Dealing with Overwhelm

Most women I know have experienced overwhelm at some point in their lives. For some of us it was the never-ending overload of information, an impossible number of tasks being added to our already overflowing to-do lists or those continuous and often conflicting demands for our time by work colleagues, family and friends.

No matter what the causes, the results are the same – that unpleasant stressful feeling of not being able to cope as well as we are used to.

Our brains can only take in limited amounts of information

Overwhelm seems to be an increasingly common phenomenon these days. We simply have too much to do or take in, for the amount of time and energy we have available. George Miller [1] discovered that human beings tend to be able to only hold between 5 and 9 chunks (pieces) of information in their heads at any given time. And for those of you who are interested, that is 126 bits of data. I am sure there are people who have trained themselves to cope with more, however for most of us it is safe to say that there is a limit of how much we can realistically take in at any given time.

Multi-tasking does not work

Another interesting fact is that research has shown that multi-tasking does not work [2]. We can, in fact, only productively focus on one thing at a time. Switching between different tasks is not only not productive, it also makes us feel stressed in the long run.

Why do I mention these two pieces of research? The reason is that a lot of women who experience overwhelm do the exact opposite of what these pieces of research suggest: they try to do even more in a shorter timeframe or at the same time, hoping in vain to be able to push through the overwhelm. Unfortunately those strategies don’t work, they just make an already bad situation worse and can lead to stress induced illnesses.

Overwhelm busting strategies that work!

There are a number of simple and powerful strategies that can help you effectively beat that vicious cycle of overwhelm.  At first these strategies, might seem counter intuitive and overly simple, however I invite you to give them a go as I know they work.

1.       Take a big step back

Figuratively speaking. And some of my clients took that literally, either went into another room, for a walk or just stepped back from their desk and had great results.

The key is to look at your situation from a neutral observer’s point of view, as if you are watching yourself on TV. What can help is if you think of yourself in the third person, asking yourself:

What is going on for {your name} right now? MAKE A LIST of all the things that going on, initially NOT judging if they are urgent, necessary or unimportant.

Once you have your list, and there is nothing else to add, start categorising on a new piece of paper. Divide the page into three columns, giving them the following headings

  • Urgent and important
  • Not urgent and important
  • Not urgent and unimportant

Be ruthless with your list. You may have to go through it a few times until you have a manageable number of items in the urgent/important category. That is the category to focus on as a priority.

2.       Offload what you can

As a next step, look at your categories and find groups of tasks that you can offload.

You might say, well, there is no one I can delegate to. Really? Have you challenged all that is on your plate, everything? Go through every point on your list and challenge yourself to find someone who could do this for you. Granted, you might not necessarily be able to delegate at work, however you might be able to delegate at home or the other way around.

Offloading goes further. Challenge yourself to find other ways to getting the results you need from the tasks on your list. I am always in awe, how creative women can be when they really put their mind to finding ways to permanently reducing their overwhelm.

Let me give you some examples from my clients, which might help you come up with your own strategies:

  • Check out Virtual Assistants – one of my clients hired one to categorise her e-mails for her, make appointments and deal with the easy yet time-consuming enquiries she received, freeing up a huge amount of her time and inbox
  • Another client discovered Recycling to avoid reinventing the wheel.  When she needed to write a document, she would first do an electronic search and ask colleagues for examples (the process taking 10 minutes in total) before starting to write. This approach reduced her writing time in half (and more importantly took most of the stress out of writing).

3.       Divide and conquer

Pick what you feel is the most important thing on your list, and set yourself a time in which you deal with just that one thing. Everything else is safely on your list, so you will not forget about it. Focus on that one thing for the allocated time. So called ‘time boxing’, setting a clear time frame, works well to focus the mind.

Let me give you an example how this could work: A lot of us are drowning in an overload of e-mails, some of which are important and some are not, and they tend to pile up. Set yourself, let’s say 30 minutes to deal with e-mails marked urgent and just do 30 minutes to work through as many as you can. Then look at your list again and pick the next urgent/important task, maybe writing a report, and set yourself  e.g. 1 hour to write the first chapter. And so on. Remember to take breaks in between.

Focussing on one thing at a time, helps to de-stress the brain, whilst time boxing the task, focusses our brain even more. You will be amazed how quickly you are getting things done.

Prevention is better than cure

Of course, we all know preventing a situation like overwhelm is a lot better than waiting for it to happen. Here are a couple of things you might like to consider putting place to prevent overwhelm from occurring or to deal with it faster should it catch you unawares:

  • Be clear on ‘what is important to you’  – take some time, and discover your priority list of ‘what is important to you’, or – in other words – values. When we are not aware of our values, we can find it difficult to make a meaningful decisions on what to prioritise.
  • Prime your team – identify who has your back when you need to off load activities or you need a helping hand. Team is not limited to direct reports, it could comprise family members, friends, colleagues, bosses, health or fitness professionals, coaches and many more. Make sure you know who could help with what, when the need arises, and be prepared to do the same for them.

The above are a small selection of overwhelm busting strategies, including engaging a coach or mentor to help you through a time of overwhelm.

I would love to hear from you what strategies have been and are successful for you.

                                          

[1] Wikipedia – The magical number 7

[2] Cognitive Science – Multitasking

                                        

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4 responses to “Dealing with Overwhelm

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  2. Pingback: Preparing for a stress free festive season | Being a successful Woman

  3. Pingback: Have you tried to ‘chew’ life? Another perspectives on mindfulness | Being a successful Woman

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