Stop Being Overwhelmed: How To Overcome Monumental Tasks

One of my favorite sayings is, “How do you eat an elephant? One Bite at a time.” I think I may have even mentioned that quote in several of my past blogs but it’s truly words to live by.

Earlier this month, when I had finally gotten caught up on all my projects at work and made my final bee hive splits for the year, I felt like I had a chance to tackle my workshop renovation. I’m not planning on doing anything fancy, so I really though this would be a two, maybe three, day job.

However, once I started, the project just seemed to get bigger and bigger. It was like being in Bellatrix Lestrange’s cursed vault at Gringotts, the more I moved things around the more things there were to move. So by the end of day two I became overwhelmed.

The following weekend, I couldn’t even bring myself to face the job. I just laid around in my robe looking like The Dude in the Big Lebowski and found countless ways to procrastinate. You may have noticed that, for the first time all year, I didn’t even post a Monday blog – to be honest I was too embarrassed by my lack of progress. Oh the shame!

My favorite way to procrastinate, is to surf YouTube. I told myself I was doing research for workbench designs but eventually, even the great and powerful YouTube ran out of workbench videos. Of course that didn’t stop me, instead I continued down the rabbit hole searching everything from overwintering bees, to how to raise rabbits. Don’t judge me! Like reading this blog is the best use of your time. No wait… don’t leave… I didn’t mean it… I was just projecting.

On week three (this past weekend), after working the Farmer’s Market, I found myself at home still overwhelmed and again procrastinated all day Saturday to avoid the workshop.

On Sunday morning, knowing that the job has to get done, I got up and forced myself outside at the crack of 11:00am. Right-away I lit the pit and began feeding the scrap wood and shovel-fulls of sawdust to the fire. While I did that, I began cleaning off the old shelves and tearing them down. Then I moved my old stack of lumber to the new lumber rack and in no time at all, I had filled 3/4 of the rack with wood, and the other 1/4 with random tools.

That’s when I got stuck. I was out of storage space so I couldn’t move anything else. I couldn’t begin building new storage space, because the floor was still a mound of wood scraps and sawdust and all my tools where outside in the yard. So I froze and, again, just wanted to give up.

Luckily for me, this project has to get done and giving up is not an option. So that’s when it hit me, time to focus on one thing at a time. First things first, the floor has to be cleaned and the only way to do that is to burn all of the scraps. So that’s just what I did.

I pulled up a chair, turned on some stand-up comedy on my Pandora, and kept the fire roaring the rest of the day. I spent six hours burning scraps, and by the end of the day, I could almost see the floor… almost. I didn’t get finished but I had made a noticeable dent in the project.

Multitasking is great but sometimes you just have to eat that elephant one bite at a time. I still have a lot to do, but from here out, I’ll work on this large project in manageable sized tasks.

So that is how my weekend went, from here down is a list of things that you can do to overcome being overwhelmed.

Step 1: Define the tasks or jobs

Creating a list allows you to itemize, organize, analyze… “Why it’s grease lighting!” Sorry, I got carried away. But it’s absolutely true, creating a list allows you to visualize the steps needed to reach your goals. It also helps you to turn the light on and shows you that the scary thing you couldn’t see is really nothing scary at all.

My list

  1. Clean the shop floor
  2. Build some rolling work baskets to store the tools in
    • organize tools in new rolling baskets
  3. Hang particle board sheeting on the walls
  4. Build French cleats
  5. Build new work benches

Even writing the tasks out, helped me feel less anxious.

Step 2: Write it down

Don’t just make a mental list. Write the list down so that you can visualize it.

In 1979, interviewers asked newly graduated students of the Harvard MBA Program, “Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?

  • 84% had no specific goals
  • 13% had goals but had not actually written them down
  • 3% had written goals and a plan to accomplish them

In 1989, that same class was once again interviewed.

  • The aforementioned 13% with goals earned twice as much as the 84 percent who had no goals at all.
  • However the 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, 10X as much as the other 97% combined.

I teach blueprint reading (that’s one of my night jobs) and I always point out that a good carpenter could build a house without a blueprint. However, the blueprint allows both the builder and the customer to visualize the final project and to clearly identify goals and challenges before they become problems.

Step 3: Break long tasks into smaller sessions

Some items on the list will take longer than others… e.g. burning the debris in my shop. I can’t make the fire burning any faster, so I just have to accept that this will take several days.

However, since I have a day job and family responsibilities, I have to be realistic about Time Management. So for the rest of the week, I will burn debris for just two hours a day in the afternoon. Sticking to this schedule I should be able to whittle the task down by next weekend.

Small steady bites – I wonder if elephant taste like chicken.

Step 4: Celebrate your Benchmarks

As you complete each task, don’t beat yourself up over what still has to be done. Instead celebrate your victories and cross them off your list.

Reward yourself. Say, “Good Job, Self.” Let’s face it, life is full of lows, so we have to celebrate the little victories. Success is as often how we perceive life as anything else.

Step 5: Take a breath

When you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath. The Healthwise Staff at the University of Michigan said, “Breathing exercises can help you relax, because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed.”

Being overwhelmed is only a state of mind. I realize saying that is as helpful as telling some who is freaking out to calm down – which is always as effective as slapping a honey badger. However, recognizing that this feeling is only a symptom of the actual problem can help us gain perspective. When you feel overwhelmed, look back at your list and focus on the task at hand.


Breaking a job into smaller attainable goals will make it possible to complete even the most overwhelming projects. Remember to focus on each task one at a time, celebrate your accomplishments, and when you get anxious, just breath.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Yes, I do like a systematic, listed approach. As someone who was brought up in the school of hard knocks but very determined to be successful and not let that anxiety, that eats away every chance it gets, dominate, I agree with all of your strategies and techniques. In regard to the breathing advice, I’ve been trying the 4, 7, 8 technique – breathe in for 4, hold for 7 and out for 8 … also after a lifetime of experiencing these awful rampant feelings of anxiety I do not procrastinate and find myself hyper-efficient and too much the other way!! Either way it sounds like your shed is coming along great – and good on you for getting on with it!!
    Donna 🧚🏻‍♀️❤️🙏

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Layton says:

      I’ll have to try that 4,7,8 thing

      Liked by 1 person

  2. JanBeek says:

    Congratulations for getting your tasks done! I write my plan for each day hour by hour between 7: – 9: each morning. I’m almost always up in my sanctuary with quiet “God Time” at some hour between those two hours. Then, I go down, have brkfst and systematically try to check off those “jobs” one by one. It usually works. Yesterday I got 10 of my 11 to-do’s accomplished. Thanks for visiting my JanBeek. That “Bees & Honey” blog was #9 on my list! And now I’m ready to tackle this new day full of new opportunities. Let me get my list done.


    1. Bryan Layton says:

      That’s actually a really good idea. I too often put too many things on the list. It’s a bit of a two edged sword: one one hand I always feel like I didn’t finish but on the other hand “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JanBeek says:

        Great quote! Can’t reach the stars if you don’t shoot for the moon!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the tips! By the way, that’s really cool that you’re a beekeeper. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mandy Harshbarger says:

    Of course, Bullet 0 should read: Never let a pile like that accumulate.
    I’m a huge believer in having systems in place before you start, whether for everyday spaces or once-off projects. That can be rolling 90-gallon drums, a tarp laid out to put scraps on as you demo, or a huge dumpster in the driveway, but have something ready. I never want to carry a piece of scrap twice if I can help it. Being organized, as you point out, is the key to not being overwhelmed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Layton says:

      Yeah, my previous blog on Reclaiming My Shop: Part 1 points that out. Maybe one day, I’ll write a blog on prevention. Of course that’s more of a hindsight 20/20 sort of thing.


  5. Precious advice. I used this when tackling the prospect of extreme old age : baby steps. Oh, and change the environment, which in your case is no small thing. Hang in there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Layton says:

      I suppose every environment has its challenges – I do plan to retire someplace with more mild temperatures though. Though in the words of Mickey Mantle, “If I’d of known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Thanks for stopping by Rachel.

      Liked by 1 person

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