Overwhelm: The New Epidemic?

Managing Overwhelm

Overwhelm is a crushing feeling of being overloaded and out of control.

Overwhelm is in essence a crushing feeling of being overloaded and out of control. You feel there is simply not enough time or energy to fit everything in, whether this is “to do” lists, commitments, deadlines or managing information.

You may feel panicky or virtually paralysed to take effective steps to reduce the overload. It can be hard to think clearly or to focus on one thing. A ‘foggy’ mind can have you going around in circles feeling rushed and stressed yet accomplishing relatively little.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you need to address the current bottleneck situation and also set up strategies to avoid overwhelm building in the future. For example, being an effective organiser or learning to say no are both essential to staying in control of your daily life.

In dealing with overwhelm, there are three key areas to address: 1) life management 2) time management and 3) taking care of yourself.

Life Management Tips For Reducing Overwhelm

  1. Decide right now to take control. Begin with making a list of everything you feel overwhelmed about. Brainstorm all of your commitments and ‘to do’ items. Now break this master list down into 3 categories: a) immediate or urgent b) medium term (up to 4 weeks) and c) longer term (beyond 4 weeks)
  2. Prioritise your ‘immediate must do’ list. Work your way through your immediate (a) list prioritising in order of urgency. What are those things that keep you awake at night or cause you to feel spikes of anxiety or stress when you think about them? What items on your list will have negative consequences if they are not taken care of by a certain deadline? What items need to be completed first as part of a sequence within a broader project? For example applying for time off before you can book that holiday! If you have a number of competing priorities, select the items that will give you the greatest sense of relief or those that will be easiest to take care of. Crossing something off your list brings a sense of achievement that boosts your energy and motivation.
  3. Set up your action plan. Take the first item on this immediate list and ask yourself the question “what would it take to complete this item?” Can it be delegated ? Who can help? What exactly do you need to do? What information or resources will you require? Plan and set aside time this week to take care of it. For this focused time you are unavailable.
  4. Schedule ‘taking control’ sessions regularly. Make it a new routine to schedule time every week to focus on your immediate (a) list. Put this  “taking control session” in your diary, just like you would do with a meeting or an appointment. At each session focus on your specific task list for that session. Even 30 minutes a day will make a massive difference. Until the bottleneck is cleared consider taking longer blocks of time each week. Make sure any distractions are put on hold during this focused time including your phone, email and other people. Consider yourself unavailable during this time and ‘train’ other people to respect this focused time for yourself.
  5. Revise your ‘taking control’ list. At the end of each week revise your  list for the coming week. Anything that is unfinished or urgent is added to your ‘taking control sessions’ for the coming week. Feeling organised will give you a sense of control.
  6. Do a conscious ‘cost and benefit’ brief analysis. Assess every new request, task or commitment in relation to how much of your time or energy it is realistically likely to take. Rather than automatically saying ‘yes’, ask yourself  if it is worth making this commitment. Will it be a source of stress and resentment, or something of value or benefit that you will really enjoy to do?
  7. Learn assertiveness skills. Learning to say no and to set clear boundaries without feeling anxious, vulnerable or guilty is a critical life and assertiveness skill.
  8. Embrace the extraordinary benefits of establishing routines. Routines provide a structure to hold chaos at bay while also feeding a sense of order and control which is critical to avoiding anxiety, stress and overwhelm. Routines also help you to be more efficient in your use of time and energy. If you are a working parent, establish ‘night before’ and morning routines with your children to avoid morning stress and conflict. Think about what routines would make your mornings or evenings easier and less stressful, then commit to putting these routines in place. It takes a only a few weeks for a new routine to be strongly established.

In my counselling work with people suffering from overwhelm we often include topics like stress reduction, procrastination, time management, mindfulness training, strategies for deeply relaxing and the all important assertiveness skills. 

Check back for other posts on time management and taking care of yourself,  soon to be published.


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