Last week a friend of mine called to express her growing sense of overwhelm. She’s overloaded at work, she’s had a couple of unexpected financial pressures and her ageing mum is not well. She feels that her time is constantly stretched and she’s having difficulty making decisions. Like many of us who find ourselves busy, her days are less productive (both at home and at work) and it’s starting to impact her confidence.
Times of overwhelm seem to be part of the natural ebb and flow of life, but they can also create a sense of unfulfilment if we don’t take steps to reduce the pressure.
If you find yourself experiencing any of the usual symptoms of overwhelm such as difficulty concentrating, an inability to make decisions, constant worry, loss of confidence and just a general feeling of not coping, try the following ideas to nip the cycle in the bud.
1. Write down your most significant concerns
When you feel overwhelmed it’s also likely you have many worries swirling around in your head.
Get away from your desk and spend an hour or two writing down every current task, commitment and concern you have in the following areas of your life – career, family, partner relationship, friends, physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, finances, creativity or hobbies, and even spirituality if it’s important to you. Include everything — even if it seems minor or incidental.
Having all of your commitments out of your head and on paper frees up some mental space, allowing you to think more clearly about what’s important and needs prioritising. When you see how long the list is, it’s likely you’ll be a little kinder to yourself before taking on anything else.
2. Create mental stillness by relaxing your body
After writing your list, walk away from it for at least thirty minutes and do something you find physically relaxing (listen to a body scan meditation, for example).
When we feel overwhelmed or anxious, we tense our bodies. One of the first steps to creating mental stillness and space is to relax physically. Tune into your body to become aware of the different ways you store mental and emotional stress.
If you’re like most people, your breathing will be shallow, your shoulders tight and you may find that you hold tension in your chest, abdomen, jaw and other parts of your face too.
Once you learn about where you typically store tightness in your body, you can be more mindful about releasing it on a regular basis.
3. Delegate, delay and delete
Once you’re physically relaxed, head back to your list and ask yourself, what can you delegate, delay or delete? If your first response is ‘nothing’, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if this was delayed by one month?”
Very often we impose commitments upon ourselves that we genuinely don’t have time for. We put ourselves under pressure to fit everything in and when we don’t, we feel like we’re failing.
Try taking some pressure off yourself by doing things well enough, rather than perfectly and think about how you could generally ease some of the high standards you have set for yourself.
You may find it helpful to write out a new list and only include your current and most pressing priorities. Keep the long list if you must, but file it away for later.
4. Break things down and take action
When you’re clear about your genuine priorities, choose just one and identify the first step – which is often as simple as sending an email, making a phone call or organising a meeting – and take that first step right away.
In my friend’s case, we ascertained that one factor contributing to her overwhelm was the fact that she hadn’t submitted tax returns for the past two years. After talking openly about it with me, she made a phone call to her accountant who put her in touch with a bookkeeper who will help manage her tax.
The duration of that phone call was ten minutes. The length of time that her tax returns have been worrying her is almost two years. Imagine if she’d taken that small action step 18-months earlier. She would have saved herself hours of niggling worry.
5. Stay focused to reduce overwhelm
Often the underlying cause of overwhelm is the swirling around of lots of different tasks inside your head, leaving you unable to focus on your priorities and be productive.
Be clear about your genuine ‘not-negotiables’ and allocate regular times for them.
Make sure you include the tasks that are important but typically get pushed to the bottom of the list (like doing your tax return).
When the allocated time comes, even if you don’t feel inclined to do so, make a commitment to spend five minutes to start one action related to the task. You may find this is enough to keep you motivated to continue or at least reduce some of the worry about it.
6. Hesitate before you say yes
If you’re someone who frequently finds yourself feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that you also have a tendency to take on too much.
Buy yourself time before automatically saying yes to new commitments by saying, “I’ll need to get back to you,” rather than agreeing immediately.
As you begin to address the sources of the overwhelm, also turn your attention to scheduling rest, organising a holiday, making more time for leisure activities, spending time with loved ones or generally just finding ways to reduce your commitments.