According to the first definition that came up on Google ‘Overwhelm’ is described as:
To Bury or Drown Beneath and Huge Mass of Something, especially water…..
Well, I couldn’t have summed it up better if I’d tried. That’s exactly how overwhelm feels to me. Like I’m flapping my arms and legs for dear life but sinking deeper and deeper as I feel the control slipping away from me.
What Creates Overwhelm?
Overwhelm can be the result of any number of things. Taking on too much. Not saying ‘no’ and then feeling anxious that you won’t be able to fulfil a promise. Not letting go of tasks and feeling like you’re the only one who can deal with them. Feeling out of control. Not being in control of our time or giving our time away too freely.
When we take on too much it’s often as a result of not being assertive and worrying too much about what people will think of us if we say no. What if they think I’m being selfish, or lazy.? What if they don’t like me? What if they think I can’t cope?
Another cause of overwhelm is the fear of letting go of control. We feel that no one else will do the job as well as we do, or maybe we think it’ll take more time to teach them exactly how we want it done, and therefore it’s quicker just to do it ourselves. This form of perfectionism is absolutely flawed thinking and will keep you drowning for sure.
Of course, there likely will be some tasks that you really are the only person able to do them but, chances are there’s not that many and if you were to let go of the ones that don’t require your unique expertise, you’d free up more time and headspace to be able to concentrate fully.
Sometimes we fail to tackle tasks because we genuinely don’t know where to start. We maybe don’t have the skills or resources to tackle the job and alongside everything else we have to deal with we don’t think we have the time to figure it out. So the job stays undone, and our anxiety just keeps on rising.
Overwhelm can feel like we just can’t see the wood for the trees. Our head is spinning with all the things we have to do. It feels overpowering and exhausting. So we end up at best treading water and at worst failing to even get started at all and we simply procrastinate. Finding other jobs to do that are easier, safer or simply more fun but don’t address any of the real tasks that are creating the anxiety in the first place.
How to Reduce the Overwhelm?
1. DO A BRAIN DUMP: First of all, we need to get all that noise out of our head and onto paper. Literally just do a brain dump. Grab a notepad and pen and make a list of absolutely everything that you need to do. Everything – no matter how small. Don’t worry about how you’re going to get it done at this point, the aim of the exercise is simply to get it out of your head so you can get some clarity about what is really going on.
2. SCORE THE TASKS: Now that you have absolutely cleared your head of EVERYTHING you have to do it’s time to start figuring out what’s most important. Give each item on your list a score out of 10. Ten means it is absolutely vital that the job gets done, one means it’s really not even remotely important. Be honest and be ruthless.
3. APPLY THE 3D METHOD: Now that you have a list of all your tasks with a number written next to it, grab yourself 3 different coloured highlighters. You’re going to decide which tasks you need to DEAL with, DELEGATE OR DITCH.
Chances are any items that scored a 5 or less can probably be DITCHED so go ahead and highlight them one colour.
Next decide which of the items you can DELEGATE. Let go of some of that control freakiness and figure out who you need to get help from. Maybe it’s family members or friends, maybe it’s co-workers or maybe you need to pay someone. You can bet your life there’ll be someone out there that would just love to take that job off you for a bit of money. Now you can go ahead and highlight all those jobs you can delegate.
Finally highlight the jobs that are left. These are the jobs that only you can do and which scored more than a 6.
Now that you’ve cleared the list out, hopefully the overwhelm is reducing and you’re feeling a bit calmer about the jobs you have to do. However, you now have to get down and dirty and get the jobs done!
4. EAT THAT FROG: Chances are, now that you’re left with the list of jobs that only you can do, there’ll be a couple of jobs on that list that you’ve been putting off for some reason. Maybe as mentioned earlier it’s because of fear or lack of knowledge or whatever other reason you’ve been procrastinating over. It’s time to put the jobs into order of priority with your 10/10 tasks top of the list. Tackle each task individually and commit to getting it done before moving on to the next one.
The well-known author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy wrote a book called Eat That Frog where the main tenet of the message was to get the worst and most scary or difficult job out of the way first, literally nothing could be worse than eating a frog, so get it over with and you can move on.
Create a to do list for the next day with JUST 3 ITEMS on it. These are your top 3 FROGS – your most important tasks. The tasks that have the most severe consequences if they don’t get done. Forget endless, long to do lists, simply decide on 3 things and commit to getting them done.
5. SAW THEM INTO BIT SIZE CHUNKS: You might find even though you’ve identified which task is the most important, the task still feels daunting and just too big. This is where SAWing the task down into bite size chunks is helpful.
SAW stands for ‘Smallest Achievable Win’ and breaking tasks down into SAWs means you can start to take action on something small, immediately, and that small action creates momentum to help you get started.
For example maybe you’ve been putting off getting your accounts done and now they feel way too big. You could start by committing to just gathering together all your receipts. Nothing else, just that one job. Of course, that isn’t going to get the whole job done, but it doesn’t matter. All you’re looking to do is get started. Have you heard the joke ‘how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time’? That’s exactly what your doing when you look for the SAWs.
Getting started with a SAW gives you a sense of control. Another example might be that you need to pack up your house ready for a move but you don’t know where to start. A SAW might be to grab a box and commit to packing up the contents of just one kitchen drawer. That’s it.
You’ll be surprised how once you get started momentum takes over and before you know it you’ve broken the back of the task.
6. DITCH THE SHOULDS: Often we create our own overwhelm because we impose rigid rules on ourselves. If you find yourself saying ‘I should’ or ‘I have to’ or ‘I must’ you may be imposing undue pressure on yourself without realising it. Just because you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean you have to continue to do it like that forever.
Ask yourself “what is the REAL consequence of a task not getting done”. If you find yourself saying ‘I have to make the bed before I leave the house for work’ but doing so is adding extra time pressure to an already busy day, then you have to start letting go. What’s more important, having a beautifully manicured bed or your mental health?
Of course, some things do have to be done but being brutally honest with yourself about self-imposed rules is going to help free up some headspace and release some anxiety.
7. LEARN TO SAY NO: Another way that we impose overwhelm on ourselves is our inability to say no. Learning to say a polite no is a skill worth learning. It takes assertiveness but learning to be assertive is just a habit. You’ll most probably find people are fine with a no if you explain why you can’t help. But really, no needs no explanation. I know it can feel hard to say no. We worry we’re letting the other person down, or worse still that they might be angry at us. But mostly that won’t happen and the more you learn to say no, the more people learn to accept it.
It’s far better to say no right from the outset and manage the other person’s expectations than to say yes and fail to deliver because you’ve taken on too much. Or worse still to say yes and deliver but harbour a whole load of resentment at that person because saying yes created stress for you.
8. TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR TIME: Often when we feel overwhelmed we just don’t feel like we’ve got the time to get everything done. Getting honest about how we are spending our time can help free up the extra hours needed to get the important stuff done. Very often we squander our time and although we might appear to be busy (and maybe even convince ourselves that we are busy) we are actually procrastinating, doing tasks that aren’t important so we avoid doing the scary stuff.
Doing a time audit can really help. Stephen Covey’s ‘Time Matrix’ is a great tool to use to help you figure out where you spend your time. I talk about the time matrix and give further tips on how to do a time audit in a podcast episode I recorded a few months back. You can listen HERE.
So there you go, hopefully these 8 tips will help you to overcome some of that overwhelm and free up some headspace to help you feel calmer and more productive.
Bev Thorogood is a Midlife Transition Coach and Trainer. A certified nutritionist, personal trainer and health coach specialising in helping women navigate their way through midlife and beyond. With a strong focus on mindset she offers personal and group coaching to help women remove the blocks that stop them from living their best midlife.
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