Our work lives have become increasingly demanding, presenting us with ever more complex challenges at a near-relentless pace. Add in personal or family needs, and it’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed. In their book, Immunity to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey discuss how the increase in complexity associated with modern life has left many of us feeling “in over our heads.” When this is the case, the complexity of our world has surpassed our “complexity of mind” or our ability to handle that level of complexity and be effective. This has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.
Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating. I have a few clients who fit this description. When we started working together, they each had already resorted to getting up at 4 AM to do work. Sue, who works for a tech company that recently went public, is leading many simultaneous projects and is fearful she’ll miss an important email. Ajay, a senior leader at a late-stage start-up, needs the extra quiet time to try to make a dent in his ever-growing to-do list, but feels like he’s trying to dig himself out of a hole that just keeps getting deeper. Maria, a start-up co-founder, felt constantly overwhelmed as her company started to scale. While CEOs of trillion dollar companies like Apple’s Tim Cook, wake up at 3:45 AM, most of us don’t have quite this level of responsibility.
The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve. When we have too many demands on our thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen, making us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile. Any of these effects, alone, can make us less effective and leave us feeling even more overwhelmed. If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed, here are some key strategies to try:
Pinpoint the primary source of overwhelm. Ask yourself the question, “What one or two things, if taken off my plate would alleviate 80% of the stress that I feel right now?” While you may still be responsible for these items and cannot actually take them off your plate, this question can still help you identify a significant source of your stress. If it’s a big project that’s almost done, finish it. Or, if it’s the sheer size of the task or project that is overwhelming you, break it down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources or renegotiate the deadline if you are able — or all of the above.
Set boundaries on your time and workload. This can include “time boxing” the hours you spend on a task or project, leaving the office by a certain time, or saying no to specific types of work. Ajay realized he was spending a significant amount of time mediating conflicts between various team members, which was not only an unproductive use of his time, but also reinforced their behaviour of escalating issues to him instead of learning to resolve these problems themselves. Saying “no” to these escalations and setting expectations that they do their best to work out these issues before coming to him, created more breathing room for him to focus on his priorities with fewer distractions.
Challenge your perfectionism. Perfectionism can lead us to make tasks or projects bigger than they need to be, which can lead to procrastination and psychological distress. As things pile up, the sense of overwhelm grows, which can then lead to more procrastination and more overwhelm. Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “Done is better than perfect.” Know when “good” is “good enough” by asking yourself, “What is the marginal benefit of spending more time on this task or project?” If the answer is very little, stop where you are and be done with it. Part of this is also recognizing that we cannot do everything perfectly. Sue was finally able to accept that sometimes an email will be overlooked, and that if it’s important enough, the other person will follow up with her.
Outsource or delegate. Ask yourself, “What is the highest and best use of my time?” Activities that don’t fall within your answer can be taught and/or delegated to others. This can include managing selected projects, delegating attending certain meetings, having a team member conduct the initial interviews for an open position, or outsourcing the cleaning of your home and meal preparation. Maria had the revelation that she should delegate the weekly Sales meeting that she had always led to — of all people — the Head of Sales! She realized she had hired this person over a year ago but was still clinging to certain responsibilities that “she had always done,” and had never fully empowered him, for fear of giving up control. In the end, she admitted all she really needed was an email update. By letting go of this one task, she freed up 52 hours a year to focus on other high-priority strategic issues.
Challenge your assumptions. If feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing struggle, it is likely that you have assumptions that are keeping you stuck in unproductive behaviors. Kegan and Lahey refer to these as “Big Assumptions.” For Sue, it was the belief that “If something falls through the cracks, I’d fail and wouldn’t be able to recover from it.” In Ajay’s case, it was his belief that “If I’m not there to help others, I won’t be needed and people will question my value.” For Maria, her assumption was “If I lose control, others will mess up, and the company will fail.” While these big assumptions felt real to each leader, these limiting beliefs were not likely 100% true and kept them stuck in old patterns that significantly contributed to their sense of overwhelm. By identifying and debunking these beliefs over time, they were able to broaden their previously contracted view of the world, which in turn allowed them to reduce their overwhelm and provided them with a greater sense of agency.
While we may all feel overwhelmed from time to time in our demanding work and personal lives, employing the above strategies can help mitigate the frequency and extent to which we feel this way.