“When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment. – Maya Angelou”
Overwhelm. It’s hitting us all hard and it’s causing stress and anxiety on a scale that is growing exponentially. Overwhelm ultimately leads to employees either leaving or taking time off sick. It’s costing businesses thousands of pounds per year (at least), reducing team cohesion, morale and productivity and burning up valuable time that could be utilised far better. It’s effecting our home lives as well as our working lives and it’s time to do something about it.
All too often I hear from my clients how work is taking over life with the never-ending “to-do” list, emails throughout the night and early morning, Multiple top priorities from parallel projects and a feeling of overwhelm and helplessness sweeping over them.
But it doesn’t have to be like that, even on our busiest days. Regardless of the industry you are in balance and efficiency are key to wellbeing and productivity.
The key to keeping overwhelm at bay is to remind yourself you are in-control of your day and work. Empowerment and perspective are key.
Here are 10 tips to help you stay on top of your work day, maintain a work some balance to avoid feeling overwhelmed in work, regardless of your situation.
1. Value your ‘YES’
Too often we say we can’t say ‘no’, because we tell ourselves other people need us, because that’s the culture, because we want to please people, because we’ve been taught to put others and our company first. But here’s the thing.
You cannot give form an empty cup and you cannot please everyone. Time is the most finite resource you have every single day. Trying to please everyone means you can’t work efficiently or to the best of your ability. Stretching yourself too much will reduce the quality of your work and the overall efficiency too.
So instead of thinking your ‘YES’ is the default and your ‘NO’ is reserved for extreme circumstance, flip it.
Take a post it note and write YES on it 7 or 8 times. Each yes is an hour of your working day. This is your YES bank. When you decide to prioritise a piece of work cross off the number of YES’s it will require. Be mindful that you cannot add more YES’s.
It sounds simple but so often we are trying to juggle tasks that we forget our time is finite. We do not get more time in our day just because we take more on.
Respect your YES and use it wisely, do not let it be your default moving forward.
2. Stop Multitasking:
Think multitasking will save you time and make you more productive? Studies now suggest that multitasking actually decreases your productivity!
Our brains can’t actually focus on more than one complex at a time, instead it switches between tasks. Switching tasks takes two stages, “goal shifting” – going from one task being to another- and “rule activation” – switching form the rules of one task to another. These stages occur subconsciously to allow us to switch between tasks with ease, but the more complex a task the greater the switching burden from this background processing.
If we are trying to do two things at once, for example answer e-mails in a meeting, we are actually switching rapidly between each task. The switching burden of doing so reduces our ability to process data to complete each task, uses more energy than focusing on one task at a time and actually decreases our productivity, not to mention increasing a chance of missing something or making an error. (https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask)
In addition rapidly switching between tasks on a regular basis trains our brains to having a short attention span, which means when we try to focus on one task we find it harder than when we are used to focusing on one thing at a time.
3. Boundary your time
As well as respecting your YES’s, you need to start to take some control over how you spend them. Of course, there will be tasks you are required to do in work, meetings you need to attend etc, but how you structure the remainder of your day is entirely up to you.
Assign short bursts of time, 25 to 30 min break to focus just on one task.
Allocate 2-3 regular e-mail check and reply times throughout the day. Only look at your e-mails in this time! Yes! Stop constantly checking your e-mails, it is disrupting your focus and productivity flow. Turn of the pop up notifications for your e-mails too as this will distract you whilst you are working.
4. Take a Break:
Too often when we are feeling under pressure, we sacrifice our breaks to gain more time to work. But this slows us down.
Research shows that taking regular brain breaks (3-5 minutes is enough) increases productivity, creativity and allows our brains to have time to links abstract constructs, which enables us to have more complex problems solving capabilities.
The only time not to take a break is if you are in a state of ‘Flow’ when nothing seems to be distracting you and the work is happening with what feels like ease.
5. Walk and talk!
If you have a catch up with one or two people ask, do we need our computers for this? No? Great, take a walk, preferably outside when possible, for the meeting.
With modern technology you can still take notes on your phone, it gets you moving, boosts blood flow to your body and you brain and changes your environment which stimulates you.
Walking in nature is even better if there is any greenery near your workplace, try to take walk and talks there. Your colleagues will probably thank you too.
6. Realise you are replaceable:
I know, I said managing overwhelm is about being empowered. So how does knowing you are replaceable empower you?
Ultimately, regardless of your position or role, if you left your role today your company would (in 99% of cases) survive without you.
I had this realisation when my father died two days before one of the biggest events I have ever organised or run, was due to kick off.
My company at the time, were incredibly understanding and had no reservations about me taking the time I needed when I told them my father had passed away. I was terrified something would go wrong with the meeting without me there, but I couldn’t have been more wrong, the meeting ran and was hugely successful without me.
Until that point, I had believed everything was on me. I had told myself I had to do it all and if I didn’t the event would fail. But the truth is the meeting was important enough to the company that they continued on without me. And it was freeing.
It was SO freeing to accept that I was replaceable.
It made me realise I wasn’t responsible for everything.
I realised I could and should ask for help, delegate tasks and allowed me to give myself permission to not be a martyr. When I returned to work I went home and shut off from work, so I could be more present in my life, re-charge and give my best the next day.
7. Celebrate your wins:
All too often we focus on the to do list and even when it’s done we don’t even take a breath to celebrate the win and allow the dopamine hit resulting from it, before moving on to the next thing.
Celebrate and acknowledge your wins, big or small. Write them down, keep a list and recognise just how much you have done.
8. Practice gratitude:
MRI scans of the brain show gratitude is associated with a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter hormone associated with feelings of pleasures and satisfaction as part of the brains reward system (Zahn et al, 2008).
Writing down just three things a day at the end of each day that you are grateful for has been shown to boost overall mood, ability to see the positive side to life and improve your happiness.
If you can start noticing things to be grateful for throughout the day this will boost your mood, creativity and positivity.
For example if you are stuck in traffic, whilst it might make you late to a meeting, it also gives you a chance to listen to your favourite radio show, or finish that podcast you might otherwise have only been half way through. I won’t get you to the meeting any faster, but gratitude will mean you are in a better frame of mind when you arrive ensuring you can make up for lost time.
9. Make a clean break between work and play:
Work/ life balance requires a life to balance with, be it family, hobbies or down time outside of work balance is vital for you to be productive, creative and motivated in work.
You cannot give from an empty cup, so make sure you make a clean break between work and play.
Make a habit to signal to yourself that work is over. Be it a certain song in your playlist, deep breathing and centring before going into the house, or connecting the sound of a closing car door with shutting off before going into the house, but whatever it is, leave the emotional work luggage at work, don’t take it home with you.
If you need to do work in the evenings or weekends, boundary it. Set a time limit where you focus on the work so it doesn’t take over.
Have you been stealing from your sleep hours to get more time out of your day? Don’t!
The simplest and easiest way to improve your mood, motivation, energy levels, problem solving ability, learning, growth, concentration and productivity is to get a good nights sleep! But don’t just take my word for it, plan in some time to read or listen to “Why We Sleep” by Mathew Walker and you will never steal from your sleep hours again!
There you have it, 10 ways to get back in the driver’s seat of your work load, and fight back overwhelm. I’ve focused on what you can do personally, but don’t forget it’s always good to ask for help and find support from those around you. Asking for and accepting help is not a weakness, it’s a strength.
One last piece of advice, getting something done is better than trying to get it perfect, allow your-self some small imperfections to enable you to move on from a piece of work.