We’ve all been there. Or at least I hope we’ve all been there so it isn’t just me.
You’ve got deadlines piling up at work faster than you can finish them regardless of the effort and hours you’re putting in…
There’s a seemingly never ending list of admin things to do at home that you never seem able to find time to do…
Despite your best efforts at timekeeping you find it’s the kids’ bedtimes what feels like five minutes after you get home (“where did the evening go?” you ask yourself as you’re trying to gently but firmly get your kid out of the bath, teeth brushed, and bedtime stories read so he isn’t too late along asleep)…
I had a serious case of it last week. But I’m pleased to say that I think I broke the back of it, and this week is going much more smoothly – even with a couple of illnesses in the family scuppering plans for the week.
Here are some of the things that I’ve learned along the way that really helped me last week, and I hope will help you next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all.
Identify the main triggers
Whilst by its nature overwhelm is often the feeling of lots of things adding up, sometimes there are a few big triggers for feeling this way (as opposed to your run-of-the-mill busy-and-slightly-stressed feelings).
For me last week, I realised it was work, money, and home routines. Sure, other things contributed, but as I reflected on this (on my commute – no fancy break to reflect on this all so do it when you can!), I was sure that if I felt more in control of my spiralling workload and my money, and if I could ease the pre- and post-work hours at home, I’d feel everything else was much more manageable.
Which leads me to my next helper…
Identify the simple steps
A simple step is something really straightforward that doesn’t take a huge amount of time and you have and know everything you need to be able to do it.
So instead of, “finish X piece of work” for my work stress, it might be, “send this email to this person.” Simple, simple, simple.
I set myself five simple steps. Really simple steps.
One, for example, was to put my out of office on my emails so I could get my head down and do a key piece of work that needed focus and time. That was it – put out of office on – but it meant I knew exactly what to do immediately upon sitting down at my desk that morning.
The simplest steps (putting out of office on, diarising time to do certain pieces of work) made way for the bigger things (shortlist the 60-odd applications for a vacancy in my team at work, finish budget planning and forecasting).
The result? I actually got everything done that I really needed to do. Which ended up being a godsend this week when I had to take a day of sick leave myself and another day of leave to look after my toddler, who is home from nursery for two days following a tummy bug.
It’s easy to skip this, but I found it hugely helpful to take a minute on the train to celebrate what’s gone well, and particularly what I have done well.
Why does it matter?
Well, for starters, it chips away rather significantly at that feeling of overwhelm. Overwhelm shrinks away from the bright light of Accomplishment, so taking a minute to feel those accomplishments and let that light shine helped me feel I could handle everything still left to do.
Secondly, I was able to identify the things I did that worked well, to repeat with the next day’s battle with the to do list. So for example, realising how well it worked for me to turn off email and knock out big chunks of work, I can decide to do this again (judiciously) in the future.
Thirdly, celebrating success helps combat the dreaded imposter syndrome, which in turn reduces the unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.
Think about it – quite often we set really high expectations for ourselves as a way to overcome the ways we feel not good enough.
So if I feel like not a good enough manager, I respond by trying to get Herculean amounts of work done to a high standard; then no one can know what a fraud I am.
Or if I’m not a “good enough” mother, I can fool others from realising this by signing my kid up for all kinds of activities and making sure he’s immaculately dressed for school with award-worthy homework completed every night.
But when I can see that I am good enough, just as I am, I can be far more compassionate to myself and reasonable in my expectations.
This week, that has meant telling a colleague quite honestly that I wouldn’t be able to look at something until next week. It meant postponing some work that I wanted to do sooner, but which actually could wait a week or two. The urge to overperform is still there, but I haven’t felt like I absolutely had to do everything immediately, as my performance is less linked to my worth.
Ride it out
The last thing I’d like to leave you with is this: ride it out.
The wave of overwhelm can make you feel like you’re drowning, so it can help to remember that you aren’t drowning. You’ll be fine. This page in your life will eventually turn to the next page. There will be busy and overwhelming times again but there will also be calmer times. How you’re feeling right now is not permanent.
Identifying the triggers so you can take simple steps to address the root causes of your overwhelm, and then celebrating your successes and realising you don’t have anything to prove – you are enough, just as you are – will help you regain a little more sense of control, so you can ride out the storm until the sun starts to break through the cloud again.
Which it will.