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What Do You Do When You Are Overwhelmed?


29Jan 2008

Ok. Confession time. I am feeling overwhelmed. It seems like I have more work (and other life tasks) to do than I have time and mental (or emotional) energy. [I can hear the thoughts now: “Physician (or psychologist), heal thyself!”]

Let me explain the reasons for my current condition (from my perspective, that is; my wife will probably have other factors she would add). I believe my “overwhelmedness” is a combination of both: (a) lifestyle, and (b) a convergence of circumstances.

On the lifestyle side, I tend to run at a fast pace, pack my days and weeks quite full, and expect to get a lot done in a short period of time. So if too many unexpected challenges arise or unplanned tasks pop up, I can run short on the time and energy to complete what is before me. I have battled over the years to keep some margin in my life and schedule — sometimes I do better than others.

Add to this life pattern the fact that I have had business meetings over the past two weekends (an unusual pattern for me), and I have become overwhelmed. Weekends for me are partly for “catching up” from the week, as well as rejuvenating myself. And the fact that I had meetings over the weekends meant that I actually created more work to “catch up” from. Hence, I feel I have more to do than possible in the time allotted.

So, I thought: “Well, let’s use this as a problem-solving lesson on what you should do when you feel overwhelmed.” (I’m generally ok with a moderate amount of self-disclosure.)

First, I need to take stock and see what really needs to get done and by when. For me, it is helpful to write down all the things I think I need to do, and then to start to prioritize them (either by timeframe [today, tomorrow, this week, later] or by rank ordering).

Then I have to engage in some “self-talk”. “Ok, what really has to get done today? Why? What will happen if it doesn’t?” Often, my timeframes for getting things done are more about how I will look to others (i.e. what I think they will think of me if I don’t get it done as soon as I think I should). Usually, I am able to convince myself that not everything has to be done “right now”, and that I am going to let some items slide — for my own mental health. [For example, I am two days late in getting this posting out — which is my own timeframe; I decided no one would die if if came out late.]

With my newly re-prioritized list, I then look and see which tasks or items I could delegate to someone else, rather than do them myself. Many times there aren’t too many items I can hand off. Additionally, some of us (myself included) have the pattern of taking on too much and often look to others to “help us out”. This is ok in a work setting, if you have an administrative assistant whose job is to do these types of tasks. Both the pattern becomes problematic if we consistently overcommit ourselves and ask our spouses, family members, friends or colleagues to bail us out.

After delegating whatever I can (appropriately), it is now time to “dive in”. This means I start on the most important task and work on it until it is completed. Then I tackle the second most important task. The challenge is keeping focused, not getting distracted by minor interruptions, and working until the task is complete. Having a number of partially-completed important tasks does not bring the sense of relief and accomplishment that comes with successfully and fully completing a highly important task.

If you are truly overwhelmed (by my definition, at least), you are not going to “dig out” in one day. It is a longer term situation. Therefore, my next principle is to keep doing those things that are necessary to re-energize and rejuvenate you. Now is not the time to quit exercising. It is not the time to load yourself up with chemicals that give temporary energy or relief, but which will create a backlash (think sugar, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol). And don’t significantly reduce the amount of sleep you get. When getting caught up from being “buried”, we use a lot of mental and emotional energy. Sleep deprivation will just make matters worse. Now, realistically speaking, we may cut back on our exercise program, or work later (or get up earlier) to a degree, but the issue is one of moderation.

Two more points. First, celebrate the victories. As you knock off tasks that needed to be completed, be sure and take time to feel good about it. Take a breath, stretch and say, “OK, that one is done.” Then dive in to the next task (it generally doesn’t help the overall plan by celebrating for hours!)

Second, make decisions today that will not continue to create the overwhelmed pattern next week. Say “no”, “that will have to wait”, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.” Probably one of my biggest problems is continuing to say “yes” or to fill my calendar, leaving little time for margin. So check yourself and make sure you aren’t putting yourself in a “repeat this bad week” mode for the future.

Finally, I have been focusing primarily on getting the tasks done. But the real cost of feeling overwhelmed is how it impacts our relationships with others. We are rushed. We don’t have time to talk. We are irritable and “short”. We become primarily self-focused on our lives and what we feel we need to get done. We are unavailable (physically and emotionally.) And although those around us who care about us are willing to “put up” with us for a while, over the long term, these characteristics can really damage the relationship. [Guilty as charged. Gotta go talk to my wife.]

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