4 steps to deal with overwhelm

By Marie Ferris, Thrive Coaching & Development
Do you have so much going on that you don’t know where to start?  Does your life seem like a never ending list of things to do?
We all feel overwhelmed at times.  And it’s little wonder when you think about all the things that we are juggling and trying to get through each day. 
Research by ONS, carried out before the pandemic, showed that women carried out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men.  According to this study, on average men do 16 hours a week of such unpaid work, which includes adult care and child care, laundry, and cleaning, to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women a week.
And that’s before the pandemic hit.  The last 18 months definitely hasn’t made it any easier, initially as we dealt with the demands of lockdown and home schooling and now, as we try to navigate our way through new hybrid ways of working and cope with huge levels of uncertainty.
So, what do we do? The answer for many women is to work harder, to work more hours, to keep going, to juggle and fit everything in, usually neglecting themselves and their health in the process.  They tell themselves it’s temporary, I’ll get through it, things will get easier.
I have been coaching for over 15 years now, working primarily with female leaders and managers.  I know that’s not the answer.  I have seen too many brilliant, talented women who come to me because they realise that they are working themselves towards burnout and ill health.  Things just don’t get easier on their own. 
When we are overwhelmed, especially over an extended period of time, it impacts not only our cognitive functioning but our mental and physical health.  We can be distracted, forgetful, we procrastinate, maybe start to feel anxious and depressed, tired, and confused.  It can be really hard to know where to start to make any changes and to help yourself.  This article will take you through four straightforward steps to help you deal with overwhelm and start making changes that will help you feel better not only in the short term, but in the longer term as well.
1. Identify your main sources of overwhelm
The first step is to take some time out to pause, review and plan. 
I know it may sound counter intuitive – I can hear you say, ‘I’m too busy, I don’t have time to stop and think’!  But sometimes we can get so caught up in all the things that need done that we have stopped thinking rationally.  We don’t know what to do, what to prioritise, we have lost sight of the bigger picture.  And what happens then? 
If you are anything like me, or many of the women I work with, then we procrastinate, do the easy things or the things we like, or get stuck in almost a state of paralysis, where we don’t do anything at all, because we can’t decide what is the most important. 
My advice is to get a blank piece of paper and get everything down on it.  Just getting it out of your head and onto paper can be therapeutic in itself. 
Now have a think about what’s on your list. 
Are there any things on that list that you have been putting off for a long time? 
Instead of beating yourself up about that have a think about why, what’s going on that you keep putting it off.  What can you learn from this?  Is it something that you really want to do?  If you haven’t done it by now, and the world hasn’t fallen apart, does it really need to be done at all?
Is there anything on the list that seems too big, too hard? 
Sometimes we can get overwhelmed because tasks are just too big and seem almost insurmountable.  If that’s how you are feeling, break it down into chunks, small steps that feel achievable.  I started my own business just over 2 years ago and boy, did I feel overwhelmed at times.  And that’s what worked for me – I’m a big fan of breaking it down into small steps, writing them on post-it notes and putting them on my whiteboard where I can see them.  It’s a great feeling as you complete them, take them off and see all the white space appear again!
Does your list look manageable?
Have you just got too much to do?  Is there not enough hours on the day to get through everything on your list?  What would you say if you were talking to a friend who had a list of responsibilities and things to do like yours?  We can be so much kinder, and see more clearly, when we are dealing with other people.  Look at your list and weed out those things that don’t need done, or don’t need done right now when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
2. Delegate and ask for help
Take a look at that list and ask yourself the following questions
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this the best use of my time?
I guarantee that on that list there will be things that other people could do, both at home and at work. So many of us hold on to things that other people could do, even when we are struggling.  Sometimes, even things that other people could do better, faster, easier.
At home, think about what would help?  Do you need to have a chat with family about them doing a bit more? All the household chores and admin shared out will take so much less time, and will help to ensure everyone is involved in sharing the load.  Are your children getting a bit older and able to make dinner one evening a week?  Could your siblings help your parents with their shopping instead of you?  Is now the time to employ that cleaner that you have been talking about for the last few years?
At work, what could you do?  Are there tasks on that list that someone else could do, maybe even better than you? Are you doing things that aren’t really your responsibility but somehow you seem to have got stuck with it?  I talk to so many women clients who even though they got promoted are still doing parts of their old jobs, things ‘they were so good at, no one else could do them as well’.  Don’t let that be you!  Are there systems and tech that you could use to make life easier, if you took a little time to learn them?  Have you fallen into a habit of saying yes to every new request or add on, without getting rid of tasks or responsibilities?
If you want some more tips around time management, try reading this blog on my website, where I take you through Stephen Covey's time management principles.
A lot of the time people don’t realise that you need a bit of help.  They’re caught up in their own stuff.  And you probably look like you have everything under control, even if it doesn’t feel that way to you. 
Reach out, ask for help, chat to your manager, and talk through your list.  Talk to your family and ask for support at home.  It’s not weakness, it’s not failure.  If anything, you are being proactive, taking control and at work, looking professional. 
At work, try saying to your manager, ‘I feel like I have a lot going on at the minute, can we have a chat to help me figure out what to prioritise?’  At home, I’ve found, the trick is to pick a good time when everyone has the space to listen, and then share how you are feeling, all the unseen work that gets done around the place and then ask them for help.
Having conversations like this isn’t easy, especially if you aren’t used to them, so start small, stick to the facts, and try not to blame others.  Be clear about what you would like help with, and accept that maybe it won’t get done the way you would do it.
3. Prioritise and set your boundaries 
When you are overwhelmed and stressed it can be difficult to prioritise and set your boundaries. But it doesn’t have to be that difficult.  Start by asking yourself:
What’s important to me?
Look at your list and think through your own work situation.  Do you want to be able to finish work at a certain time?  Do you not mind staying late now and again, as long as you get the weekend completely off?  Are you clear about what the main priorities are in your role?
Knowing what’s important to you will make it easier to plan, to prioritise and to say no to ad hoc requests. For most of us, the world won’t end if we don’t answer an email after 5pm, or if a piece of work doesn’t get finished today.  It’s just that we have got into habits around this, and people have got used to that.  It might take a bit of time to change those habits, and you might have to communicate those changes to colleagues, customers and clients, or your manager, but it is doable.  Especially if you are clear about why you are making the changes, and they are reasonable. 
At home, what’s important, and I mean really important? 
For example, in my house, at one stage my teenage son’s bedroom was at the centre of a lot of conflict. And then, I kind of realised that it was his space, so if he didn’t mind clothes on the floor, that was up to him.  What I was interested in was the hygiene factor – so cups and plates had to be brought back to the kitchen and dirty laundry sorted out at least once a week.  A compromise that worked for us all, and so much less arguments and resentment.
It’s easy to get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect and Instagram ready, but that’s not how most of us live. Work out the priorities for you at home and focus on those.
Now look at your list, and think about the big things in life that are really important to you.  Are you spending enough time on them, or do they get brushed aside when things get busy? Maybe you are so busy and overwhelmed, that they have slipped completely and aren’t even on your list.
When I work with clients and we look at their values, and what’s most important to them, the big one is usually family.  And yet, it’s often the thing that slides when we get busy.  If having dinner every evening with your family is important to you, prioritise it.  Make it a part of your day that just has to happen.
Are finally what about you?  In the midst of all this busyness, what about you and your wellbeing?
Too many women think it is selfish to look after themselves.  But I like to think of it is as similar to getting your car serviced.  The car doesn’t drive radically differently after the service, it doesn’t look or feel any different.  But what happens if you never take it in for a service?  It doesn’t get the maintenance it needs, things to start to break or need replaced, and eventually your car will break down, and you will fail your MOT.
It’s easy to ignore our own health and wellbeing.  Especially when there is a lot of other things going on, or we feel under pressure.  But much like the car maintenance, when you ignore your own essential maintenance things will eventually start to deteriorate.  We can cope in the short term; the issue is when this starts to become our normal way of living.  And sometimes this creeps up, so slow that we don’t realise what is happening, until our health starts to give.
Build in something daily that works for you.  That’s right – I said daily!  It could be a walk, making time for lunch, ensuring that you get a good’s night sleep, a ten minute meditation, a chat with a friend.  It’s not selfish to look after yourself.  If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to look after and support other people. 
4. Challenge your thinking
I have saved the most challenging step to last.  It is difficult, but it’s so worth it.  It can be absolutely life changing when you start to understand and challenge your own thinking and beliefs. 
Does any of this sound familiar?
  • I have to be the perfect….
  • It has to be done right or there is no point in doing it
  • My house has to be spotless
  • I have to ….
  • I should be able to do everything
  • It’s selfish to …
  • I can’t take time for myself
  • Everyone else can cope, I should be able to as well
We all have built up these little (and sometimes, not so little) rules that we live our lives by.  They have been created over the years by our life experience, with some of the most powerful going back to our childhood.
That’s okay when those rules work for us. But lots of times those rules are negative, or not helpful, or they just don’t serve us any longer.  Quite often we don’t even realise that they are there.  But our language can give us away.  If any of the above sound familiar, think about how they relate to what’s going on with you feeling overwhelmed.
When you think about asking for help, do you hear a little voice saying, ‘Everyone else can cope, you should be able to as well’.  When I suggested that you take time every day to do something just for yourself, for your own health and wellbeing, did that little inner voice pipe up and say, ‘How can you do that every day, that’s far too selfish’?
Changing your thinking starts by becoming aware of it.  Too many of us aren’t aware of what is going on and how we sabotage ourselves, especially when we try to make changes.  Start to notice when that happens to you, and challenge it.  So, if your little critical inner voice said, ‘Everyone else can cope, you should be able to as well’, then challenge it. Try asking questions like ‘who says I should be able to cope?’, ‘how do I know everyone else is coping?’, ‘what does coping mean anyway?’.  Or if you heard yourself think, ‘How can you do that every day, that’s far too selfish’, then challenge that thinking.  Say to yourself ‘it isn’t selfish to take time for myself’, ‘it’s only 10 minutes, I can spare 10 minutes’, ‘if I take time for myself, I will feel better, have more energy and be able to look after everyone else better’.
It might seem strange, and it will definitely feel challenging, but imagine the difference if you are able to stop yourself from sabotaging your life through your own thinking.  If you’d like to read a bit more about this, or get some more tips, I wrote an article for Thrive Global earlier last year that might be useful.
Change starts with the first small step.
I have covered quite a bit in this blog.  But I am a big believer that change starts with a small step. 
It’s easy to go all in, to say that things need to change, you are going for a big reset and it’s all going to be different.  For some people that approach works.  But for most of us, especially when we are already feeling stressed and overwhelmed, that approach just isn’t helpful.  We might start really well, but things usually slip, we give up, and then we feel worse than ever. 
My focus is always on what’s the first small step that I could take, right now? What’s achievable, and doable, and will move me in the right direction?  And once you have taken that first step, you know what happens then?  You feel good, you see the benefit, and you are ready to take the next step.  Every big change starts with that first small step.
So, if you haven’t already, get that list written.  What’s jumped out for you from this blog?
What is the one small thing you could do today that would help you feel less overwhelmed?
Marie is an executive and leadership coach, facilitator, and trainer, and runs Thrive Coaching & Development, a Belfast based training and coaching consultancy.  As a coach, she specialises in working with women in stressful and busy jobs, helping them to learn and develop new habits, so that they can thrive, professionally and personally. 
Get in touch if you think she could help you, or find out more at https://www.thrivecoachingdevelopment.com/
Like to connect?  Find her on LinkedIn, or join her new Women who Thrive Facebook group, for a supportive community of women supporting and helping each other to thrive.