Overwhelm overthrown – conquering chaos and reclaiming control

The Oxford Dictionary defines overwhelm as “bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something, especially water” or “have a strong emotional effect on”. These definitely resonate with how I feel when I’m experiencing overwhelm! That pressure we feel when we can see emails and Slack messages stacking up, you have back to back meetings, you’re working from home so you can see the washing piling up, the dog needs walking…and you can feel the anxiety building up. Your heart rate might creep up, you get the sweats, headaches, low mood and you just don’t know how you’re going to get all this “stuff” done.

Everyone experiences feelings of overwhelm at some point, as a normal response to day-to-day stressors. In small amounts, it can actually be helpful as it can drive you to increase your focus and be more productive to get through the list! But…! There is a tipping point where it stops being beneficial and moves you into a negative emotional, mental and physical state. Don’t fret! There are lots of steps you can take to bring things back into your control when you start to feel overwhelm creeping in. Here are some of the strategies I personally find most useful.

1. Move

If I start to feel myself getting overwhelmed, the absolute worst thing I can do is stay in the same place and try and muddle my way through it! I need clarity, and for that I need to change my location. If I’m at home, I may take the dogs for a walk. If I’m in the office, I can go for a coffee, grab some lunch, or take a walk around the block. By physically taking myself out of the place I’m feeling the stressors kick in, I can mentally remove myself and create space to think.

2. Breathe

Stress triggers the fight or flight responses within the sympathetic nervous system, which results in physical changes to the body including fast, shallow breaths and an increased heart rate. You can control your body’s stress responses and initiate your parasympathetic nervous system by concentrating on taking some slow deep breaths, which will slow your heart rate back down and restore your calm physical state, which in turn helps you to effectively implement some of the following strategies. There are structured breathing exercises you can use, such as box breathing (also known as four-square breathing) where you would exhale all the air in your lungs for 4 counts, hold your breath for 4 counts, inhale for 4 counts, and hold your breath for 4 counts. 4 rounds of this should take you to around 1 minute, and you only need a couple of cycles to begin to feel the positive effects. Don’t do too many cycles though or you’ll get dizzy! You don’t need to follow any form of structure if you don’t feel comfortable. Just taking several long, deep and full breaths in and out will help to start to restore a feeling of calmness and control.

3. Write everything down

If all the “stuff” is whirling around in your head, it ALWAYS feels bigger than it actually is. Personally, I find that physically writing it down using a pen and paper helps me to visualise it literally travelling down my arm and onto the page. But you can do whatever works best for you; paper, sticky notes, a miro board, trello, a digital note, Jira tickets…The important thing is that you get it out of your brain and somewhere you can start to review, refine & order the list.

4. Prioritise

Once you have your list you can start to allocate priority to each task so you know which things genuinely require attention right now, and which things either don’t need to be done by you (see the next point!) or can be done at a later date when you have more capacity. What you use to base your priority around is up to you, but don’t fall into the trap of confusing urgency with importance! Someone may say they need something “urgently”, but be sure you understand the expected value or outcome associated with the task so you can make a call around how high or low a priority that task is against another.

5. Outsource

Now you have your prioritised list, the “things to do” is already looking shorter (woohoo!). The next step is to determine if there are tasks on that list (including the low priority items) that do not need to be done by YOU. You may be accountable for a task being completed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it yourself. Who else has the skills and/or availability to be able to carry out a particular task? Feeling overwhelmed usually involves stressors from both home and work. For home; is there someone who could walk the dog for you a couple of days this week? Is there someone who can put the washing away, cook dinner, pick up a birthday present for a party at the weekend…? At work; is there someone you can delegate that meeting to? Or who could do some research into that proposal, review that document or book in that meeting? I find that its often the smaller tasks that take up space in my mind so even outsourcing some of these can help with removing some of the clutter so I can focus on the high priority, bigger tasks, which definitively require me to complete.

6. Say “no” or manage expectations

I’m a people pleaser, I want to help, and there are always so many things I could get involved in where I know I could add or get value that I’m like Hermione Granger at the front of the class throwing my hand up at the first opportunity.

Cue the cycle of overwhelm when I realise I’m way over-committed and cannot effectively keep all these plates spinning! It’s OK to say “I don’t have capacity to pick that up right now” or “I don’t think I’m the best person for this task” or “I’m happy to do [x] but which of [a, b, c] should I de-prioritise?”. If we just keep saying “yes” no-one knows we’re struggling to balance our workload, so by fostering open, honest and transparent communication you can keep control of your own things to do list and prevent it getting out of hand. Understanding the scope of the request before you say “yes” is really important! How often have you agreed to do something on the understanding that “it won’t take long” and when you actually get into the detail it blows up into something huge?! This is the hardest step for me, and it’s something I’m continually working on.

I now try to set myself clear boundaries to manage the amount of extra commitments I take on both at work and at home. I make a list of the highest priority things for ME and use this to decide which 2 or 3 things outside of my core roles I will commit to in the coming quarter (depending on what I feel my capacity is likely to be). If, at the time, it turns out I have capacity to pick up more, then I can choose whether I want to do so on a case by case basis. For anything else, the hand stays firmly down! The other strategy I use to stop saying “yes” is to remind myself that for everything I take on, it may be a missed development opportunity for someone else who was perhaps a little unsure (or just not quick enough!) to put their hand up. So by stepping back from some activities it creates space for others to step up and volunteer where they may otherwise have kept quiet.

7. Speak up!

If you’re really struggling and you can’t see how you can de-prioritise, outsource, or negotiate longer time-frames on your existing tasks then speak to someone. Whether it’s your manager, account lead, a mentor, coach, friend, partner or confidante. By talking it through with someone else you may be able to explore other avenues which you hadn’t been able to see on your own. If it’s work related, make your manager aware as, not only will they be able to re-distribute priority tasks among the team, they will also want to know if you’re feeling overwhelmed, so they can support you and your wellbeing.

8. Tick things off!

I don’t know about you, but I get great satisfaction from ticking things off my list! And sometimes (ok, a lot) I will put tasks on the list which I know I’ve already completed as it reinforces the feeling that I’ve achieved something and I’m making progress through the list. Visually seeing the list getting smaller through the day (along with invoking step 6 to avoid it growing at the same rate!) helps with that sense of control and order and knowing it’s OK, I’ve got this, everything I’m working on has value, I have the capacity to get it done and if I don’t I know how I will manage it.

Whilst stress and overwhelm is a part of life in the modern, fast-paced world, there are many tactics you can use to conquer chaos and regain control when you feel overloaded. These are just some of the techniques I find useful, so I hope they may help you too!