‘I’m overwhelmed’, a number of different managers told me recently. ‘My head is buzzy and busy. I’ve lots to do – everything is a competing priority. My day finishes and I feel I haven’t achieved a thing. The gloss has gone off my job. I’m not sure I want to be doing this anymore. I feel overwhelmed with it all’, they said, each naming some common symptoms. Sounds familiar? Overwhelm is a common condition that can temporarily or permanently freeze people in a most uncomfortable position. There are some steps that can be taken, however, to assist the movement from over to underwhelm.

Acknowledging and naming The State one is in, uncomfortable and alarming though it may be, is important. Temporary overwhelm doesn’t mean personal failure, poor coping skills or overall inadequacy for the job. Rather, it’s a signal that too much is happening at once and the way forward is unclear.   It means it’s time to get some advice, support and direction.

Stop Everything. Well, not forever, that wouldn’t do, but stop long enough to identify all the different issues, situations or stressors that are collectively contributing to the overwhelm state.   If you get stuck with your own analysis, get someone to ask you the questions, reflect back what you’ve described and then give their perspective on your situation.

Identify all the component parts. Put them on the table, so to speak, and consider each one. For example, do they all need to be worked on at once, simultaneously?  What are the priorities amongst them? Do they all have to be actioned by you, personally?  What can you delegate? Or if you have delegated, is it effective?  Can you work on some things with others? What’s in the too-hard basket and causing concern? What simply needs a finishing touch, to get it out of the way? What task or situation is truly a big issue and what is really very small, but seems very big?

Have a Plan. You don’t need a glossy bells and whistles affair –  a simple action plan will do.  Determine how far out your plan is to be for i.e. six months, a year, and record what you must do. Identify the baby steps, not the gargantuan leaps and bounds, to get to the final outcome.  Add the timeframe you’re working to, the sequential actions that must be taken, the resources you need and the outcome you require. A documented plan gives a blueprint for action and a path forward. It saves carrying information in your head and creates some ‘head space’.  It also enables the achievements and successes along the way, to be seen.

Get support around you, if you haven’t already got it. Have you got trusted colleagues you can brainstorm issues with? Can you discuss your plan with your manager? And outside of work, have you friends or key others you can talk to, over a coffee?

Follow the plan. Having got it, use it. Fretting about what you need to do, what you’re not doing, what you have done, what you didn’t do, whatever, can be immobilising, so take the Nike approach – just do it. Find a beginning point and go for it.

Another important step towards underwhelm is to simplify your world. For example, are you tolerating things in your working and personal life that irritate and drain your energy? Tolerating a messy office, dirty office windows, uncomfortable desk and chairs? Tolerating junk e-mail, sloppy work practices, missed deadlines? What are you tolerating around your home? The blocked sink, the dripping tap, the unfinished paint job, the home office that isn’t quite finished? Make a list of the tolerations and begin to remove them. Buy in people to help, set time aside to do things, do what ever it takes, to remove the tolerations and energy drains around you.

An imbalance in the personal and working worlds and a lack of self care can also contribute to overwhelm.  Working longer and longer hours, skipping breaks and packing more and more into the day in an effort to get on top of things, can be ineffective. Focus can be directed onto the wrong things. Time for thinking, planning and reflecting gets eliminated and before you know it, you’re on the non-stop motorway to overwhelm and energy loss. Factor in self care as a priority (it’ll be hard to remove overwhelm without it) and work to develop a balanced working and personal world.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Sometimes the realities of our working and personal lives can make us lose perspective and feel out of control. It’s generally temporary and will go when some specific actions put control back in the hands of the individual. Left unchecked, overwhelm can become permanent and damage individuals, their working lives and their organisations. In looking around your business, how many staff are in temporary or permanent overwhelm and need your help?


First Published in NZ Business September 2001

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