Advice on How to Increase Productivity when you are Overwhelmed

Have you ever noticed how your talent to procrastinate increases at the most inopportune time, such as a heightened workload, incoming due dates, and increased responsibilities? Do you suddenly have the urge to clean your house or continuously refresh your email inbox when you have a million things to do? Instead, you are unconsciously engaged in less important and unnecessary tasks. Here are some tips and advice to overcome those hurdles and be more productive from a busy Postdoc and a former Master Procrastinator:

1) Initiate. Perform your most important task, or the most difficult or least-liked tasks, to initiate you into a productive workday. Sometimes it can be as simple as drafting and sending an email or as tiresome as grading exams. Completing such tasks at the beginning of your workday will mean one less chore and it will be an initiator for more undertakings for that day. Sometimes all you need is a catalyst to get you over that barrier that is preventing you from being productive.

2) Make a To-do List. I am slightly obsessed with to-do lists. The feeling of accomplishment when I check an item off my list is one reason, but the main reason is that to-do-lists allow me to organize, prioritize, and remember the many tasks in my work and personal life. I typically use a note-taking app called Google Keep, but you can use good old-fashioned paper and pen too.

3) “Tomato” for Productivity? There are a plethora of self-help books and apps to increase your productivity; however, sometimes all you need is a distraction-free work environment. A productivity method that has helped me tremendously is the Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato; the concept originated from the founder using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to avoid distractions while working on one or more activities in four, short-timed (usually 25 minutes) intervals. After the first 25-minute interval is over, you are awarded a 5-minute break. After the second interval, you will have a 10-minute break, and followed by 15- and 20-minute break after the last two work intervals. Once the Pomodoro series is complete, you start the series over. You can modify this method to your preference, but the most important detail is to work free of distractions. Therefore, make sure that you close that internet browser, shut your office door and switch your phone to silent mode, and just work until that timer goes off. Another important key point to this productivity technique – it is essential to take timed breaks since it is easy to get distracted or lose track of time when you have the opportunity to check email or go on social media.

4) Be a Mindful Procrastinator. What is your procrastination mechanism? Do you clean, or do you start a new Netflix series? My current preferred procrastination mechanism is exercise – it’s my go-to stress reliever -but it took me some time to realize that I was using exercise as an excuse to avoid work and other unyielding responsibilities. For example, this past academic semester I was overwhelmed with teaching a new class and managing research and other postdoctoral duties. During this period, I decided to start a 12-week half-marathon training program. There were plenty of times I chose running over grading my students’ exams or homework assignments. My avoidance resulted in very late nights, and sometimes all-nighters, to complete grading which would then lead to added stress and falling further behind in my course preparation. When I realized I was using exercise as one of my excuses to avoid my least-liked duty as an instructor, I started setting limitations on when I could run. For example, not allowing myself to train until I graded at least half of my students’ homework assignments. It is vital for you to be mindful to the procrastination tactics that are self-sabotaging and then set up some boundaries to reduce the effect it has on your productivity. Furthermore, use tips 1-3 to assist with your success.

5) Start saying “NO”. Sometimes that overwhelmed feeling arises because you are simply overworked. This circumstance is not due to poor self-regulation, but could be augmented by your inability to say “no”. I am conflicted with this problem; I sincerely want to help, or feel that I need to take advantage of every presented opportunity. There have been plenty of times that I have attended a non-work-related meeting and left with a new leadership role to add to my mountain of responsibilities. However, overloading yourself with more responsibilities is detrimental to your productivity. Such behavior could lead to reduced work efficiency and even impact your ability to live a balanced and healthy life. It is important for you to be aware and carefully consider what you commit to.

6) Take Notes and ask for Help. There will be plenty of circumstances in which chaos is unavoidable. Be mindful during these times; devise and implement practices that could make your life easier now and in the future. For example, instead of retyping that same response for the hundredth time, have an email response bank that you can copy and then paste as a reply. Also, do not be afraid to ask for assistance when you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities.

Some of these tips I use religiously, and honestly, there are a couple that I could be more consistent with, such as saying “no” and asking for help. However, implementing these habits have immensely improved my effectiveness and efficiency at work and in my personal life. I sincerely hope that this list can motivate you to overcome your procrastination barrier, and I would love to hear from readers: What are some of your productivity enhancement habits or tips? Email us at

Article by Dominique Williams, Ph.D.

Dominique Williams is an NIH IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow at Stony Brook University. She obtained her Ph.D. from Georgia State University and completed her undergraduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dominique is an associate member of the Membership Engagement subcommittee of the YCC.