5 techniques to outsmart overwhelm at work

Feeling overwhelmed? Here's how to manage the build up

Deadlines approaching, to-do lists that don’t end and back-to-back meetings. Argh! The arrival of overwhelm at work is more a case of when it is going to happen … not if it will happen.

Few people get to work overwhelm-free; we all have pressures and expectations to deliver, targets to reach, achieve what’s asked of us and do a good job.

The problem with overwhelm though, is that if we don’t manage and monitor it, it can grow and grow and turn into the beast that is burn-out.

Researcher Jennifer Moss reported in Harvard Business Review that from over 1500 people surveyed in 46 countries, 56% of people say their job demands had increased. No, it’s not our imagination, we’re having to do more. And 62% of people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.

Burn-out, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, is ‘more than just an employee problem; it’s an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.’

Burn-out comes when we experience ongoing stress with no relief. Not even a weekend away in the country or a week off by the beach will fix the feelings of burn-out. We need to look for new ways to outsmart our overwhelm and not just call for more ‘self-care’.

Our work can overwhelm us with things like the quantity or workload we’re trying to complete, information overload that we’re struggling to absorb and emotional overwhelm of having to show up and ‘carry on’.

We’re faced with employers making big decisions and big changes, announcing restructures and new systems, and all the while we’re dealing with challenging colleagues, bosses and customers. Plus, we might just be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks we’re expected to complete … in not enough time!

Here are five techniques to help you stay alert to rising levels of overwhelm at work and how to outsmart them:

  1. Know your triggers. What gets on your nerves or winds you up? Knowing the things that can accelerate or advance our overwhelm is worth being aware of. We can see them ahead of time and they have less power over us.
  2. Write out the work. Instead of juggling all of your ‘to-dos’ in your head (you know, those 3am ‘wake up in a sweat’ moments) make them visible and write everything out. Even though the number of things might be more than you’d like to see, ‘externalising’ information out of our head is a powerful technique in the process of outsmarting overwhelm.
  3. Stop juggling so many things at once. It’s impossible for us to multitask all day and still expect to feel good at the end of the day.
  4. Conserve your energy and focus on fewer things. Doing fewer things but doing them well or at least finishing them helps take them out of our mind. And if you do wake in worry, see point #2 and write your thoughts down. You’ll get back to sleep easier.
  5. Manage self. One of the best career success tips is to be a good manager of yourself, your own workload, time and energy. Knowing what you’ve got on and when it’s due shows you’ve got your head around the work to be done. That’s much harder to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is an important part of our human functioning so it’s not like we don’t want to feel the rise of emotions or the stress of ‘too much’. We need the extremes of ‘it’s easy, I’m chillin’ through to ‘I’m smashed, it’s too much’ to know where our boundaries are.

But also know that too much of anything isn’t healthy. Working longer hours, stressing over deadlines and worrying about reports isn’t a sustainable way to work over the longer term.

There’s a middle line here of balance – it’s where we can get good work done and achieve our goals, but also be aware of the rise of overwhelm and its damaging effects. It’s rewarding to still be able to reach a deadline and high five someone – even if its ourselves – rather than drowning under the weight of everything being too much for us to cope.

Lynne Cazaly is speaker and award-winning author on new ways of working. She helps individuals and organisations think and work in ways that are more productive, collaborative, creative and effective. She is the author of ‘Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A Practical Guide to Outsmarting Overwhelm’ ($29.95). Find out more at www.lynnecazaly.com