Overcoming overwhelm: Why it matters for leaders and what you can do about it

While it is natural to be working with a plate that’s full to bursting from time to time, sustained periods of more than we can reasonably handle are a cause for concern. Our productivity, effectiveness, and feelings of accomplishment can all take a hit when we are constantly feeling overwhelmed.

Even more importantly, the cumulative impact of ‘overwhelm’ compromises our health and well-being, not just our capacity to perform well each day.

For everyone who has ever found themselves overwhelmed, and perhaps even on the verge of burnout, there are proven ways to course correct. Each of these practices can help you leave overwhelm behind you. They can also be readily integrated into your daily life to set you up for sustained success.

The core shift to make: know it’s a matter of choice

You will notice an underlying theme in each of the three practices that follow: the theme of choice. Overcoming overwhelm is, at its core, about making a conscious choice to put yourself back in the driver’s seat about what you do.

To help you make that shift, I want to invite you to envision yourself moving from reacting to responding. As you do, you will be able to see and appreciate the opportunity to begin making conscious choices about your priorities.

For example: Will you take this on, or not? Will you do it yourself or enlist the help of others? If you do it yourself, how will you define and choose your response time?

Sounds simple, right? However, the reality is that it is hard to shift out of autopilot once you find yourself reacting to everything that comes your way by working longer and harder, in the belief you do not have a choice.

The reactive autopilot sounds like: ‘I need to do it all…myself, today, before I can take a break, or go on vacation’ and so on. Or, it might sound like, ‘I don’t have a choice, there’s no one else to do it, everyone is counting on me to deliver.’

However, by choosing to respond (rather than react), you can begin to move away from defaulting to ‘yes’ or believing that you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice about how you will respond. The magic—and the hardest part—is in realizing you have a choice and following through to make one.

The reality is that it is hard to shift out of autopilot once you find yourself reacting to everything that comes your way by working longer and harder, in the belief you do not have a choice.

Michelle Lane

By making conscious decisions about what you will do each day, you will naturally be defining what you spend time on and accomplish, whether it is a small piece of a larger task or the full completion of a project. In the process, you will be taking a decisive step towards overcoming overwhelm and avoiding the slippery slope to burnout. Here are three concrete, sequential practices to help you take it further.

1. Choose your BIG ROCKS 

Choose your ‘Big Rocks’ first. This practice is about getting clear about the priorities that matter to you. Think of the big priorities as the ones you envision guiding your life—personally and professionally. 

For example, is health and wellness a priority? How about family time? Where does your personal growth as a leader rank? Or your ability to make contributions to your community? If learning and development for others matters, where does mentoring your team fit? 

Are you clear about your Big Rocks, and can you readily define and rank each one in order of its importance to you? 

When you take the time to get clear about your current priorities, you will have a personal framework, or roadmap, to help you make good decisions about your ongoing, day-to-day priorities.

I often use a ‘Big Rocks’ exercise in leadership workshops to underscore the point that when you know and focus on your big rocks first, you can naturally fit other, lesser priorities in and around the big rocks with minimum stress. You will find a useful demonstration of the Big Rocks metaphor here. Have a look at the short video and then take some time to ask yourself: ‘What are my Big Rocks?’ 

Remember, the essence of making a conscious choice is about saying YES to some things; NO to others. 

2. Create your ‘DO Scale’

Now that you have clarified your Big Rocks, begin to sort your daily tasks into what you WILL DO (or WILL NOT) and HOW you will do it. As you do, remember that if you do not make conscious decisions about what gets added to your plate, others will decide for you. 

For this exercise, include the big and small initiatives already on your plate as well as the daily ‘incoming’ requests. These might be meeting requests, potential new assignments, emails, calls, anticipated interruptions, etc. 

To help you do this sorting, ask yourself how you will choose to handle each item. I like to use a simple five-point scale I call the ‘DO Scale,’ and it works like this:

With your Big Rocks in mind, choose one of the following categories for each item on your plate:

Ditch It – You read that right; start with the things you will NOT DO. Ask yourself a few key questions to help you here: is this genuinely essential? Is it still needed or relevant? Is it consistent with my Big Rocks?

Delegate It – Who is the best person to do this? Hint: Often, the best answer is not you! Consider a wide range of possibilities here: staff, peer colleagues, freelancers, virtual assistants, friends, family, interns, etc. Ensure you delegate in ways that empower others for success, with clearly defined expectations, accountability, supports and timelines.

Defer It – Just because someone asks for something today or calls it ‘urgent’ does not mean you are under any obligation to do it, or do it now/today—especially if it means dropping the ball on your own priorities or working a longer day.

Instead, choose to consider how you will respond. If it isn’t a ‘Ditch It or Delegate It’ candidate, have a conversation about timelines and expectations (yours and theirs) and agree on a reasonable completion date. Then, you can schedule it in your priorities appropriately. 

Do Less – What counts as ‘done’ for you, and what could be done less, or with less time and effort on your part? For anyone with a tendency towards perfectionism, begin to challenge yourself to shoot for 80% more often, rather than 100 – 110%.

Remember, getting it done is far more powerful than continuing to labour over a task, allowing it to get in the way of everything else you want to do. This is especially relevant when it’s a case of multiple rounds of revisions, with others involved in creating a final product.

Do – By now, you should have a much smaller list of tasks to consider, having assigned many others to the previous four points on this scale. As a final check on what you assign to this category, ask yourself a few more questions:

  • Does it align with my Big Rocks?
  • Am I really the best person to take this on? 
  • Is my focus/role/work here aligned to the contribution I most want to be making?
  • If the work is new or challenging, especially if it feels like a stretch, what supports will I want/need?
  • Am I taking on the whole task or playing a designated role to launch, empower and support others and if so, what will I not be doing or mentoring others to do more of?

3. Set your BOUNDARIES

Boundaries, like fences, are the defined barriers you choose to erect for yourself. When you are focused on overcoming overwhelm, boundaries are a way to signal – and protect – your time for your priorities. Whether you intend to use the time to focus on your Big Rocks or a minor task you have chosen to do at a given time, boundaries give you the time and space to get it done. 

As with the process of choosing your Big Rocks and creating your DO Scale, setting boundaries is a matter of choice: Your Choice. For an example, consider the following. 

Imagine that you have chosen to designate a block of time for focused work on a major strategic initiative (think planning, problem-solving or developing strategic options). Now ask yourself, what boundaries do you want to set to ‘protect’ that priority and the time you allocate to it? Here are a few options to consider: 

  • Use a physical and digital ‘do not disturb’ notice
  • Turn off all electronic notifications
  • Forward your phone to voice message or simply turn it off
  • Set a timer to signal when it is time to wrap up, so you are not constantly distracting your flow to check the time

Regardless of how much or how little progress you make during the block of time you have designated for this work, take a moment to appreciate that you have successfully devoted focused time to the work, free of interruption or distraction. Recognize it as a measure of progress in setting boundaries for yourself. Each time you do, you will be building your ‘conscious choice’ muscles and your capacity to overcome overwhelm. 

It is possible to overcome overwhelm. By using the three-step process I outlined, you will be building the tools, and your enduring capacity, to focus on the ‘big rocks’ in your life, make conscious decisions about what you do (and how or if you do it), and define the boundaries that serve you best. By doing so, you will boost your productivity and well-being as you lead and perform at your very best.

Michelle Lane

Michelle Lane is a leadership development coach, consultant, and facilitator with 40 years of diverse leadership experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Michelle can be reached at mlane@vibrantleaders.ca.

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