3 min read

What to do when you’re overwhelmed by life

If the 2020s have taught us anything it’s that we need a playbook for dealing with life when it’s too much. Here’s my approach.
What to do when you’re overwhelmed by life
Photo by Mayur Gala / Unsplash

Sustain issue #49 (Get Sustain in your inbox next Thursday)

Am I supposed to just keep working?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked myself this in the last few years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now the latest awful example of this.

Liz Fosslien summed this emotion up well, as she always does, with her illustration about how to act at work when something larger is happening in the world. (If you don’t follow her, I highly suggest you do)

She then posed the question about what you do when life feels overwhelming. How would you answer the question?

When resilience isn't enough

Sadly, developing a playbook for when you just can’t has become a vital skill. While I think the idea of resilience is captured in the answer, it’s not the complete answer.

Why, even though resilience became one of the most popular buzzwords in 2020?

Let’s first look at the definition of resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

When I read that definition, two things stand out. First, it implies that you are to take the punch and get up like (almost) nothing happened. Second, is the idea of toughing it out like toxic macho culture teaches.

But how does one recover from a deadly pandemic, racial justice inequities, divisive politics, an insurrection, natural disasters, and now war? You don't just bounce back from that like water elegantly flows off a duck’s feathers.

In fact, resilience may not be the best answer to this question. Because it creates the implicit pressure to power through and pretend like the thing never happened.

How to respond when it’s all overwhelming

So, back to Liz’s question. What to do when life feels overwhelming?

I developed an answer to this question in early 2020 as the pandemic was breaking out and have revisited it too many times since.

I give myself permission to say today’s not my day.

Now, I’m not a therapist so there are certainly more clinical techniques they might recommend. But this simple mindset has helped. And sure the approach is greatly aided by going outside, limiting social media & news consumption, and giving yourself time to unwind before bed so you can sleep. But for me, it all starts with this mindset.

In the last two years, sometimes work has been a welcome distraction to the sludge of the world. Other times, I can’t bring myself to do so much as send an email. Both of those reactions are normal. I give myself permission to sit with how I feel instead of going about my day with the nagging feeling I must push through and maximize my productivity.

If today's not my day, today's not my day. Period. Full stop.

Sometimes you just physically and/or mentally can’t. And that’s fine. It doesn't mean you're not resilient. And it doesn’t mean you don’t care about what’s going on in the world. It means you’re a human.

You have to take care of yourself first before you can show up for the world.


Ready to downsize your relationship with work and quit burnout?

Hi, I'm Grant Gurewitz. I'm on a mission to eliminate burnout at work. I've been in tech for 10 years (ex-Zillow, current: Qualtrics) who suffered deep burnout and came back from it even though I never found a playbook for doing so. So, I'm writing it myself.

✉️ Want my top tips? I share my full step-by-step playbook in How I Quit Burnout, my premium newsletter. Get the next one delivered straight to your inbox >

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