How to stop overwhelm in its tracks so you can enjoy life
We’ve probably all said at least once in our lives that we feel ‘overwhelmed’ but what do we mean when we say that? We know we’re having an intense feeling but how exactly does ‘overwhelm’ cause that feeling? How do we each feel it differently? Is overwhelm the opposite of being ‘underwhelmed’? and why is nobody ever just ’whelmed’?!
As someone who works with many people in positions of leadership or entrepreneurship, I have helped a lot of people unpick this and find out how they can move away from these feelings and feel more in control. Of course, it’s not just in our work lives that we can get this sense of ‘overwhelm’, it can pervade every area of our lives.
Overwhelm can be experienced from both positive and negative perspectives. We get a feeling that what we’re experiencing is ‘too much’. We can be brought to tears when overcome by emotions of happiness when something good happens to someone we’re close to, or we can be overwhelmed with anger and perhaps shout or even become violent. We all have our own way of dealing with situations when things become too much. Some of us go quiet, hide, or avoid people; others get very vocal or display their emotions.
From a work perspective, it’s certainly true that technology has impacted the ways we work and has brought many positives but you can’t help but notice that instead of reading a book on the train or gazing out the window of the bus on the way to and from work, we’re all getting on with our emails – starting work before we get to work. While our work has the potential to be more flexible, it is also true that we’re likely all working more hours, spending more of our time on work-related activities. Hands up if one of the first things you do in the morning is check your emails. Also, we can be overwhelmed by our responsibilities at home, as parents or as carers - we're leaders at home as well as at work.
So, here’s the thing: overwhelm is a state of mind. You’re just one person and you can only do what you can do. The stage after overwhelm is burnout and you don’t want to end up there. You cannot and should not be everything to everybody. First, you need to be you for you. Slow down a bit and give yourself some headspace to think clearly. If you need to, use your breath to help you - slow down your breathing; get your shoulders a bit further away from your ears.
Decide what you want to achieve each day
Focus on what's important to get done the next day before you go to bed at night. In the morning, make other things secondary to that. This will also help you say ‘no’ to people: ‘I’m focusing on X today/this morning...’
Build some boundaries. Do something for yourself every day - every single day. Don’t short-change yourself; it’s a non-negotiable. It’s likely you’ve almost forgotten what it is you like to do. Reacquaint yourself with what makes you happy. Brainstorm what brings you joy. What made you happy as a child? If you literally can’t think of anything then choose exercise because endorphins make you happy and you will sleep better. We all need to take care of our own mental health.
If you’re in a leadership role, it’s likely you’re thinking that there’s no one you trust to hand things over to; or if you give them task X it’ll mean that you won’t get to do task Y... and you quite enjoy doing task Y... However, bear in mind that there are some things you should really hand on to someone else - it's not a good use of your time. So decide which things are important for you to do personally, and which things can be delegated:
Delegate to someone who you believe will be able to develop the skills required for that activity; they may not quite have all the skills yet:
- Focus on outcomes. Be very clear about the outcome you want and check that is understood. Agree who they will go to if they encounter a problem or need advice (not you in the first instance).
- Then get out their way and let them get on with it.
- Review the outcome and go over what would work better next time.
- Move on.
Meetings can be real timewasters. Never go to a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda. If attendees don’t know what they’re there to talk about, they will still find something to talk about and it won’t be productive. Every meeting should count.
Moreover, every agenda item should have a time allocated to it and, at the end of that time, you move on. If it’s a regular meeting, take turns to be the timekeeper. There should be an outcome expected for the discussion of each item, such as it will be approved. There is no reading time in the meeting; reading is preparation and should be done before the meeting.
Choose what is worthy of your time
Learn which activities suck your time and which ones are necessary. For example, being visible in the workplace may take up time but it’s likely to keep you better connected with your teams than sitting in your office, so is probably worth spending time on. Don’t forget you need time to think.
If in doubt, ask yourself what would happen if you did do that activity and what would happen if you didn't do that activity. Surprisingly often the answer to what would happen if you didn’t do it is: ‘nothing’ and you just saved yourself some time. Be mindful of which activities you tend to procrastinate over and which activities you use to procrastinate!
From time to time review the activities you spend time on and consider whether they are still a good use of your time.
Ask for support
Beware complaining to friends and family. While it can feel great to have a moan, if we do it too much it can have a negative effect on us. Instead, ask for help in thinking through what you could do. You don't have to take any advice wholesale or even in part and it's more likely to help you realise your options and feel less on your own with your overwhelm.