Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind
The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions… Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigor, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; though repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our minds. After all, sleep too is essential as a restorative, but if you prolong it constantly day and night it will be death. There is a big difference between slackening your hold on something and severing the link…
We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength.
Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind is full of wisdom that remains more relevant than ever and closely aligned to what we now know about human potential, although it was written nearly 2,000 years ago.
Feeling overwhelmed is a natural part of life.
Overwhelm is a temporary state of being, often affected by how you manage your time and energy. Simply, it is having too much to do and not enough mental space or energy to do it. We might feel flooded by emotions and things to do, as if we were submerged by a wave, but unable to ride it out.
We all occasionally feel overwhelmed by expectations, responsibilities, and a lack of time.
Our work lives have become increasingly demanding, with complex challenges at a hectic pace, over-committed schedules and multiple competing priorities in our personal and professional lives.
Symptoms of overwhelm often manifest during these busy phases of our life in the following symptoms physically and mentally:
- Stress – which, left untreated, can result in serious health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, shortness of breath and a weakened immune system
- Brain fog and forgetfulness – Narrow focus, attention and memory
- Cluttered mind – Impaired creativity and productivity
- Irritability – Lower capacity to connect to others, self-compassion and compassion
- Difficulty sleeping – Fatigued and drained
- Lower decision making and self-control
Although it is natural to experience these symptoms every once in a while, they should not become the “new norm” for you.
Daily stress can become chronic, and can lead to burnout. Unaddressed job burnout can have significant consequences. Do not let overwhelm turn into burn out. If you are unsure whether you might be experiencing burn out, refer to the Mayo Clinic definition (“Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress: a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.’) and their their online resources on symptoms and causes. If any doubts, refer to a medical professional or therapist.
Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.Michael Gungor
Everyday overwhelm is different from burn-out. It happens all the time to most of us, and it is not (should not be) permanent. It is a temporary condition of your job and your life.
When we experience overwhelm, we may struggle to find solutions to our problems or may even think that there are no solutions. This makes the problems seem even more overwhelming, distressing and difficult to manage, having a further negative impact on our mood.
However, through well-being rituals and reviewing the causes of our overwhelm, we can regain control.
Getting over overwhelm- 4-steps overwhelm log
This overwhelm log is cathartic (getting that overwhelm out of your head and on paper gives you a sense of control), actionable (as you start writing, your brain will come up with solutions), and empowering (stress becomes more manageable).
STEP 1: Log your overwhelm
- Brain dump a list of everything that is in your mind and causing overwhelm, and write it down on paper. This is not about goal setting or creating priorities. It doesn’t need to make any logical sense. You cannot get over overwhelm until you recognise where it is coming from.
STEP 2: Assess your overwhelm
- Overwhelm can affect our ability to think and act rationally so it is important to take a step back and consider the cause of the overwhelm. Overwhelm makes everything feel bigger and more complex than it generally is, which can snowball into chronic stress and anxiety or burnout.
- Is your overwhelm just due to one tough week or has it been lengthening and might you be close to burn-out? If in doubts, check the Mayo Clinic online resources and consult a medical professional or therapist.
STEP 3: Get over overwhelm with the 6 “A”
Audit your life and work and eliminate as much as possible. Make an objective list of all your activities – reassess what you do, how often and for who. Axe any non-essential or at least put it off until you have the bandwidth.
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.Steve Jobs
When you are feeling overwhelmed, you need to simplify your life, set boundaries and declutter your time.
Stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone and everything.
Learn to say no to the trivial many so you can focus on the vital few things in your life.Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Review your list of goals and what / who you say yes to. Think about what you need to change or add to your process to help you get there. You may want to use the following questions for inspiration:
- What is truly essential? What is important right now?
- What can I eliminate / reduce (e.g. activity clutters such as unimportant meetings and emails)?
- What did I resent spending time on recently? If you’re not sure what boundary to set, think back to a moment recently when you were resentful. It is often a sign that you are pushing past your limits in a way that doesn’t serve you. (e.g. Did back-to-back emails and calls prevent you from actually sitting down to eat dinner or getting to bed on time? Did you realize with bitterness after a long workday that you didn’t leave the room or move your body at all?)
- Are my deadlines the real deadlines or the arbitrary preferential deadlines set by others for their agenda? If they are others’ preferences, how can I challenge these? (e.g. clients, colleagues, manager)
- How can I simplify how I spend my time to be more intentional and inject more joy?
- What are the 20% of activities or people that are producing the 80% or more of results and positive emotions?
- What are the 20% of activities or people that are producing the 80% or more of the pain or negativity?
- What would this look like if it was easy?
- Does this give me pleasure (joy) now?
- Will this give me joy and meaning in the future?
Reconfirm priorities and urgency. The overwhelm fallacy is driven by an extreme sense of urgency. This is actually a cognitive distortion. Get clear on what is actually really urgent. Every morning, write down the 3 priorities you want to accomplish that day. Refocusing on the present moment and relentless prioritization is critical to managing overwhelm. It means being comfortable with incompletions (e.g. unanswered email or non urgent / non important tasks) and taking the time to recharge, so you will return to work refreshed the next day.
Assess what changes you could make:
- Define 1 or 2 small changes that you could implement yourself without asking for permission. If possible, focus on what is most energy draining but time intensive.
- Define 1 bigger change for which you might need to ask permission (e.g. change frequency from weekly to monthly, upgrade to new system, work from home on Friday, delegate X to Y etc.)
- Define how you could share resources rather than time to help others (e.g. do a Loom video to explain something to a team member rather than a meeting; send voice notes; suggest someone else who might be able to help; offer to introduce them to someone you know; share links to relevant articles or videos; suggest books you’ve read that might be useful; point them to any resources you’ve used yourself in the past.)
Delegate or hire. This may be hard to do when you are passionate about your work, but critical – whether it is delegating projects, requesting coverage for your vacation, or simply asking for help.
Adjust the challenge level or the deadline. One of the most powerful triggers for “flow” is known as the challenge-skills balance. Depending on whether the challenge level of the task is too far beyond or under your current skill level, it might lead to anxiety or boredom. So, the sweet spot for flow is when a task is just the right level of difficulty and stress-inducement. Being overwhelmed might be a sign that the challenge or stress level is too high. Adjust the challenge level by reducing your expectations or adjusting the deadline to a more realistic and less overwhelming one where within your control.
You might need to accept it is a hectic business period and reframe this period with a new story as temporary, and an intentional choice – so you do not resent or regret it (e.g. tight deadlines for strategic project or small businesses / high-growth start-ups at inception phase).
STEP 4: Take action: motion creates emotion and clarity + confidence comes from action not thoughts!
- Overwhelm can keep you stuck mentally and physically, so much so you feel unable to think clearly or take action and it can lead you to procrastinate.
- For the micro-steps which you identified, specify when you will take action (deadlines, milestones), any accountability for taking action, and consequences for not taking action. Push yourself to take just that first step. Once we begin, we often feel much better, calmer and able to move forward.
Micro-steps to continue to prevent burnout at work through well-being rituals
REFOCUS WITH MINDFULNESS
With overcommitted schedules, it is tempting to multitask and be in a near constant state of partial attention. Answering emails while trying to get work done, browsing the Internet while eating, talking on the phone while driving.
However, one Harvard study revealed that what we are doing is less important to our happiness than how present our minds are while we are doing it.
Through mindfulness practices, whether meditation, breathwork or other, we can rewire new thoughts and condition the body into a new, positive emotional state to create a new reality and work on what we want to change in our life.
When you focus on the present, you will train your brain to be less anxious, overwhelmed, and reactive.
Meditation is not just blissing under a mango tree. It completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are … You don’t learn to sail in stormy seas. You go to a secluded place, not to avoid the world, but avoid distractions until you build your strength and you can deal with anything. You don’t box Muhammad Ali on day one.French Buddhist Matthieu Ricard
Our brain is unlike any other organ: it’s designed to adapt constantly and form new neural connections throughout our life (“neuroplasticity”). Through meditation, your brain is effectively being rewired. As your feelings and thoughts morph toward a more pleasant outlook your brain is also transforming, and you more thoughtfully react to everyday life with that same sense of inner peace, compassion, and self-awareness.
Mindfulness and self-awareness are half the battle to prevent burn-out at work. It lowers cortisol and norepinephrine in the brain which cause anxiety and allows us to stay present in the moment and slow down. In the present, all potentials exist to change our internal state regardless of the outside world. We can’t do this by feeling guilt /judgement / anxiety / fear / stress, ruminating or regretting the past, or being anxious about the future.
- Turn everyday activities in and out of work into mindful activities without meditating. When you find your thoughts wandering to the presentation you are sure you messed up yesterday or the work waiting for you tomorrow, take a breath and bring your attention back to whatever you are doing in the moment. Mindfulness can take place anytime during the day. It involves nothing more than focusing the mind on whatever is happening in the present moment, outside of the patterns and conditioned responses we have built up over a lifetime.
- Have a regular mindfulness practice. It helps to have a regular time – ideally 15-20 minutes a day, and to have a quiet place to get a present. The more practice you have at going within, the less effort it takes. Like a muscle you exercise regularly, the mindfulness skill grows stronger and more reliable, both during and out of your sessions in everyday life. If you have never meditated before, consider guided meditations. You can use an App such as Insight Timer or Headspace or find a guided meditation such as Tara Brach, Binaural beats meditation or Goop YouTube channel.
- Try breathing techniques (“Pranayama” in Sanskrit, breath control) enable you to “drive the car” of your body, stimulate or relax it. You can consciously change your response from stress to relaxation and from rest to higher energy by changing the rate and the pattern of your breathing.
There are many different techniques. Here is the 2:1 breathing as an example.
The key when you are first starting off with this practice is you want to start by finding a natural, calm place. Some people jump into too much too quickly, which can actually stress the body a bit more and create the opposite response.
- First notice your breath and count what a natural breath cycle of inhale and exhale feels like. Place one hand on your stomach and another one on the heart, taking a deep breath in and focusing on inflating the lower belly (to stimulate your vagus nerve).
- Inhale through the nose, Exhale through the nose
- Breathe in equal parts: breathe in the count of 4, breathe out the count of 4 … and do this 3 times, to match the length of your inhale and exhale.
- If you are naturally prone to anxiety you will probably naturally have a shorter exhale so you are going to extend the exhale. Try to make it a little longer step by step and get to a place where you are doubling the count for your exhale compared to your inhale. By doing so, we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system which is the relaxation response.
- Choose any number – it can be 2, 3 or 4 – this is the number you would inhale with … but with the exhalation of the breathe, you want to double the number that you have chosen … say you chose 4, you would breathe in for the count of 4 (1, 2, 3, 4) and exhale for 8 (8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1). This is why it is called the 2:1 breathing technique!
- As an extra tip, you can combine this 2:1 breathing and a mantra – for example as you inhale, you can say “I am calm” (3 syllables) and on the exhale “Let it go, let it go” (6 syllables).
- Repeat at least 3 times. Allow yourself to rest in this worry free state, knowing that anytime you need, you can go back to the exercise, ideally multiple times a day when stressed.
Next time you feel stressed – just know and remember that relaxation is just a few breaths away! Feel free to do it as long as you can and as many times as you want during the day to help you reach the relaxation that you need to operate at your best.
- Switch some video meetings to phone calls. This will give your eyes a break, and you can even pair a call with a short walk around the neighbourhood or even just around your room to introduce movement to your day.
- Schedule time to be unscheduled. Albert Einstein called this “combinatory play” – and he would often discover innovative ideas during his violin breaks. “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”
- Give yourself and your team permission to recharge and reset. We often feel overwhelmed when we are tired, fatigued or drained, unable to think clearly and make decisions, The key to resilience is recharging, physically, mentally and emotionally. Small breaks throughout the day are great for managing stress, recharging energy, bringing moments of perspective and reflection and returning to work with more focus and productivity.
Every 90-120 minutes, your body has cycles called “ultradian rhythms” – a period of significant energy and focus followed by a period of fatigue during which it begins to crave a period of rest and recovery. Trying to work against your body’s natural rhythms is often a losing battle.
For daily productivity, you have to manage not just your time, but also your energy level.
Based on your ultradian rhythms, transition from one 60-120 minutes time block to another by re-energizing and setting an intention and time limit for the next activity.
It will optimize your productivity, performance, creativity and focus, and diminish overwhelm and stress.
- List what you can do during your 10-15 minutes breaks, that will generate more energy and focus (presence). Set an alarm or try using an online timer to remind yourself to get up from your desk
Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab released research using brainwave activity to prove that taking even small breaks is incredibly effective at countering virtual fatigue and stopping stress from becoming cumulative. It is less about better time management than redefining productivity.
The best data we are using is ‘let’s not define productivity as output.’ The question really is, are people burning down a list or are they able to build that creative capital and exercise all they are capable of? Wellness comes with a broader understanding of productivity and leaders taking that empathy and care.Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
- Here are some suggestions but come up with ideas that work for you:
Re-set your presence with a “mindful break”:
- Do a breath exercise. Try adding a mantra, such as, “There is enough time”, or “Let it go”.
- Close your eyes and have a mindful pause, using your favorite mindfulness rituals (e.g. meditation to calm down stress and build resilience, to foster compassion and composure ahead of a meeting, to let go of what you have just finished and any emotions associated with it with “release” as a mantra – repeating this word over and over in your own head or out loud).
- Use visualization and imagery to reduce stress and feel like you are experiencing something just by imagining it. Imagine yourself in a peaceful place, like a mountain waterfall, a forest, a tropical beach. Engage all your senses (e.g. sights, sounds, feel of the breeze on your face). This will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Use sensorial rituals such as a calming music or relaxing smell (e.g. candle, incense).
- Remind yourself of your “brain tattoos” – who you want to be and the feelings you want to give (e.g. your top values and personality strengths, life principles or mantras, inspiring quotes, a word and an empowering image aligned with this word). Check in throughout the day with who you are being. If it is not aligned, then assess how to get back into alignment, so you can fully embody these as you transition onto your next meeting, activity or task. Set reminders on your phone if needed!
- Have a power nap (short sleep to quickly re-vitalize).
- Set intentions ahead of your next time block activity.
- Physically: e.g. Go for an energizing walk, Stretch, Bounce in place and breathe deeply, Put on one of your favorite songs and dance, Skip rope for 3 minutes, Do 5 x 2 minutes planks or 2 series of 20 squats, Foam roll, Spend 15 minutes outdoors. Being outdoors has a uniquely relaxing effect on our nervous systems. (e.g. 15-minute walk in the morning, outdoor lunch break, transition times in your schedule). As an added bonus, leave your phone behind.
- Nutritionally: e.g. Drink water with freshly squeezed lemon or a nutritious green juice, Have a healthy snack.
- Socially and psychologically: e.g. Step away from the computer to do something completely unrelated to work – like chatting with friends, family, business contacts or co-workers. Numerous studies show that true friendships offer a mental and emotional buffer against the daily pressures in our lives.
- Identify your top overwhelm (or negative stressors) sources, signals, and solutions. We are very good at managing our physical health in preventative ways. But not so good at checking for other aspects of our wellbeing. When we know the sources of our stress and overwhelm, and our typical “telling signs”, we can be better at noticing when our battery is running low (e.g. rapid heart rate, strong negative feelings, or difficulty focusing). Hence better able to take action to recharge this battery and manage stress before it builds up (e.g. taking a break, tap into mindfulness such as your breath or closing your eyes and thinking of a person, place or activity that brings you calm or other well-being micro-steps).
- Interrupt your negative thinking spirals and worst-case scenarios. Remind yourself that overwhelm is an emotion, NOT who you are … and you can control your emotions. Refer to the STOP technique for a simple and easy-to-remember approach to channeling resilience and controlling emotions, rather than escalating or prolonging moments of stress when triggered in business or in little annoyances and upsets from everyday life.
- Clear the clutter. There is generally a correlation between the clutter in our physical space and our mental clutter. Clutter is more than just visually unpleasant. When in excess, it stops us from having clarity of thought and can weigh us down emotionally.
If you manage a team (whether employed or self-employed with a team)
- Check in with your team members about their workload. Remote work can mean fewer opportunities for the type of casual social interactions that happen every day in a physical workplace. It is hard to note signs of burnout, even more so when working remotely. This can spur feelings of isolation and disconnection, which add to stress levels and raise the risk of burnout. To mitigate this, check in casually with each team member throughout the week about how they are doing. Even an instant message to ask how they are doing and what support you can offer, can be a huge boost for someone who is struggling. Ask them to tell you when they are overwhelmed and also when they have bandwidth to help. Demonstrate empathy about how they are feeling about their work pace and volume.
- Tell them how you are taking care of yourself whilst at work. Dare to make it an agenda item in your team meetings if you would like! Sharing your own habits will open and normalize the conversation. When you mention what has been challenging for you, or how you’re trying to balance work and home responsibilities, it can help employees feel like they can open up about those issues, too.
- Schedule individual weekly catch-ups with your team members even if you don’t have news to share. Hearing from leaders regularly matters to employees, especially at times of heavy workload, challenges or uncertainty. Ensure they make their well-being a priority and encourage them to take breaks within their days, take their vacation days and declare an end of the day when priorities and urgent items have been taken care of.
These are only a few micro-rituals which can help to manage overwhelm.
But remember that overwhelm is not a place you want to accept or be stuck in permanently … so do keep the pulse on how it evolves and how you feel, as well as those who might be impacted!