A friend of mine owned a home remodeling business in the late 2000s. Although his wife also worked, he was the primary source of income for the family. As happened with millions of others in the Great Recession, his business fell on hard time. He had to start making decisions about which bills to pay for his business. One bill that he let ride a little too long was his workers’ compensation insurance.
While it had lapsed, one of his workers got electrocuted and had to be hospitalized. The worker developed some kidney problems, and the hospital stay got longer. My friend’s business problems had just compounded.
He paid some of the hospital bills out of his own pocket. But he didn’t have income to spare. His stress levels were mounting and he was becoming overwhelmed. One night after work, he got into the shower and sobbed uncontrollably. He felt that he couldn’t take care of his family anymore with his business. He was making mistakes that were leading to bigger problems. Business was slowing down. He had reached his limit. It wasn’t long after this episode that he shuttered the business and went to work for someone else.[This is an excerpt from Level Up Your Law Practice, which is now available for pre-order.]
That is what being overwhelmed can look like. But it can take many other forms. When I get overwhelmed, I start sleeping poorly. When I close the book I’m reading and try to sleep, my mind starts racing and envisioning worst-case scenarios. And since I have a vivid imagination, worst-case is usually pretty bleak. I will wake up in the middle of the night with my mind still racing. It’s a difficult cycle. I become exhausted, irritable, and impatient. Even when I’m aware of what’s happening internally, I’m too overwrought to manage it well and self-correct.
We are all going to get overwhelmed at some point. What’s important is that we recognize the sources and symptoms, and develop methods of coping with the overwhelm before it starts to consume us.
Learn to recognize the symptoms and contributing factors of being overwhelmed
Overwhelm can manifest as emotions (anxiety or irritability), thought processes (doubt and helplessness), and behaviors (lashing out, panic attacks). It can take various shapes and usually is brought on by an influx of negative emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, and guilt. When we become overwhelmed, it is often difficult for us to identify the exact sources of the stress.1
Many factors that can contribute to being overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s having too much work to do, or as in the story above about my friend, the result of not having enough work. At other times being overwhelmed is a matter of not taking time off from work. According to Business Insider, 42% of Americans reported not taking a single paid day off work.2
Studies have also shown that Americans are taking fewer vacation days now than any time in the last forty years. Not taking time off decreases productivity. In interviews performed by the U.S. Travel Association, people responded that they were afraid to take time off because they may be marked as a slacker or uncommitted to work and may be more likely to be laid off.
If you’re not taking time off because you have too much to do, you are doing yourself a disservice by making yourself less productive. This in turn pushes you toward being overwhelmed and reinforces an already vicious cycle.
When I start to feel overwhelmed with my workload, I go to my spreadsheet that tracks all my active cases. As I update it, I make a to-do list of what I need to do with each case. Sometimes that list gets to be two or three pages long. And while that can still be overwhelming, at least I know what actions I need to take rather than straining under a sense of foreboding that I’ve forgotten some important task or deadline.
Elyse Santilli recommends that when you devise a list of actions to take, start with a few quick and easy items first. Typically, we think he need to take massive actions to institute changes that achieve noticeable results, so it goes against the traditional wisdom of prioritizing the most significant items. However, completing a few simpler tasks will give you momentum and shorten your overwhelming to-do list. You will feel the progress you’re making and get back into the flow of acting.3
Another important aspect of reining things back in is to cull or postpone anything that doesn’t really need doing. If something can be put off for a couple of weeks with no repercussions, calendar it out to do later. Assign things to others to handle. Or if the task is unimportant cull it from the list until you have the capacity to handle it. “Most of us are prone to over-engineering solutions to problems. What really needs to be done? What tasks overcomplicate the matter or don’t add value? What can you postpone for a few weeks? You should be able to cross out a good chunk of your to-do list by answering these questions.”4
Delegate to your team
When you have an abundance of work or pressing deadlines, it is important to rely on family, colleagues, and your support staff to help you weather the storm. You can’t handle all your priorities by yourself. You will have to outsource some things or face being in a perpetual tizzy. You’ll be like the Tasmanian Devil spinning from one obligation to the next, leaving in your wake a path of destruction.
Sometimes it’s a matter of pride that keeps us from asking for help. For others, it’s a matter of not asking because we don’t want to burden those around us. But if we have cultivated positive relationships and surrounded ourselves with a supportive community, we will have people willing and able to provide assistance when we decide to ask.
Take breaks to recharge from being overwhelmed
When you’re overwhelmed, the last thing you feel like doing is taking a break. But walking away from things, even for ten or fifteen minutes, can allow you to recharge and refocus.
When the weather cooperates, I try to take a couple of short walks during the workday. I work at an office park, so this means that all I have to walk around is a large asphalt parking lot. There is a tree line along the far end of the parking lot with a nest of honeybees that’s taken up residence in one of the trees, so those distract from the otherwise monotonous view of vehicles. When I’m on these walks, I disallow myself from looking at my phone. And I try not to think about what I’ve been working on or what I need to be working on.
These walks give me a few minutes to disengage, so I try to remain true to that. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” So I step away for ten minutes or so, and try to tap into that. To give my brain a reprieve from consciously problem-solving, and allow things to percolate under the surface. I’ve often found that afterward, I can more clearly word the argument I’ve been working on or that I have a renewed energy for the tasks that demand my attention. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff suggests that to survive these potentially oppressive busy stretches, you should plan mini-breaks which can be as subtle as, for just a minute, taking a few deep breaths and trying to reestablish some clarity and focus.5
is a condition that sometimes tells us we have allowed ourselves to take on too
much our stress levels have breached the point of being bearable. Sometimes
being overwhelmed is temporary because of the way things fall on the calendar.
But if you find that the problem is more perennial, it is time so assess the
source and make some adjustments.
1 Jessica DuBois-Maahs, “How to Manage When We Feel Overwhelmed,” https://www.talkspace.com/blog/feeling-overwhelmed/.
2 Rachel Gillett, “A new study shows saving your vacation time can do more harm than good,” Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/consequence-of-not-taking-vacation-2015-7 (July 15, 2015).
3 Elyse Santilli, “10 Ways to Cope With Stress and Overwhelm,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/10-ways-to-cope-with-stress-and-overwhelm_b_6033802?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACqe16s8Lm6Sq_tswgSBJr4h1OTgVMS1Ms-kLAtatqn5CmlKaHtQp5vg15OWJioQtdddCTih0fIfTvwdvDjY4uEjQrRZuJ0tvUpW8iW8KOO8fnKodqBgS3sBztRvTFMDfnKxLE0jcCxEluYuzHulbtdiJXxNg27Dhpoc7l-Qm2L0
4 Elyse Santilli, “10 Ways to Cope With Stress and Overwhelm,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/10-ways-to-cope-with-stress-and-overwhelm_b_6033802?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACqe16s8Lm6Sq_tswgSBJr4h1OTgVMS1Ms-kLAtatqn5CmlKaHtQp5vg15OWJioQtdddCTih0fIfTvwdvDjY4uEjQrRZuJ0tvUpW8iW8KOO8fnKodqBgS3sBztRvTFMDfnKxLE0jcCxEluYuzHulbtdiJXxNg27Dhpoc7l-Qm2L0
5 Judith Orloff, “The Secret to Managing Being Overwhelmed,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201610/the-secret-managing-being-overwhelmed