The worst thing about going into overwhelm is that you feel completely swamped by everything you have to do, and just don’t know which way to turn. You may even feel totally debilitated and unable to take any action at all.
The good news is that you can take control of your life again, but first you have to be clear about what’s causing overwhelm.
Usually it’s one of four things:
You may simply have so much to do that you feel like you’re in over your head. You’re juggling work and family commitments trying to meet multiple deadlines. You have a long list of unfinished tasks and everyone keeps asking you to do more and more. You’re starting to feel as though you’ve got no choice and things are slipping out of control.
The second cause is where you feel someone’s on your case. It might be a demanding boss or difficult spouse, and they won’t let up; nothing you do is right or good enough.
Another cause of is where there’s something you’re afraid of and you don’t know how you’re going to face up to it. This might include the anticipation and anxiety associated with public speaking or facing major surgery.
And finally, overwhelm can be caused by the mental clutter in your mind. It’s not always the actual tasks and responsibilities you have, but the fact you keep running through everything that needs to be done in your head. As you keep going over it all again and again, you ramp up your stress level, which only adds to feeling overwhelmed.
Step Back from the Edge
The first thing you have to do is stop what you’re doing and give yourself a break.
This literally means stop. Don’t check your voicemail, take another phone call or attend another meeting until you restore your calm.
If you can’t do something you’ve committed to doing, then tell the person concerned; apologize and be honest with them saying that you’ve got so much on your plate that you can’t help out as you’d originally planned. They may not be happy about it, but you’re giving them advance warning, so they can make alternative plans.
Similarly, if you need to ask for someone’s help or get them to cover for you, then ask. Don’t hold back.
The important thing at this stage is to give yourself time to come up for air. Talking of which, if you feel so stressed out, just remember to use the deep breathing technique to help bring about a sense of calm.
Then, as hard as it may be when you’re incredibly busy, go and do something else that doesn’t require any thought or effort. Take a walk round the block; gaze out the window; do a mindless chore; anything that gives your mind a chance to unscramble.
These simple actions often free you up so that you can see your way through a challenging situation or find a solution to a problem that’s been bugging you.
But if feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing problem for you, then you need to work out the root cause.
Take Back Control
Getting rid of overwhelm as the norm in your life necessitates asking yourself some probing questions, starting with am I really busy or does it just feel that way? Being busy isn’t necessarily a function of how many things you have to do; it’s also a reflection of how you interpret how much you have to do.
So, try asking yourself the following questions to help establish why you’re overwhelmed and what you can do to resolve the situation:
What’s the real problem?
Many of us lead such busy lives, often because of the demands and expectations of other people, and as a result, we can go into overload very easily. But, if you find yourself thinking I don’t have any choice but to do what they ask, just step back and consider whether this is really the case. Yes, there will be times when you feel you ‘have to’ respond, but don’t assume that’s always the case. Instead, ask yourself what would happen if I didn’t do this?
Much of our busy-ness also comes from engaging in a wide range of family and social activities, as well as pursuing hobbies and interests and attending to our work commitments. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, be willing to commit to less and focus on just a few things at a time. This is likely to increase your enjoyment and sense of fulfillment, as well as stopping you from feeling overwhelmed.
Have I taken on more than I can reasonably handle?
If you’re someone who doesn’t like to say ‘no’ when your boss, partner or a friend asks you to do something, then in the interests of your wellbeing and peace of mind, it’s essential to develop this skill. So, if you find yourself about to say ‘yes’ when someone makes a request, think about whether or not you can actually deliver on the commitment you’d be making. If it’s going to send you into overload, then don’t commit to it.
Learning to say ‘no’ courteously may seem difficult at first, but once you’ve done it several times, it can become second nature. There are a couple of different responses you can use such as:
- I’d like to help, but I’m not able to at the moment because of my other commitments.
- Yes, but only if…This option includes certain caveats that may relate to timing or resources.
Am I focusing on the most important things?
Going into overload can result from poor prioritization. If you’re someone who likes to get all the small things out of the way before starting on your major tasks, you run the risk of not leaving yourself sufficient time to complete the things that really matter. So, identify the most important things you have to do today, or this week, and concentrate on doing those things first.
As you look down your ‘to do’ list or think about everything you have to do, get rid of anything that’s not necessary. Some things may seem important, but in truth, they’re not, so don’t waste valuable time and energy on them.
If you’re tempted to think that everything’s important, just keep in mind that nobody can accomplish it all, so pick out the things that are truly important and focus on them.
Sometimes when you ask the question is it necessary? the answer might be yes, but not right now, in which case, re-schedule it so that you can concentrate on the things that are important right now.
And finally, don’t be distracted by things that are nice to do, unless of course, they’re also important!
Am I using my time wisely?
The rule of thumb in determining whether you’re using your time wisely is to ask:
- Is this task contributing to all that I want to accomplish in life?
- Is it helping me achieve a sense of wellbeing and fulfillment?
Apart from making sure that as much of your time as possible is being spent on the most important things you have to do, see if there are any tasks that you can delegate to someone else at work or home. Remember, you don’t have to be a senior manager to delegate, anyone can delegate.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, keep in mind that it’s caused not only by the number and type of things you have to do, but also by how you think about these things. The more you keep going over all your tasks and responsibilities in your mind, the more overloaded you’re likely to feel.
And finally, in the words of Jeff Haden, the only person who is going to keep you from feeling overworked and overwhelmed is you. So, you have to take action if you want to restore your calm and wellbeing.