3 Tips to Stay Productive Even When Overwhelmed

Have you ever noticed that when you’re working against a tough deadline, planning a big event, or tackling a challenging assignment, your brain sometimes shuts down out of sheer overwhelm? It’s not your imagination—it’s fear rearing its risk-averse head. Here’s what you need to know to turn off the fear and get back to work.

A team of neuroscientists at Emory University conducted a brain study where they placed subjects in an MRI scanner and hooked them up to electrodes that gave them a shock—not harmful, but definitely not pleasant. When the scientists monitored the subjects’ brain activity, they discovered that not only did they show intense activity in the pain-processing areas of the brain before they received the shock, but that when our brains’ fear systems are actively engaged, other areas including risk-taking and exploration are turned off.

What does that mean for you? That just when you need your powers of creativity and innovation the most, they’re unavailable to you. But here are some things you can do to shift out of fear gear and into innovation mode:

  • Step away from the media. If all the negative reports freak you out, try a news diet. Give up TV newscasts, newspaper and online news sites for a week. If that’s too much of a stretch for you, at least limit your daily intake for a while. You’ll pick up enough news from friends and co-workers, if not social media, to keep up with major events.
  • Listen to music that you love. It doesn’t matter if it’s rock, jazz, classical or Gregorian chant as long as it soothes, comforts, relaxes or inspires you. If switching to music helps you shut out talk radio or TV, so much the better. If you can, leave your music on in the background while you work. Even if you’re barely aware of it, there’s something truly magical about melody.
  • Find some type of daily practice to set a positive tone for your day. It should be something enlightening and energizing. It could include reading, meditation, exercise or gardening. Whatever puts a spring in your step and helps you take the ordinary challenges of work and life in stride. That way, when things get tough (as they inevitably will), you’ll have a practice in place that can help you keep your cool when you need it most.

Libby Gill is a Smart Meeting speaker, executive coach and the author of The Hope-Driven Leader.