Feeling Overwhelmed – what to do about it.

Feeling overwhelmed

One of the biggest issues that all of us face is the feeling of overwhelm.  We live in a world where there is just too much to do. There is too much information and innovation. There are so many things that are vying for our attention.  That cellphone in your pocket is the number one offender, but it is the tip of the iceberg.   You just can’t possibly keep up with all the new technology and the latest greatest thing to make your life better. Add to all of that the increasing uncertainty of our times and we all are feeling a bit (or may be more than a bit) overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is a feeling of lack of control or actually being out of control. When we get in this state, one may feel anxious, nervous, suffer from loss of sleep, not eat properly, fail to get exercise and generally feel like checking out.  Some people get angry, feel like they are being judged or treated unfairly and can be in a generally poor mood.   While it is completely counterproductive, when we get into overwhelm, we do less, rather than more.  We are more likely to fall into bad habits, binge watch Netflix or maybe just not show up to work – either literally or mentally.

It is my view that there are two basic categories of overwhelm: situational and chronic.

I think we all suffer from situational overwhelm from time to time. Situational overwhelm is generally short lived.  It is a short period of time in which there is too much is on your plate. You are already busy, and someone puts one more thing on your to do list.  The straw that breaks the camel’s back so to speak.  But in most cases, you overcome it by just putting your head down and working through your list of stuff to do.  In many cases, the feeling of overwhelm, in this situation, can be alleviated by being disciplined long enough to to make a list of things that have to get done and then getting started.  Often, at least in my experience, it’s not as bad as I made it out to be.  And once I get the ball rolling, my level of anxiety and feeling of being out of control will subside.  I have a plan and now just need to execute it.

The more challenging problem is chronic overwhelm.  The consistent and enduring feeling of being out of control, of always being behind and never feeling like you can come up for air.  Some people feel like this ALL the time.  When one is in this state, their productivity drops significantly.  They become much more inefficient and often are caught in a cycle of doing unimportant things rather than the important things that will move the ball forward.  Chronic overwhelm is extremely unhealthy and one must really focus on getting out of that state.  In my view, this has to be your number one priority.  Being in this state has such adverse effects that it is critical that you address it right away.

Many authors have made recommendations about what to do when you feel overwhelmed.  One of the best recommendations I found came from Jessica Geist (JessicaGeist.com)

            She recommends that first you Acknowledge the feeling of overwhelm.  This is a little more than just saying, “I’m overwhelmed.”  This is actually recognizing the feeling and acknowledging to yourself – I am feeling overwhelmed.  I think it is important to understand that just because you feel overwhelmed, does not mean that you can’t get out of it.  Also, don’t punish yourself for feeling overwhelmed.  This is not a sign of weakness.  This is a common occurrence in our society, and I dare say that everyone feels it from time to time.

            Second, Thank the overwhelm.  This might take a second to wrap your head around.  But understand that these feelings are trying to keep you safe.  So, take a moment to thank the feeling.  This will set you up for the next step.

            Change your state.  Here you have to slow down, focus on deep controlled breathing and shift your mind from stressful thoughts (I have too much to do) to thoughts of gratitude. (I am grateful for . . . . “). Thoughts of gratitude may include the fact that you have a profession where you get to help people.  That you have a job and income, when so many don’t.  That you (now) have the ability to regain control. 

            Finally, Use new language.  Replace the negative inner dialogue with positive statements.  “I know what to do.”  “I will get through this”. “I have people to help me.”

            Ms. Geist recommendations are good ones for setting your mind at ease and calming the anxiety, worry and stress.  But the work is still there.  So, what do you do about that?

            Here is a list of suggestions that I have found really help.

Determine the primary source of overwhelm. What are the one or two things, if taken off you plate would alleviate 80% (give or take) of the stress that you are currently feeling.  Identify those things.  Sometimes, just understanding what is causing the stress is enough to make you feel better and more in control.

Now that you have identified the major source of your stress, ask yourself these questions:

Can I delegate some or all of this to someone else?  In other words, do you really have to do it or can someone else do some or all of the work?  The easiest solution is have someone else deal with it.

Can the timeline for which it is due be adjusted?  Sometimes the source of the overwhelm is not the project, but the due date.  Can that be moved?  I often see people impose artificial timelines/due dates on themselves.  Is this due date real or is it just self imposed? As an example, I put a self-imposed due date on getting this book to print.  At one point, there was just too much on my plate as I navigated my firm through the Covid-19 crises.  Several times I had to sit back and realistically look at what I was doing and the stress I was putting on myself to get the book to print.  By adjusting my due date, I was able to relieve a great deal of the stress I was feeling.

Can the task be broken into more manageable parts?  Just by breaking the project up, you might get some relief.  And you get the benefit of small victories along the way.

Can you get more resources to help?  More person power.  This is like delegation but might require you to either hire someone new, shift responsibilities or even outsource.  Can you have someone do some research for you?  Do some editing of what you wrote?  Review the reports/interrogatories/medical records and summarize them for you?  Let other people help.  This is delegation but might also include obtaining resources (think software) that can improve your productivity.  Hiring a bookkeeper for example, using a better case management system or developing a more efficient way of doing common tasks.  This might also include developing standard operating procedures (SOP’s) that will “automate” things that you do on a regular basis.

Can you get something else off of your plate to free up the time to work on this project?  How much stuff are you doing that you don’t have to do?  Are those tasks the real reason that you are feeling overwhelmed?  Are you doing your work and someone else’s also?

Some combination of all of the above.

 While you may still be responsible for the tasks or projects and cannot actually take them completely off your plate, just asking these questions may help alleviate some of the stress that you are feeling.  My experience is that in most cases, there is something that you can take off your list.  Have the courage to do so.

Set boundaries on your time and workload. This can include “time blocking” the hours you spend on a task or project.  Blocking off on your calendar every day/week/month a designed period to work on that project.  You must protect this time. By predesignating a time to work on something, you will give yourself the space to not worry about it as much.

 Make a commitment to leave the office by a certain time.  In other words, have a hard cut off.  Go home at a reasonable time and have a life.  This will allow you to start the next day rested and refreshed.  Being well rested will make you more productive.

 Say NO to specific types of work. Be clear on what you will do and what you won’t do. 

Get enough sleep. The value of having enough sleep cannot be overstated.  If you are truly feeling overwhelmed, it might be best to take a nap and come at the problem fresh and rested.

Challenge your perfectionism. This is much harder for some than others. Perfectionism can lead to more work with marginal gains, increased stress and prolong any task or project.  Because we want “everything to be perfect”, things pile up, and the sense of overwhelm grows. This can then lead to more procrastination and more overwhelm. Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “Done is better than perfect.” Know when “good” is “good enough.”  Asking yourself, what is the marginal benefit of spending more time on this task or project? If the extra benefit is small, call it done and move on.

Finally, challenge your assumptions. If feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing struggle, it is likely that you have assumptions or beliefs that are keeping you stuck in unproductive behaviors. You may suffer from assumptions/beliefs like

“If something falls through the cracks, I’d fail and wouldn’t be able to recover from it.”

“If I’m not there to help others, I won’t be needed, and people will question my value i.e. I will lose my job.”

“If I don’t micromanage everything, others will mess up, and the company will fail.”

And the granddaddy of them all – “I am the only one who can do this.”

These assumptions and beliefs are certainly not 100% true and in fact may not be true at all.  But holding on to them keeps you stuck in patterns that increase your sense of overwhelm.  They get in the way of moving projects along, take up valuable time and frankly are annoying.  Look them in the eye and see them for what they are.  If they are not true, let them go.

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