Managing Overwhelm in Overwhelming Times

It’s been a rough two years. Even if everything in your personal and professional life was moving along just swimmingly, pandemic-related lockdowns, restrictions, and concerns have added at least some measure of stress. If you’re like most of us, of course, that pandemic-related stress was layered on top of other everyday tensions that we typically manage with a range of aplomb and finesse (or not.) 

As we roll into another year of COVID headlines, among a litany of other stressors, the feeling of overwhelm may be rising, and learning to manage that overwhelm should make your short-term list of 2022 goals. 

What Does it Look Like?

Are you having trouble getting a full, good night of sleep? Are you forgetful or feeling unable to focus? Do you have less patience than you used to? Are you feeling a physical tension in your muscles? Do you stare at your to-do list wondering how to add hours to your day in order to get it all done? Are you feeling more cynical or pessimistic? Are you more apt to get annoyed? Is work (or something else) constantly on your mind? These can be symptoms of overwhelm.

If you’ve read this far thinking, “I’m fine. I’m not stressed,” you might be right. You might be juggling current events, work, and life well. You’ve found balance and while you’re aware of stressors around you, you’re dealing with it. That’s fantastic! Keep up what you’re doing! Or, just keep reading, because even if you’ve found your groove, someone you know may need a hand in finding theirs and the following tips can help you help them.

Identify the Trigger

You may not be able to remove the stressors from your life, but you can learn how to better manage them, or at least your response to them. Doing so, however, begins by identifying what those triggers are and then putting them into context of your big picture. What things can you control? What changes can you make? 

Set Realistic Goals 

A single day on Venus lasts longer than a year on the planet. Yes. You read that right. One day on Venus is the equivalent to 243 days on Earth, but a year on Venus is only 225 days on Earth. If you’re looking at today’s to-do list right now thinking “I’d need one whole Venus day to complete these tasks!” then we need to talk about setting reasonable expectations. In the short-term, prioritize your list and figure out how much you can reasonably complete in the time span you have here on Earth…not Venus. Delegate what you can. Re-evaluate due dates (conferring with stakeholders if necessary) and adjust accordingly.

Set Reasonable Boundaries

Long work days, working through weekends, and skipping your vacation days doesn’t mean you’re a highly productive, dedicated employee or leader. In fact, it is likely making you less productive. Moving from a long work day to chores and tasks at home isn’t helping either. You need downtime. That’s really not up for debate. 

Taking the time to relax and recharge will reduce your stress levels, your ability to focus, improve your mood, and make you more productive. Set yourself reasonable boundaries and carve out time to recharge. Don’t check office emails when you leave the office. Turn off your notifications. Leave the office at a reasonable time. Take your days off – weekends included. Set out space to enjoy being with your family beyond the commute from school or home to whatever litany of practices and activities you’ve jammed in. 

Kick out The Perfectionist

Yes, you want to produce quality work. You want to put your best foot forward. That’s not the same as perfect. Perfection is unattainable. There is nothing at all wrong with “good enough.” Set the bar of your expectations at a level you can actually reach. Good is more than doable. Greatness may even be obtainable. Perfection is not and the quest to get there is weighing you down. 

Set Your Deadlines Accordingly

Spray foam insulation will expand to fill the space it has. Small crack around the new door you just installed? The spray foam will pack itself in perfectly. Wider space around window joints? The foam will expand just the right amount to fill the space. Cyril Northcote Parkinson says your work is a lot like that spray foam. According to Parkinson’s Law, your work will expand to fill the time you set aside for it. 

That task that you could get done this afternoon if you put your mind to it, will take a week if that’s how long you give yourself to do it. Parkinson’s Law is the stuff procrastination is made of. It can contribute to statements like “Oh, it’ll just take me a few hours and it’s not due until Friday. I’ll do it later.” That’s fine if you’re pushing it off to embrace your down time. It’s a problem if you get to Friday afternoon and now you’re crunching to get the tasks complete. Be realistic about the time you have and the time you need. Set smaller goals in bite-sized chunks for your projects and aim at completing segments of them as opposed to the last minute scramble to complete it all. 

Look for The Good

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to lock our eyes on the struggle and miss all the other stuff going on around us. Make a concerted effort to give voice to gratitude each day. Focusing on what we  are thankful for can make us more optimistic, happier, and healthier. Even better, it can also make us better at our jobs.