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Natalia Rossingol

The Psychology of Workload Paralysis & How to Beat It

Overwhelmed by tasks? Discover how workload paralysis affects productivity and learn effective strategies to break free.

Have you ever felt like you’re stuck at work? Tight deadlines, too many responsibilities, and, of course, perfectionism can get you paralyzed and unable to act. Burdened with so many tasks to do, you can’t finish a single one.

Workload paralysis can happen to any of us. A fast-paced work environment, often unpredictable, can cause much stress and make you overwhelmed before you know it.

So let’s see what workload paralysis is and how we can handle it.   

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What is workload paralysis?

Workload paralysis can be defined as feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do. It figuratively paralyzes you with fear and makes you unable to do anything at all. Even small and insignificant tasks seem difficult.

This feeling kills motivation and blocks out your inner resources, instead of accumulating efforts to actually solve issues. As a result, you procrastinate, and your tasks pile up. Work still needs to be done, but time is flying, and you’re feeling even worse – stressed, exhausted, and guilty.

This is like a vicious circle. But the good news is that this circle can be broken.

Causes of workload paralysis

Workload paralysis can be caused by a variety of factors, and these factors are often interdependent. One issue often leads to another one, creating a chain reaction.   

We can roughly divide the causes of workload paralysis into two groups:

  1. Health-related reasons. A lack of sleep or insomnia, poor diet, and insufficient physical exercise directly affect our cognitive ability (which is so important for knowledge work), let alone the physical condition of our body. When your energy level is so low, you cannot be productive. And when you’re not productive, you don’t meet deadlines, you don’t achieve goals, and the quality of your work drops.
  2. Heavy workload. Having to deal with difficult tasks, make decisions, and take responsibility can cause high levels of stress and lead to work paralysis.

Read on: Heavy Workload - And What to Do About it

How to tackle workload paralysis

If you see that you’re stuck – don’t panic. You can find a solution and balance your workload, but it will require you to analyze your personal situation.

Here is a few simple tips on workload management, for both employees and employers.

What employees can do to break free from workload paralysis

  • Prioritize. Trying to handle too many things at the same time may be overwhelming – and it often leads to procrastination. So set priorities. Make a to-do list of things you need to do, and rewrite it, ranking the tasks based on their priority. Think if anything on the list can be delegated. Plan your workload. After all, ask yourself – do you really need to do everything on the list? You may be surprised, but we often tend to overcomplicate things.
  • Break projects into small milestones. Turning a huge project into a set of manageable tasks, you reduce tension. The project won’t seem as complicated, and its goals won’t seem unattainable anymore. So take one step at a time. With a bigger picture in mind, focus on what you can do here and now. Set deadlines for each of the steps to keep yourself on track. Create a workload schedule - it will help you map out your projects and allocate resources properly. Moving from a milestone to a milestone, you will create a sense of purpose. It will motivate you to keep going. You could also use workload management tools - online platforms that make workload distribution and insights visible.
  • Get rid of distractions. Modern technologies made us connected and available – and incredibly distracted. Text messaging with colleagues is necessary. Yet, making a pause to respond to someone breaks your thinking process, and it takes you more time to start all over again. And social media is simply a black hole sucking our time. We start scrolling every time we get bored – but in fact, to be bored is useful as it helps our brain process information and come up with ideas. What can you do? Start with a simple step – turn off notifications on your phone. Or if your addiction is bad, leave your phone in a different room.

    Distractions can be more traditional, of course. Maybe you work in a crowded office. Maybe you work from home, and your neighbors renovate their apartment. Noise is very distracting, so to keep yourself focused, you need to block it out. Buying noise-blocking headphones, working from a cozy café, or talking to your boss about reorganizing the office space – there are many things you can try to improve your situation.
  • Work on your time management skills. For someone, the reason for their workload paralysis might be poor time management, which leads to burning deadlines and related stress. The problem of time management is closely connected to other issues we’ve already mentioned. You might do inadequate resource planning. You might also allow yourself to get distracted. So try to understand how you spend your own time. Time is an incredibly valuable (and not renewable) resource that must be respected.
  • Work on your anxiety issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 40 million people in the US suffer from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be caused by continuous work-related stress, which in turn can cause low motivation and even burnout, accompanied by serious physical conditions like heart disease. Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness, often associated with the fear of future events. It can be healed by medications, psychological counseling, or by self-treatment. Physical activity, relaxation techniques, a regular sleep schedule, and support networks are good examples of self-treatment. When you feel overwhelmed, try focusing on your physical well-being first. Get enough sleep and rest. Eat healthy snacks. Every time you're feeling paralyzed, take a deep breath - sometimes it's enough to ground yourself. Our mental health directly affects our physical body. We should be aware of our own emotional state to be able to control it.   

Figure out what your personal problem with workload paralysis is. Think about what exactly may be causing your state. By diagnosing the root of the evil, you can work on eliminating it.

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What employers can do to help employees overcome workload paralysis

If you’re an employer, you also can help your team members overcome workload paralysis. Here’s some tips for you to use, provided by Carl Baldwin, a Dispute Resolution Specialist at Architect of the Capitol:

  • Be approachable and open to feedback. Complaints should be just as welcome as positive feedback.
  • Make sure employees know what’s expected from them. Measurable performance goals may be useful for overcoming workload paralysis.
  • Pay attention to workload distribution.
  • Create a positive workplace environment. Build mutual trust and develop a culture of empathetic leadership. Pay attention to the needs of your people, and let them be vulnerable. Treat mistakes as simply mistakes, and not as intentional acts of sabotage.

Changing ruinous behaviors that cause workload paralysis can take some time. But it’s possible to break the cycle and get your productivity back. Just be attentive to yourself, and don’t let a temporary paralysis turn into burnout.

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