David chats about how to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed.
The feeling of being overwhelmed is something people have been experiencing more of since COVID rocked our world of work. It’s certainly (and thankfully) talked about a lot more too!
Ellie and I recently designed and delivered a webinar on psychological safety for the CIPD. The research and design for the session (done mainly by Ellie… obviously) made us reflect a whole lot on the subject of being overwhelmed. I mean it’s an odd word for a start. What’s the opposite? I don’t want to be underwhelmed so do I strive for just the right level of ‘whelm’?
Anyway, for me psychological safety means I’m not wary about my colleagues and that I can completely trust them. This is true for me at Rambutan. I’m able to bring my whole self to work and not have to hide how I’m feeling. But for many, feeling overwhelmed can be a hard thing to admit if they don’t feel that safety. Because of the volume of coaching that we do, we’re pretty neat at creating psychologically safe spaces for our clients and, in those spaces, we’re hearing more and more people talking about feeling overwhelmed. People talk about having too much to do and being out of control. They endure back-to-back online meetings which burns their energy and time long before they get around to doing their actual work. Even more worrying is the number of people who think that it’s their own fault and that they’re the odd one out for feeling like this… nonsense on both counts!
Feeling overwhelmed is very common, but that doesn’t mean it’s nice or good for you. It’s quite the opposite. The symptoms and physical manifestations are similar to that of being stressed and if you want an expert opinion on that, read what the British Heart Foundation thinks about it!
For me, I felt overwhelmed when I had an all-day team meeting or pow-wow (that’s the daft name we’ve given to our monthly consultant development events) at Rambutan. I tried to be completely engaged for the day, but there was a little voice in the back of my mind reminding me that at 4 pm I’d got my ‘actual’ work to do. I recognised feeling out of control due to the lack of time, especially if I received emails throughout the day for something that was of a client and urgent nature. It was becoming the worst part of my month when it should have been the best bit as all the team were together in person.
Then, completely out of the blue, the universe conspired to help me. I was checking out of a hotel in York the day after running an event there. The receptionist handed me a copy of my invoice and said to me, “Have a safe journey and enjoy your day from the point where it becomes your day.” Boom! For the two-hour car journey home, what he said raced through my mind. When does my day become my day? And if it’s not my day, who’s is it and how did they get it? Why aren’t all my days my day? And if it’s really someone else’s, how do I exercise some control over it and enjoyment in it?
So, I thought, what would it look like, sound like and feel like if every day felt like my day? Ben Hunt-Davies, the Olympian, once told me his morning mantra. ‘Today is going to be a phenomenal day because I’m going to make it so.’ Clearly, I had work to do. So where did I land?
Now when I start to feel overwhelmed, I take care to deliberately acknowledge it. Saying out loud, “I have noticed I’m starting to feel overwhelmed.” This is astonishingly helpful by immediately reducing the feeling and giving me a sense of control over it. And the more I practise it, the earlier I seem to be able to ‘catch’ the feeling. I then deliberately look forward to something exciting I’m doing soon. For me, that may be an upcoming ski trip, a weekend camping and walking, or simply a family meal. I then ask myself, how could I enjoy today anyway… because, it’s going to happen whether I enjoy it or not and it gets me one step closer to doing the exciting thing. I’ve always loved the saying, ‘We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time’ and now I’ve started to apply it a little bit more every day.
Another source of inspiration that I’ve applied to myself and used with many clients is Jane McGonigal’s amazing TED Talk on how to boost resilience and live longer. And her twin sister Kelly puts forward some interesting thoughts (and staggering statistics) on how to make stress your friend in her TED Talk. What these talks both point to is that, in the long term, building up your resilience and changing your beliefs about your feelings and your level of control over them will pay dividends (and might even save your life). There’s also a wonderful book by Carl Honoré called ‘In praise of slow’. This book is a great reminder to slow down and enjoy every moment… with lots of very practical examples and tips.
All the techniques put forward by these amazing speakers and authors need us to form new habits, but we don’t need to change the whole world overnight. Start small and give yourself permission to be a bit rubbish until you get the hang of it. Find some people you feel safe with and be honest with them about feeling overwhelmed. If you can’t find anyone, you know where we are!
What do you do to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed?