It’s almost normal these days to have much more coming at us than we can possibly handle. Our professional and social worlds run 24/7, with or without us. If you clear your notifications and clean your inbox on Friday night, you can expect it to be overflowing again on Monday. We are even wary of taking vacations because leaving things unmonitored – even for a few days – can leave us so far behind we question whether the time off was worth it. Overwhelm is one of the more debilitating forms of anxiety and makes it nearly impossible for us to be effective.
But the good news is that living a calm and grounded life is still possible with the right tools and perspective.
Here are five steps to pulling out of overwhelm and getting more control of your work and life:
1. Contain the Chaos: Often the tipping point that takes us from regular stress to complete overwhelm is the moment we realize we’ve lost track of everything we’re trying to stay on top of. Suddenly we find ourselves not only in danger of dropping balls but at risk of losing them altogether! And not knowing what might come back to bite us, or when, can be terrifying. This is the moment to stop everything. Find all the balls. And put them in one box. In most cases, it takes about five or ten minutes to sit down and write a list of everything that is causing you stress in ALL areas of life. If you already have an electronic task list you enjoy using, take the time to update it and make sure absolutely everything is on it. If not, a written task list works well too. When you’re done, ask yourself if everything you have to do or is otherwise causing you stress on the list. Take three deep breaths. (Repeat if necessary.) You should feel a little bit calmer and more grounded. You might not yet see a way to handle everything, but at least you can see everything – you’ve found all the balls, and they are contained in one place.
2. Clarify What You Control: A great deal of overwhelm comes from trying to control things we actually don’t have very much control over like when we must get someone to agree with us or do something, or we must somehow make someone else have a good opinion of us. The anxiety comes from knowing that, even if we put forth our best effort, we can’t guarantee the outcome. The next step in managing overwhelm is getting a very clear sense of what you can and can’t control. We recommend reviewing your list and assigning one of three words to each item: “Control” if you have 100% control over the outcome, “Respond” if you have NO control over the outcome but you can control your response to it, and “Influence” if you can’t control the outcome 100% but you can influence it to a degree. When you choose the word “Influence”, add a percentage that represents the degree of influence you realistically have on the situation. Do you have 75% influence, or only 10% influence? Once you’ve assigned a level of realistic control to each item on your list, you can then define the limits of what you can actually do in each situation. This paves the way to getting you into action with confidence about prioritizing what to focus on. You may also notice that you feel calmer acknowledging where your control lies.
3. Detach from Outcomes: When you can’t completely control an outcome, the anxiety that comes from wishing it, wanting it, and worrying about it often depletes the energy you need to use your influence effectively. Detaching from outcomes is scary and can sometimes be nearly impossible, especially if you are facing something that seems devastating, like ruining your reputation, getting fired, or losing a loved one. But it helps to stop spinning in fear and start doing something productive. The technique we like best and use most is facing what you fear head on. This requires asking yourself what the worst possible outcome is, and then thinking about how you will be okay if that happens. When things get really rough, we remind ourselves that we can only die once. We don’t get to decide when or how it happens, but we know for sure that we will survive until then. No matter what happens, no matter how bad, we will regroup, rebuild, regain confidence, forge new relationships, get a new job, build a new life. And when we do, the past won’t matter – except as a stepping stone or growth opportunity. This requires a lot of emotional courage, but when you incorporate this thinking and self-compassion into your self-talk, you may begin to feel a deeper level of calm.
4. One Step at a Time: Once you get some clarity about what’s in front of you, a sense of where you can most effectively use your influence, and find yourself in a somewhat calmer place, it’s time to take action. You can’t get everything done at once, but you can tackle one thing at a time, and it’s usually best to think of each thing in front of you as one step in a larger process. For example, if you have an important conversation that you aren’t sure it will go well, keep in mind that you don’t have to knock the ball out of the park in one interaction. It usually takes time for people to buy into ideas or change their mind about something, and they are likely to be more open if they don’t feel pressure, which they will definitely feel from you if you are stressed and trying to achieve a specific outcome. If you look at a situation with another person as something you can handle in a series of conversations instead of just one, that takes a lot of pressure off the first conversation. Think of your next conversation as just that – the next step.
5. Better Boundaries: You may not be able to protect yourself from the volume of work or stress you’re already immersed in, but setting stronger boundaries can help you lessen your load in the future. While you may not be able to control everything that comes at you, there are likely some areas where you over-extend yourself without realizing it. One powerful exercise you can do is imagine you live in a world where you can control everything and everyone, and from that perspective, write a list of “rules” related to how people are allowed to engage with you and what is and is not okay in terms of how much you take on. Most people have never thought about their “rules,” but when they pause to write them down, they are surprised to discover that the additional clarity about what matters helps them automatically shift and not take on as much moving forward. Setting boundaries is a process that takes growth and courage, but the freedom and relief you feel as you get more space in your life is well worth the effort.
Most of us work in relatively chaotic environments, so the very nature of the job can send us swirling. But with a little bit of calm focus and a few shifts in how you respond, you can get yourself into a more grounded state of mind to make progress on your To Do list one step at a time.
If you’d like to dig deeper into this topic, contact Nahid via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 714-931-2133.