Strategies for dealing with overwhelm

Ever had one of those weeks where the work just keeps piling up? I had one of those this week. As fast as I could trawl through my actions list, more jobs flew onto the pile.

As if the steadily ballooning list of ‘stuff that just needs doing’ weren’t enough, I had two meetings on Monday that dropped two enormous jobs on me – jobs that are so far up the urgent and important scale they make the rest of the tasks on my list seem insignificant (even though they’re not).

I call unexpected, high effort/importance tasks like these ‘SCUDs’ – after the SCUD missiles deployed by Iraq in the Gulf war – as they are unexpected, unpredictable, explosive and tend to cause a high amount of collateral damage.

Overwhelm: the signs

When things start to pile up, it’s natural to start feeling under pressure and at a loss for how to tackle a seemingly impossible set of tasks. This is often referred to as “overwhelm” and it can be a seriously destructive force.

Sign 1: Sweaty Palms. This the early indicator that things are getting to you. Blood pressure rises, stress sets in and suddenly you’re sweating more than normal. Other physical symptoms include things you might normally associate with a mild panic attack, such as heart palpitations, shortening of breath and the feeling of being constricted or confined in a small place.

Sign 2: Loss of concentration. Unhelpfully, one of the first thing your brain does as it enters overwhelm is start to abandon all the strategies and habits that you’ve put in place to deal with situations like these. I have no idea why our biology is wired to employ ‘Panic!’ as a coping mechanism, though I’m sure it harks back to the Fight or Flight mechanisms, involves caves, clubs, woolly mammoths and wotnot and can probably be explained by someone with a Psychology degree. Regardless, as soon as you notice yourself abandoning your task lists, schedules, email processing rules etc. you know you’re in trouble.

Sign 3: Irrational thought. With all this adrenaline sloshing about your system, your brain tends to get a bit giddy and rational thought takes a bit of a back seat. The effects of this range from general feelings of helplessness about stuff you would normally breeze through, experiencing moments where your mind just goes blank, or simply denial about how much of what you need to achieve is actually possible.

In my case, I realised I was entering Overwhelm when I got home from work and felt significantly more anxious than usual for no obvious reason. I then also realised that I’d been hopelessly optimistic about my ability to crack through my backlog of jobs during my upcoming travel – I’d somehow decided that during a 2-hour train trip I’d be able to get through about 6 hours of outstanding jobs – ridiculous.

Dealing with the overwhelm

So what does an Alpha do when faced with Overwhelm? There are a few stategies that work a bit better than ‘Panic!’:

  • Look out for the signs You’re most able to respond rationally to Overwhelm when you can see it coming…by the time you’re immersed in you’ll find it much harder to think rationally and take recovery steps. Learn to spot your own personal symptoms of upcoming overwhelm
  • Say No more often You’re at breaking point, so accepting more and more work isn’t going to help you or the person requesting your input. Develop strategies for saying No constructively and making yourself less available team members. As a line manager, saying “can you come back later?”to ad-hoc requests its the thing I find hardest to do.
  • Ditch anything non-urgent, non-important You need to go into prioritisation overdrive to avoid or recover from Overwhelm. Make sure you’re not working on anything but the most crucial of tasks. Map them out visually if it helps.
  • Ask for help You’re (probably) not superhuman. In most instances you’ll be more respected for calling out that you’re swamped and getting some support than you will for soldiering on and (most likely) screwing up one or more of these important jobs.
  • Keep capturing There’s nothing more scary than seeing that list of jobs grow and grow…but you’re fooling yourself if you think not writing stuff down is going to help. Trust in your system and your ability to deal with this stuff later…keep adding those tasks (if you’re unable to avoid them by saying No constructively)
  • Ditch the review For a short period of time you’re going to need to focus on the stuff that’s at the very top of your priority list. Processing the stuff that’s further down is a pointless exercise until you have the bandwidth to work on those tasks. Caveat: This does assume that you’ve got full visibility of all your Urgent/Important tasks and are dealing with them (or have delegated them).

The lesson

Unless you’re super-organised or incredibly lucky, you’re going to experience Overwhelm at some point. The key to dealing with it productively is to recognise the signs and employ tactical coping mechanisms to work through it.

The good news is that it won’t last forever. In my case I predict it will take me the rest of the week to come out of Overwhelm, and I’ll probably need to be vigilant about staying on top of it for the next few weeks, potentially until the end of August when my new “SCUD” concludes. Plan your Overwhelm period like any other project, and sooner or later you’ll feel in control again.

How do you deal with overwhelm? Let us know in the comments below