Overwhelmed? Create Space to Consciously Choose Your Course
With the New Year off and rolling, perhaps you have new projects, deadlines, and responsibilities in your work and life. Are you feeling excited and enthusiastic, or stressed out and overwhelmed? Or maybe a bit of both?
Overwhelm is a verb defined as “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass.” Increasingly people are also using it as a noun as a synonym for “overload.” That may be because an overwhelming number of us feel overwhelmed much of the time!
It’s been a fact of business life for years that we are expected to perform at maximum efficiency, doing more in less time. Early predictions that technology would give us shorter workdays and more free time turned out to be spectacularly wrong. About a third of American workers frequently feel overwhelmed, overworked, and burned out, according to a frequently cited study by the Families and Work Institute.
The study found that “the fast-paced, global 24/7 economy, the pressures of competition and technology have blurred the traditional boundaries between work life and home life. Furthermore, the new economy called for new skills — skills like responding quickly to competing demands and jumping from task to task.”
Whether you call it feeling overworked, overloaded, or overwhelmed, this is how many of us perceive our days. We rush from one thing to the next, frenetically responding to emails, phone calls, and messages, trying to put out fires without stopping to consider what it is doing to us. Being connected all the time, it turns out, is not a recipe for calm.
There’s no doubt the demands on us are high, and constant change can feel stressful. However, a large part of feeling overwhelmed comes from our own perceptions. Our beliefs about how much we have to take on, what we have to say yes to, and what ‘done’ looks like contribute to the workload we face. The result: feeling like a hamster stuck on a wheel. Except that cute little rodent is actually focused on what he is doing, and getting some healthy exercise in the process!
One thing we have in common with the hamster when we feel overwhelmed is a lack of awareness. Without awareness, we keep repeating the patterns and habitual ways we respond when it feels like projects and demands are just too much to manage.
This is where mindfulness can help. When you pay attention to the sensation of being overwhelmed, you can investigate the causes and start to shift the patterns. Here are three ways to do this:
1. Reset and Refocus – One of the causes of overwhelm is that we simply lose focus on what really matters. Step back from what you’re doing and take three mindful breaths — what’s sometimes known as the “sacred pause.” Then think about what you were working on. By breathing, you give yourself a window to reconnect to your intentions, values, purpose, daily plan, and weekly goals. Is the interruption of the moment a higher priority, or simply a distraction from your current task? Choose to reset and refocus your attention and energy on what matters most.
2. Audit Your Time – We often overestimate how much we can get done and underestimate how much time each activity will take. Try doing a time audit on yourself for a few days, either by journaling or using an app that records the time you spend on your activities. As you observe how you spend your day, ask: “Where is my time going and why? Am I overestimating how much I can get done and underestimating what it takes to do it? Can I add buffers in my schedule to compensate for that tendency?”
3. Review Your Self-Management – Many of us power through projects alone, reluctant to pull in others even when we need to. Awareness can help. Notice what you believe about asking for help, delegating, setting boundaries, and saying “no.” Journaling can help here, too. At the end of the day, reflect on what you would do differently or how you can adjust your beliefs, assumptions and habits. Be sure to jot down what went well that day, along with your role in making it happen.
Most people live large parts of their daily lives unconsciously — rushing from task to task, saying yes more than no, not taking the time to align their time and energy with what matters most. Become more conscious about how you spend your energy and resources, and you will find yourself letting go of habits, activities and feelings that leave you feeling overwhelmed.