How to manage overwhelm

Photo credit - Pete Linforth via

Photo credit – Pete Linforth via

Everyone has good days and bad. Sometimes though, you can fall into overwhelm – when the tasks stack up, the emails back up and deadlines seem to close in on you. With the benefits of neuroscience, we can get a better idea of what’s going on. This post looks at how knowing how your brain works can help you cope better with work.

The times are a-changing
Downsizing and restructuring in workplaces is a regular occurrence. In the process of making organisations more efficient there is often a period of adjustment while workloads are sorted out. People leave. Those who are left have to carry the load, and do – sometimes out of fear for their own job security, sometimes out of wanting to see the job done. The result is often overwhelm. Overwhelm leaves us tired, unable to focus and ineffective.

How can you manage in these circumstances? The first step is understanding. What is happening in the brain?

It’s a small, important zone
Conscious thought such as that involved in decision-making and problem solving, occurs in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. It it located behind the forehead and occupies 4-5% of our brain volume.  The pre-frontal cortex performs important functions.

When you “think things through” the pre-frontal cortex is in use. When you are in “autopilot” a different part of the brain is used. The pre-frontal cortex is involved in many aspects of work, including:

  • goal setting/planning
  • managing impulses
  • problem solving
  • imagining situations
  • thinking creatively

It drains your energy
This region of the brain requires particular conditions to operate well. Its functions include understanding, deciding, recalling, memorising and inhibiting. The pre-frontal cortex uses a lot of energy. It is also limited in the number of ideas it can “hold” at any one time.

With those characteristics in mind, there are many practical implications for managing the “work conditions” to get the best out of our brain. Here are a few things to do:

  • prioritise thinking – energy levels are usually higher at the start of the day, so put important thinking activity at the start of the work day
  • plan your day – prioritise your activities and then plan when you do them so that those demanding more conscious thought and mental resources happen earlier in the day
  • use visuals – when you see a picture (real or in your mind’s eye) you access a lot of related information. Visuals are described as “information efficient” and can aid in remembering things, using fewer brain resources.
  • make lists – use these to save your brain from using mental resources to remember things eg project lists, agenda items
  • alternate activity – give your brain a break from thinking with some activities you can do on autopilot

Restore the energy
There are things you can do to replenish your mental resources. Take a break from work at lunch time. That’s right. Leave the desk. Eat something (healthy).

  • Step outside the building and breathe fresh air
  • Go for a walk or do some exercise – it helps to get more oxygen circulating and changes your focus, allowing the brain to relax
  • Have a nap for 10 to 20 minutes (not more) – which is found to help with learning and thinking

What are your tips?
Do you have work practices that have been successful for you? Care to share them? Please send them through the comments area below. 


  • Your Brain at Work by David Rock, 2009 Harper Collins, New York.
  • Learning to Learn – MOOC offered through Coursera

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