To give too much of a thing to someone, to defeat or overpower or to have a strong emotional effect on, are all ways in which the New Oxford Dictionary defines overwhelm.

When we ‘give too much of a thing to someone’ that implies that we should have given less or what we did give was not of value or did not benefit us to the extent we envisioned. How does it happen that we would give too much of something to someone else? It is unlikely that it was forced or coerced. It is likely that we chose to give that much, albeit likely indirectly or as part of an evolving situation or project.

When we feel ‘overpowered, defeated, or emotionally inundated’, it is often because we allowed things to evolve beyond what was healthy and productive for our commitments. It is rarely because we directly chose to feel defeated. So how then can we assess these situations so that we can intercept them before they become overwhelming and thus improve our contribution and quality of leadership and life?

Feeling overwhelmed is relative to each of us. Some of us feel overwhelmed when life includes significant and stressful events such as the loss of a loved one, end to a career or the failure of a project. Some feel overwhelmed when the pace of life is either too slow or too busy and our energy wanes creating a domino effect into other parts of our life. Some of us rarely admit we are overwhelmed but proceed to exhibit curt, defensive or intolerant behaviors to those closest to us.


We are often overwhelmed when our priorities are out of whack. When we are spending time on things we should not be spending as much time on. Additionally, we feel overwhelm when we feel like we can’t do the things we enjoy most, our true purpose, or with those with whom gain positive energy.

Assess your time and intent: plot your clients/projects/roles in life onto the chart:

  • Use initials or letters and plot each one,
  • Y axis – IMPACT expected (exec level, long-term, financial weight-top/bottom lines),
  • X axis – RETURN to you (margin, total revenue, credibility, purpose),
  • Circle the three where you spend the most time. Then rank those from 1-3 with 1 being the one you spend the most with and so on.
  • What adjustments might you make based on this analysis?


From my experience, overwhelm emerges from one or more of four key sources:

  1. PREPARE: I said ‘yes’ to a quick-turn project of a current relationship/project and am just not ready or completely informed to do my best work,
  2. PURPOSE: The work is not my core expertise or passion but ‘pays the bills’,
  3. PACE: I’m getting ‘stuck in the weeds’ and not busy enough (others may be too busy),
  4. PARTNERS (clients or team members): I find that I’m needing to defend, rework or explain fundamental aspects of an engagement.

Assess yourself against these four P’s: Evaluate your ‘today’ on two customer partnerships or projects:

  1. Select a partnership or project and write it on the line in the pictured chart,
  2. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 as defined in teach of the four P’s,
  3. Repeat with another partnership or project,
  4. What corrections do you need to make on where you spend your time? Can you affect the low ratings? If so, how? If not, what decisions must you consider?

Written in follow-up to a presentation to the Excell Consultants Quarterly Breakfast hosed by Dave Shapiro

For additional resources on using intention as a way to overcome overwhelm:

Total Leadership, by Stewart Friedman

Why We Keep Losing our Keys, WSJ, Sumathi Reddy

The Trusted Advisor, by Maister, Green & Galford

Close Bitnami banner