How to overcome overwhelm
Yesterday I hosted my regular monthly Meetup for the Hertfordshire Entrepreneurs group and the discussion topic surrounded weekly scheduling and how to use simple strategies for banishing overwhelm, implement better time management and productivity.
I asked the room who felt overwhelmed and apart from one extremely disciplined, organised VA, there was a sea of raised hands. Clearly, the working day for many people is a whirlwind of unplanned tasks and people struggle to get on top of their ‘to-do’ lists on a daily basis.
The result –
And whilst a small amount of stress is good for us, the long-term impact of a high level will cause us to burnout and has the potential to impact our wellbeing both physically and mentally. Take Arianna Huffington as an example of someone who collapsed at work as a result of stress and who went on to change her way of life, which is so eloquently described in her book ‘Thrive'.
I would be a rich woman if I had a pound for every time I hear someone say ‘I’m so stressed.’
Working in a state of anxiety is like wading through treacle and has to stop.
Yes, stop. Right now…..
That feeling of overwhelm has serious implications for our personal and professional lives and it can ruin our relationships with work colleagues, family and friends.
Definitions of the word “overwhelmed”
verb (used with object)
to overcome completely in mind or feeling:overwhelmed by remorse.
to overpower or overcome, especially with superior forces; destroy; crush:Roman troops were overwhelmed by barbarians.
to cover or bury beneath a mass of something, as floodwaters, debris, or an avalanche; submerge:Lava from erupting Vesuvius overwhelmed the city of Pompeii.
to load, heap, treat, or address with an overpowering or excessive amount of anything:a child overwhelmed with presents; to overwhelm someone with questions.
There are some pretty powerful words in these definitions – overcome, overpower, bury, submerge, overthrow. Nothing positive emerges from not tackling the state of overwhelm.
Here's a clip from the film “10 Things I Hate about You” with a light-hearted consideration of the word.
I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?
I think you can in Europe.
How to overcome overwhelm
Let’s begin by asking ourselves these questions:
- Do you have a calendar which prioritises your most important tasks rather than allocating time based on other people demands?
- Is your schedule realistic? Do you allow enough time to complete a task with a contingency for the unexpected?
- Do you allow phone calls to extend beyond their main objective?
- Do you try to multitask even though you know that it isn’t possible?
- Do you tell others: “I’m sooo busy.”?
- Do you have meetings dotted throughout the week rather than scheduled into just a couple of days?
- Do you live in a muddle and find it impossible to work with all the clutter around you?
- Do you like to always say “Yes” when you really mean “No” or “Not now”?
- Do you thrive on the adrenaline” kick of always being busy?
- Do you leave projects to the last minute because you don’t think planning is worth allocating time to?
- Do you spend hours on social media, web browsing, video games and TV?
- Do you like to be in control of everything?
- Do you think you can’t afford to pay someone to help?
- Do you continue to do repetitive tasks someone else could do in half the time and twice as well?
If you answered in the affirmative to several of these questions, then take a step back and tackle that overwhelm before it swamps you.
Being and feeling overwhelmed
There’s a difference between ‘being overwhelmed’ and ‘feeling overwhelmed’. Being overwhelmed by something or someone is usually caused by an external factor – something you didn’t start. It’s typically a tangible event, or series of events which, if unresolved, can lead to feeling overwhelmed.
If you can fight being overwhelmed you are less likely to end up feeling overwhelmed. If you are feeling overwhelmed it’s much more difficult to break the vicious cycle.
Here are some examples of being overwhelmed by others:
- A client demands a report in an unreasonably short time scale
- A customer doubles their order with no notice
- Your service receives a raft of complaints
- Emails pile up
- Clients leave their submission of vital information to the last minute
These situations are unplanned but still have to be dealt with. Whilst you didn’t cause them, you still have to sort them out. Ask yourself – if these additional tasks ended up on your to-do list would you have the capacity to resolve them?
If a client is piling on the pressure, moving the goal posts and upping the stakes for you to complete a project in an unreasonable amount of time, then having that difficult conversation is your only option. We all want to please others – it’s human nature – but there are times when you have to put yourself first.
Feeling overwhelmed may be caused by both internal and external factors. The overwhelmed demands of others may result in a feeling that you cannot cope. However, it’s possible this stress comes from within – it's created internally by our ingrained habits.
If you are working all hours and burning the candle at both ends, ask yourself:
“Is this situation as a result of other people’s demands or my inability to prioritise.”
Lack of confidence, self-esteem, imposter syndrome, low motivation, procrastination, and distraction are just a few factors which increase that feeling of overwhelm.
Overwhelm can also have internal roots. Lack of confidence, self-esteem, imposter syndrome, low motivation, procrastination, and distraction are just a few factors which increase that feeling of overwhelm.
Even though you probably already know what is contributing to this feeling, it’s hard to break out and turn negatives into positives.
What can be done to cope with the stress of overwhelm?
Here are some suggestions for turning the tide and helping the feelings of overwhelm around.
Take a break
Yes, even though you’ve so much on your plate, get away from your desk, take a walk, do some exercise or something creative. The stress-relieving benefits of these activities are well-documented.
Write everything outstanding on your work and personal to-do lists onto a large piece of paper or better still on post-it notes so that you can reorder them. Assign a level of importance to each and the length of time they’ll take to complete. Use the Eisenhower matrix to categorise tasks.
If you're overwhelmed by the enormity of a project, start with the outcome and write down all the preceding steps which will make up its completion.
If a task like “Do annual accounts” is on your list for weeks on end, break it down into smaller pieces. For example, print out bank statements, gather receipts together, put documents in date order, assign categories to purchases – and so on. Set aside a time to each small step and over a few days, the bigger task will be complete.
Find someone to help you get up to date.
Multitasking is a fallacy and is really simply rapid switching. This is draining on the brain and you’ll end up doing both tasks badly.
Find someone who will be sympathetic, but firm, who understands your problem and ask for help. There is some truth in the saying; “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Ideally don’t work alone. Coworking will help keep you on track and motivated for far longer than working on your own.
In such a fast-paced world, overwhelm is a state which troubles people whether they work for themselves or are in employment. If it becomes the status quo there are serious implications for wellbeing. Cycles of stress are difficult to break on your own as breaking habits take time and dedication. Download the Habit Change eBook for a step by step guide to creating good habits and banishing unwanted ones.
Two books I would highly recommend are ‘Atomic Habits' by James Clear and ‘the Miracle Morning' by Hal Elrod