There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.
As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my work-life balance, productivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.
When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.
Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.
The more perceived control you feel you have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.
This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.
The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex with devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.
Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:
1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.
2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.
3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to overperformance at every moment as essential to your identity.
4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. When you get an assignment and you have a big stack on your plate, say, Let me get back to you. Clarify your time lines and priorities, and let them know what's on your plate.
5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.
6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.
7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can vet our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging workflow.
Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well. That's a lose-lose for organization and employee.
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