Smart, professional people hurtling through life at break-neck speed, overwhelmed by just how much you have to do. And feeling in an almost permanent state of exhaustion.
Waiting for the weekend, or your next holiday to catch up on sleep and re-energise.
And maybe you do.
But, too often, these times get used for preparing for the next onslaught. And then there’s your constant companion, your smart phone, happy to interrupt you or to enable you to interrupt others if something “urgent” comes up.
It’s not that you don’t love your job. But that you have times of wondering whether it’s going to be this way forever.
You don’t want things to be less exciting or interesting. But you do want to feel less out of control.
You know how I know this?
Because I’m you.
My wake up call
“You are depressed.”
I sat there opposite the nice doctor and burst into tears. I was working all the hours God sent, trying to keep up with all that was demanded of me, and keeping myself afloat on a diet of chocolate, coffee and wine. I was looking like I’d aged ten years in less than twelve months, and I’d put on more than a stone in weight.
Most alarming of all was that my drinking habit was getting out of control.
I woke up one morning and had no memory of how I’d got home the night before. That’s when I knew I needed help.
I had no clue what “help” might actually look like, but I figured a good starting point was my GP.
I imagined I’d walk in and tell him I was drinking too much, in the same way I might tell him I had tonsillitis, and he’d give me some prescription or advice that would sort things out. All very business-like, and I’d go away happy.
I hadn’t anticipated he’d ask me why I was drinking so much, nor that I’d start unravelling when explaining just how out of control my work and life was.
All I could do was just sit there and go with it.
“It’s not healthy to be working the way you are,” was what he said to me. “It’s making you ill. You’re using drink as an escape. We need to get you some help.”
Back then, I’d never done any form of counselling or coaching. I was the boss. I referred staff to these services. I was aghast that I might need some myself.
But the doctor referred me to a wonderful psychologist with whose help things began to change.
How keeping yourself too busy messes you up
Truth is, when you’re a professional, your work means a lot to you, and you love being plugged into it. You love to feel it needs you; that you’re indispensable. That you make a difference to it.
All these little interactions – the email and text exchanges; the voice messages; the IMs on the intranet – they can become impulsive. And they can give you a buzz. To our brains, they can be like little alarms.
Thing is, our brains can’t discriminate between one form of alarm or another. It reacts to them all in flight or fight mode and by dumping adrenaline into our bloodstream. Adrenaline’s function is to keep us alert. We can become very “adrenal” and get caught in a vicious circle where we need lots of stimulation in order to be able to stay that way.
But too much of it over too long a period wreaks havoc with our blood sugar levels. Which in turn messes up lots of things from our ability to metabolise fats and our heart health, to our brain chemistry and our outlook on life.
Its impact on me was to cause me to become depressed.
My doctor prescribed anti-depressants, which at the time I gladly took. But I didn’t want to be a long time user and knew that I needed to sort out my experience of always being overwhelmed.
I’m going to tell you the 5 key things that have worked for me in taming that monster.
Before I do, you should know that there are 2 core principles underlying all of these.
Understand that you have choice
“I’ve got client work to do.” “I have to get back to a colleague on something.” “I just want to hear back from someone on a proposal and then I’ll stop working.”
I tell myself these things all the time.
But if you want to be feel more in control, and – dare I say it – more balanced in yourself, they’re signs that you’re, at least for the moment, hooked in.
The reality is successful people, who are also healthy, understand that they have choice and they exercise that choice consciously every day.
Yes, you have to engage with your boss, your clients and your colleagues. But who is pulling your strings? You or them?
You HAVE TO be the first person to respect your life and your choices, otherwise how can you expect others to respect them?
Get clear about your personal boundaries
Exercising your choice means getting very clear for yourself about what your boundaries are.
In other words, what is and isn’t okay for you?
How long will you work every day? What compromises are you prepared to make, and what not? What’s a “yes” for you, and what’s a “no”.
You might not yet be clear about these things. That may take some time, exploration and, frankly, getting it wrong on more than a few occasions.
You may have to open your eyes in a new way to the forces at large in you, and in your company culture, that play their part in inviting you to feel overwhelmed.
Managing your boundaries means developing a bit of personal toughness. Some assertiveness, if you will. Walking out the door at 6pm. Leaving a call unanswered to the following day, if at all.
When you do this at first, colleagues may look at you a bit oddly. Or make a bit of a joke. Don’t worry. Keep going.
Is that difficult? It can be.
But it’s the only way.
Putting that all into practice looks like this:
1. Create every day your way
This seems unimaginable when you’re on automatic pilot and fulfilling a diary full of calls and meetings that have been set up by others.
But if you want to assert choice in how you will do your work so that you calm the overwhelm, you need to find 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning of each day to decide what you want from it.
- How do you want to turn up for yourself and for the world today?
- What will you do today that furthers your key objectives?
- Who will you serve today?
- What do you need not to do today?
Leave off checking email, text or social media until you’ve done this, so that you can get ready for your day in calm, and without already being bombarded by thoughts of other things you “should” do.
2. Switch things off
One of the traps we can all fall into, me included, is to be constantly “on”. So, you’re in the middle of an important conversation, or you’re thinking through something important and there’s a ping or buzz as an email, text message, or call comes through.
You immediately get distracted and need to know both who it’s from, and whether it’s important.
Either way, you’ve succumbed to the alarm, dumped another load of adrenaline into your system, and added to whatever chaos is out there in your world.
To rein things in, switch email off in the background of your computer when you’re working on something that deserves your full presence. And your phone off, whenever you’re with someone to whom you want to give the experience of your undivided presence. You know, like your partner, friend, child, direct report…
3. Decide how much time you want to spend working
One of the great things about technology is that we don’t need to be in offices all the time in order to be working. Mobile telephony allows us to be, well, mobile and to work virtually. I love that.
But the downside is that the boundary between work and the rest of our lives can become blurred, meaning we can end up working all hours of the day or night.
When was the last time a business colleague sent you an email at midnight? Or at 5am? When was the last time you sent an email at that kind of time?
If you want to feel less overwhelmed by work, you need to create some cut-off for yourself around when it’s okay for you to work, and not. And then exercise it that way.
For example, I figured with my consulting job that I’d work late two nights a week – on the nights when there were team meetings or team dinners.
The rest of the time, I finished in good time to get myself to the gym, and still have time for a healthy dinner. I deliberately did not check email or voicemail on these evenings. Which meant I began to start feeling a lot more refreshed on a daily basis.
The fear is that you’ll get less done if you dare to take this approach. My experience, and the experience of folks I coach around this, is that the opposite is true.
4. Figure what else you want life to be about and go do it
When I ended up at my doctor’s door, and started talking to my therapist, I began to understand that work was my life and my life was work.
I was holding some big, deep-seated resentments about lots of things, from never having enough time, or energy, to get to the gym, to having no social life beyond the pub time I spent with work colleagues.
As I said above, part of my kissing overwhelm goodbye, was deciding to make the gym important and carving time out for it.
One of my clients some years ago decided that writing was important to him and found a way to create an afternoon a week where he took himself off with his Moleskin and just wrote.
Another client decided that good old family TV time was important for him and re-created his entire way of working to enable it.
5. Calm your system down
While there’s much you can do around how you behave, these things will have limited effect if you keep overloading your system with caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and other stimulants.
Once I knew that alcohol was a crutch for me, I gave it up for a while.
But the coffee thing I find much more difficult. What I do now is allow myself 2 good coffees in the morning and then that’s it for the day. You might want to take a similar approach. If you need something in the afternoon, try a green tea. Or even just one regular English Breakfast tea.
But being a bit more measured – without necessarily being perfect – on these things allows you to sleep better and for your poor old adrenals got get a bit of a rest. Which just allows you to become more resourceful and on top of your game.
The bottom line?
You know, reading this is well and good, but if you really want more balance, you have to make it happen for yourself. No-one is going to give you permission, and all the signs are that more and more people are burning out from the overwhelmingness of professional life.
It will almost certainly take you time. I put some of the key things in place immediately I confronted my own overwhelm and felt much more in control within a month. But it took a good six months after that, if not longer, to really feel that I’d cracked it and that I was still doing a good job.
But it’s worth the effort. I can still have times, as I’m sure we all can, of feeling there’s just too much to do. But for the most part, I’m calm, happy and far from overwhelmed.
What about you? When do things seem crazy for you? What do you do to tame the overwhelm monster?