In this Short Guide, you’ll learn:
* Some of the signs and symptoms that you’re in overwhelm
* How overwhelm is different from overload and why you should differentiate between the two
* Six steps that you can take right now to feel better fast
If you’re like a lot of people I know, you spend an incredible amount of time on work. For many, working just 40 hours a week is a distant dream and, since the economic downturn, the pressures and demands of your job have increased significantly. Many workers do their own jobs plus the work of others who have been laid off or were never hired. In addition, the ability to be always ‘on’ and constantly plugged in means you may never be fully “off.” Many workplaces seem to expect (or maybe outright demand) their personnel to respond to email and text messages at all hours of the day or night.
If you have a family, you know that your kids are experiencing some of these same pressures of constant connectivity, jam packed schedules, and information overload. And you’re caught between these pressure points: work and family, trying to do your best at both. Ultimately, you may find yourself totally overwhelmed or completely overloaded.
You may think that overwhelm and overload are one in the same but they’re actually quite distinct. These are just a few of the symptoms of overwhelm.
- You’ve got too much to do and too little time to do it in.
- Your favorite mantra is: “I don’t have time.”
- You’re on fast forward, rushing around like that proverbial headless chicken.
- Days go by so quickly that you remember little, if anything, about what you got done.
(To learn more about what overwhelm looks and feels like, click here and get the sample chapter of my forthcoming book. It’s a Productivity Maven subscriber exclusive.)
Overload, on the other hand, is the sense that the work is getting heavier and you’re getting slower and more fatigued on the way to apathy, disengagement, and burnout. (I’ve got a series of blog posts coming up on overload–so stay tuned.) It’s important to know the difference between overwhelm and overload not just because they affect you differently but because the interventions you’ll need to take to recover your balance and be more productive are distinct, too.
If you’re in a state of overwhelm, then you already know how uncomfortable and unproductive it makes you feel. And not just that. It’s demoralizing: you’re working so hard to just try to keep up, yet there’s a sense that you’re running faster and faster to get nowhere. I know you have tons to do, so here are…
Six steps you can take right now to start feeling better fast
1. Start Your Day Intentionally
Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you look at your email first thing in the morning? OK. My hand’s up, too, on some days. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed, this is one of the first things I stop doing.
How you prime yourself for your day matters. A lot. If you kick off the festivities with activities that get you running from one topic to another, chasing requests, and getting your emotions revved up, you’re likely to feel that way. All. Day. For that reason, I suggest you put email off until after breakfast (or even later if possible) during seasons of overwhelm.
The main thing to remember here is to start your day intentionally, on purpose. It’s so easy to get pulled off by urgency, especially when you’re already feeling a sense of overwhelm. Anything you can do to begin your morning with care will improve how the rest of the day unfolds and will decrease your sense of overwhelm.
What to do instead?
Studies show that kids who exercise before school are calmer and learn better than those who don’t. Other research demonstrates that aerobic exercise improves memory and executive functions (like planning and decision-making) in adults. Personally, I find that 20 – 30 minutes of walking is just enough to get my day off to a calm, measured start and improves my ability to focus dramatically. This includes my ability to hold off distractions, too. And I feel much less overwhelmed after exercise no matter what time of day it is.
3. Act Deliberately
One of the issues with overwhelm is rushing, rushing, rushing. As you’ll learn when you read my sample chapter, this hurried pace makes the feeling of time pressure worse. There are real scientific reasons behind this, which I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say, rushing isn’t your friend. Slowing down and acting deliberately will make a big difference.
Pay attention. Be present.
Whenever possible, take a deep breath and really feel that breath. The inflow of air, the expansion of your chest, the expiration. And notice the details around you. Color, temperature, sounds, smells. Those details help your brain discern the pace of time is passing. You want to escape that suffocating sense of running of out time? Then pay attention to details and strive to remember them. (You can also take just a few minutes to do something kind for someone else; this also decreases time pressure.)
4. Go on a (Media) Diet
How many different kinds of media do you consume every day? TV, video, music, news, Facebook, Twitter,sports, texting, email, phone–all these channels add up fast. And each and every one are a form of stimulation. When you’re overwhelmed, you don’t need more stimulation. So decide which kinds of media you’re willing to cut down on (or cut out altogether) and put yourself on a diet.
If you’ve ever been on a weight-loss diet, you know that as soon as you declare, “No more cake!” The craving for cake will become, well, overwhelming. So like good weight-loss strategies, this media diet isn’t meant to create banned snacks that ignite extreme cravings like …must…check…Twitter. No, not like that at all. But it is meant to help you notice which forms of media you’re consuming and how they affect you. Twitter, for me, is like a sugar high: if I spend too much time in the stream, I get quite hyperactive. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I cut down on Twitter. (Occasionally, I even delete apps from my iPhone for a while, to help me be good to myself.) That’s all I mean by a media diet. Be good to yourself, take in less of what makes you feel more jittery and whacked out, that’s all.
As an aside, heavy media consumption has other effects. A nifty study showed that people who partake of lots of media simultaneously have trouble when it comes to filtering out distractions. Just another good reason to practice some awareness and cut down a bit.
5. Eschew multitasking
This should go without say, but to be thorough: just say no to multitasking. Truth is, there’s no such thing as multitasking really–it’s task switching. Jumping back and forth between unrelated activities, trying to stay on top of both at the same time.
Another of the hallmark symptoms of overwhelm is that you can’t stay on task long enough to complete anything. Task switching makes this worse. One of the ways this shows up during times of overwhelm is when you start trying to pack something “productive” into every freaking spare second of the day.
Author Brene’ Brown writes, “I’m not sure exactly how or when it happened, but I’ve managed to convince myself that every second of white space in my life – every tiny sliver of downtime – could and should be utilized for “getting ‘er done.” At every stop light, she found herself trying to check email or return phone calls. If there was a way to pack ten things into the space when she’d normally do two, there she was with her hands full, rushing along. “Squeezing productivity out of every second of the day isn’t a sustainable way to live,” she concluded.
What do to instead?
6. Put on the brakes
When people are in overwhelm, and I tell them to slow down, they look at me like I have two heads. That’s why I saved this step, the most important one, for last. I know you’re running and it feels like something is chasing you. A big scary something that feels like it can crush the life out of you. I understand this feeling well.
One night, during a season of overwhelm, I had a dream. In my dream, I was running through a dark forest. A dog was chasing me; it was barking very loudly. It sounded huge and menacing. But I just couldn’t keep running. I stopped and turned around. And there was nothing there. No dog. Nothing was chasing me.
Yes, when you slow down, there will be consequences. Backlog will accumulate. Less will be done. But the truth of the matter is: if you keep running, backlog will accumulate and less will be done. Because you are not going to outrun the flow. You can’t. It’s already moving faster than you are.
To take home:
I am not saying “give up.” I am saying: Decide what your pace is–your own sustainable pace–and do that. And as you walk your own pace, your vision and mind will clear. The feelings of overwhelm will begin to dissipate. At that point, you’ll have better access to your rational mind and you can begin to structure your life and work differently. This will mean making decisions about what to take on and what to let go of. This will mean learning to say ‘no’ with grace and courage. This will mean stepping away from the fire hose.
I’ve had clients who step back from everything and then say to me, “But I have to do all this!” Maybe so, but at least you’ll be choosing that consciously instead of being used by it.
Overwhelm is a funny thing: it kind of sneaks up on you and bam! You’re in it up to your eyeballs. Now that you know the symptoms, you can develop some awareness for yourself and the people around you. And you have six steps you can take to feel better. Remember to be kind to yourself. You are not alone–I’ve felt this way plenty of times myself.
The bad news is that there is no permanent cure for overwhelm. There will always be seasons or times when you become overwhelmed. You can learn to manage or cope with it, but you’ll always be vulnerable to it. What I hope to do, by providing this short guide (and later, my book) is to give you skills and behaviors to practice and the means to develop some overwhelm resilience so you can catch yourself, recover your balance, and be more productive.
Click below to hear the audio version of this Short Guide.
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