“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.” ~ David Allen
I’ve been reflecting on how much I’ve taken on. Of my own doing, of course, but commitments none-the-less. This week is particularly busy at work – largely responsibilities that I cannot delegate, and I’m committed to making this Blog your awesome sauce/source of the best leadership development and career advice around AND I’m mum to a busy four year old. This week I’m knocked out with the second nasty/virulent cold I’ve had this winter (not a thing that normally occurs) and I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I didn’t get my weekly newsletter out on Sunday, I haven’t written a guest-post for LeadX.org for a couple of weeks, I haven’t been maintaining my social media activity, and to top it all off, the house is a mess.
I share this not because I want you to feel sorry for me, or do anything about it.
I share it because I think this is common.
It actually doesn’t matter how much you take on in absolute terms – what matters is when the throughput requirements increase compared to normal. The deadlines stack-up, or you get behind. Work you weren’t expecting comes out of the blue. This can cause the dreaded overwhelm, and ultimately lead to stress.
So while I sit here (barking like a seal and feeling sorry for myself), let me tell you how I identify overwhelm and stress before it gets a proper chance to move in and make itself comfortable. And also, how I overcome it.
Identifying Stress & Overwhelm
I recently wrote about procrastination – the insidious enemy of productivity. For me procrastination is often an early warning sign of overwhelm. If there seems to be too much to do, I kind of ‘freeze up’ and do other things – things that aren’t on the urgent list. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel busy – but I’m not doing the things that need to be done!
So I try and keep an eye out for procrastination of this sort – specifically doing ‘stuff’ that isn’t the urgent task at hand, when I know there is a major deliverable looming. This is my first indicator that I’m leaning towards overwhelm, and its associated stress.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an optimist. I even use hopeful words. Ask me how I am and I’m likely to say “fabulous” or “great” – why settle for “good” or “OK” when there are so many other great words out there! But I do notice that when I’m heading towards an overwhelm event, I tend to revert back to the tried and true. In fact, this week I’ve been heard to say “not, great” or “worse”, given illness has been a feature of my life! I start using phrases like “I have to” rather than “I’m going to”… almost like I’m not feeling in control of what’s going on around me…
And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter. Overwhelm is triggered by feeling out of control and unable to adjust the circumstances around you to be more manageable. So this lessening of optimism is also combined with a…
Shrinking Locus of Control
Feeling like you don’t control things that impact your life and your work is one of the greatest causes of stress for people. When I have a lot going on, it starts feeling like I cannot choose what happens next. Or even what I’m going to do next. And the really tricky thing is, if that feeling gets too strong, it starts manifesting as a reason to blame other people for the situation you’re in. That’s not good. Because it’s never anyone else’s fault.
Overcome Overwhelm before it becomes Stress
Stress can be really bad for you, if it isn’t the right kind of stress. So here are some things I do to overcome the overwhelm, and avoid stress that becomes chronic or unhealthy.
Well duh, you say, I do that all the time everyday… But no. When you are feeling the early stages of stress, your body’s physiological response starts channelling energy to the parts of your brain and body most needed to initiate a ‘fight or flight’ response – even though that Board Report isn’t actually going to bite you! So stopping, pausing, sitting and taking – even just ten – long deep breaths, right down into your belly, can trick your brain into thinking the danger has passed, and therefore resume normal functions.
Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Focus on how you’re going to feel when these things are done and dusted. Relieved? A bit proud? Relaxed? Get really specific. Imagine what you’re going to do to celebrate. Who will you be with? What will you be eating or drinking? It doesn’t matter if it’s drinks on Friday night or blobbing out with your favourite series on Netflix – just really spend some time imagining how you’ll feel when this is over.
This too shall pass.
Remember – You got this
I reckon, if you try, you can find at least five examples of times when you’ve handled something at least this big before. And nailed it. And survived!
So spend some time reflecting on those examples. Chances are, you felt incredibly overwhelmed at the time, but looking back you might not be able to figure out why. You maybe contemplated chucking it in and starting afresh – a new job, or a new course, or a new town, or a new [insert stress-giving factor here]. But you didn’t. And you made it!
So hang in there, you got this.
Then put one foot in front of the other
Again. And again. And again. And before you know it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about!