until we’re back in the middle, living in the zone.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leadership expert. He is the founder of The Kruse Group. To engage with him, e-mail us at