The Overwhelm

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)…

The Overwhelm.

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.

Celebrate successes

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.

I’ll take what I can get

I recently had the opportunity to put into practice some reframing.

That’s code for I was having a nightmare commute and it’s a good thing my 4G is patchy on the train or some poor soul at TFL’s complaints line would have been getting an earful.

It all started well but went pear-shaped on the track between West Ham and Canning Town. After spending 25 minutes getting exactly one stop closer to work, all Jubilee line trains were held in platforms while a mysterious “non-communicating train” at North Greenwich was – extremely slowly – being put back into the service.

It was a Monday, and the one day a week when my husband does the school and nursery run so I can get a full, normal day of work in. So I thought to myself, not only am I likely late for my first meeting of the week (and it’s a day of back-to-back meetings, so little room to manoeuvre here…), but I’ll have to make up the time elsewhere in my week when time is already tight. I’ve worked out my working/commuting/childcare schedules like an air traffic controller, so running 40 minutes late is not ideal.

I started to feel the exasperation and frustration rise, exacerbated by the sheer helplessness.

But I am pleased to say I was able to nip it in the bud. How, you might ask? Continue reading “I’ll take what I can get”

Returning to workforce

As I write this, I have just wrapped up my first week back at work after a year’s maternity leave with my second (and last) baby.

And it’s been great.

It’s been great seeing my colleagues and getting myself reacquainted with all the work that’s happening. It’s been great being myself again, and actually having time by myself on the train or on my lunch break. Even having some time to focus on work without also keeping an eye on the kids so the baby doesn’t eat a book (a real possibility) has felt like a luxury.

It’s also been great seeing my 5-year-old excited about going to the childminder’s after school and playing with other children, eating new foods, and then buzzing about his day as we walk home together. It’s been great seeing my one-year-old bonding with other babies and the staff at his nursery, and then coming to pick him up and give him loads of kisses and cuddles, all the sweeter for the time we spent apart.

And I’ve thought, “This is how a return to work should be.”

But it is a million miles away from my first return to work, which was a disaster that marked the beginning of one of my unhappiest periods of work life.

So what’s made the difference? There’s some luck involved, but there’s also a few things I can’t help but think have made the difference between miserably job hunting after work and looking forward to Monday. Continue reading “Returning to workforce”

Parenting together and playing to our strengths

Have you ever been given the idea that you and the other parent of your children need to be consistent with one another as much as possible?

It can feel like becoming a two headed entity, and can often lead to friction when you don’t always agree on how to handle something that comes up in the quagmire that is parenting, like how to handle a behavioural issue or a challenging stage of your child’s development.

Well, I had an eye-opening interview with a parent as part of my research to better understand parents and the highs and lows they face. She said she advises new parents that they don’t have to do everything identically. In their child’s eyes, they are two separate people. The kid can understand that Mum does things one way and Dad does them another way.

She gave the example of a friend who got really upset because her partner had dressed the baby differently to how she does. They apparently had a big fight about it. But when asked why it mattered, the mother paused in her tracks. Did it matter if her husband dressed the baby differently?

Huh. Continue reading “Parenting together and playing to our strengths”

The handbag metaphor

The other day I was walking past a local charity shop and I saw a handbag in the window that just seemed so me. It was bigger than the one I’d been using, had lots of pockets, and was a neutral navy and brown leather that I could see going with pretty much everything I wear. It was big enough to carry a book or my journal but not so big that I’d weigh it down with loads of extra stuff.

I’m also fast approaching my return to work after a year’s maternity leave, so time is a big thing for me at the moment. Both the concept of time passing of course but also quite practically speaking: how am I going to manage my time to do everything I want to do?

And that’s when it hit me: the handbag metaphor. Continue reading “The handbag metaphor”

Transformational pain

Today I’ve been feeling the full weight of endings.

The weather here in London has taken a sudden turn towards autumn, breaking crisp and cool this morning. As I walked my son to school, holding his hand in one hand and his bags in the other, with my baby in the carrier, it hit me: this is my last full week of a typical maternity leave. Next week, the baby (probably more a toddler now) starts settling in at nursery. Continue reading “Transformational pain”

Recipe: Healthy couscous two-ways

This couscous recipe isn’t the greatest for kids (at least, based on my five-year-old…the baby likes it so maybe less picky eaters will go for it) BUT it’s a great lunchtime option for working parents or a good quick cheap-and-cheerful meal.

One of the best parts is it can totally be customised for your own tastes. Here’s couscous two ways. Continue reading “Recipe: Healthy couscous two-ways”