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Getting workplace overwhelm under control

Do any of these thought bubbles seem familiar?

  • “Getting hit with one thing after another.”
  • “I’m barely keeping my head above water.”
  • “Don’t feel like I’m getting anything done.”

All of these phrases describe the profound sense of overwhelm that I recently heard about from my one of my new leader clients.

For many new leaders, it’s overwhelming to go from peer to boss or from independent contributor to team leader. Imagine then taking on a new leadership role during the pandemic -- and joining a chaotic workplace?

My client, let’s call her Bethany, did just that for a stretched-thin startup. She finds herself pulled in multiple directions, making it challenging to be effective in her role as head of marketing.

She recently said, “Some days I [feel like] I am caught in the eye of a tornado.” And yet, she’s committed to the organization’s mission and it’s important to her to make an impact in her role.

So, how can she gain control in a fast-paced environment where she’s stuck in the middle between the CEO and her small team?

As an executive coach, I work with leaders to create systems that help them lead at their best. With that in mind, here are three routines that you can deploy to calm the feeling of overwhelm.

1. Design your week

After a bit of discussion, my client Bethany realized that she needed to gain some control of her schedule. So, I asked her to think about her ideal week, which she described as:

  • Getting together with friends
  • Planning healthy meals
  • Exercising three days a week, including walks with friends
  • Designating one night a week to work late -- and sticking to it
  • More relaxation

Once she mapped out this vision, she sighed with great relief. She might not be able to control the chaos at work, but she could take charge of her week. It seemed very doable.

I prefer the lens of a week versus a day because often there are days that your schedule gets derailed. From the perspective of a seven-day rhythm, it’s easier to plan for what’s important to you; to proactively look for ways to add more positive moments and remove negative ones; and, to make time for various aspects of your life -- personal growth, health and well-being, relationships, career, fun and even the mundane.

In an interview with Amantha Imber on the podcast “How I Work,” Dom Price, head of R&D at Atlassian, shared his practice. Every Friday, he reflects on the week:

  • Have I planted new seeds? Have I nurtured existing seeds?
  • What was my mix of synchronistic and asynchronistic work?
  • How much time did I invest in myself?

Then he designs the week ahead. First, he locks in activities with other people -- e.g., walks with friends, social engagements and work that involve other people. From there, he slots in work and personal activities that he can do on his own -- e.g., deep work, workouts, reading. He mixes and matches each week to create a schedule that works for him.

You may not have as much workplace flexibility as Price does, but I’m confident you do have flexibility to craft your week to incorporate activities that make you happy, bring positive energy -- and help you feel less overwhelmed.

What elements do you need to have an ideal week? How will you design your week to gain control?

2. Create a shutdown routine

Too often when we feel overwhelmed, we focus on what’s left to do rather than what we have done. We also have a tendency to be less structured when we’re overwhelmed.

As one way to reduce stress, I recommend that my clients establish a routine that recognizes progress and brings the workday to a close. Here are three approaches I like:

  1. Dan Pink in "WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing" writes that the science of endings suggests that, rather than rushing off to pick up the kids or prepare dinner or meet up with friends, we should carve out the last five minutes to bring the workday to a close. Pink takes two to three minutes to write down what he accomplished for the day – the “dones.” Then he spends two to three minutes planning his next day.
  2. Gretchen Rubin, author of "Outer Order, Inner Calm," conducts a 10-minute routine to close her workday. During this closing ritual, she tidies her desk, reviews her calendar and puts everything back in its place. This habit serves as a transition from her work self to her home self, which is more important than ever with many people working at home. It also makes it easier to start the next day fresh. 
  3. Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work," has a more detailed daily shutdown routine. His process includes three steps:
    • Spending about five minutes reviewing what’s going on in working life -- e.g., his to-do list and calendar
    • Saying a close-out phrase: “schedule shutdown, complete”
    • Once he says those magic words, he doesn’t allow himself to worry about work

He elaborates on how it works:

“After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process:

  1. I said the termination phrase.
  2. I wouldn’t have said this phrase if I hadn’t checked over all of my tasks, my calendar, and my weekly plan and decided that everything was captured and I was on top of everything.
  3. Therefore, there is no need to worry.”

What’s your daily closeout routine? In what ways can you make it better?

3. Give yourself a break

When you’re overwhelmed, it seems hard to justify taking a break. When I ask my clients about their typical day, I hear stories about back-to-back Zoom calls and lunches at their desk (which may also be the dining room table).   

In "When," Pink details the science behind and power of restorative breaks. I doubt you need me to tell you how valuable it is to give your brain and your body a break. You may need some ideas to incorporate breaks into your day.

Pink says to create a “break list” that’s equivalent to your to-do list and start with at least three scheduled breaks a day. Pink offers five categories -- micro breaks, moving breaks, nature breaks, social breaks and mental breaks -- along with a few ideas for each category. My favorites include:

  • Take a five-minute walk every hour
  • Downsize your water bottle and every time it empties, walk to the kitchen for a refill. (A “three-fer” -- hydration, movement and restoration)
  • Schedule a social break by meeting a friend for coffee or a walk
  • Reach out to someone and catch up for five or 10 minutes
  • Use a moment to say thank-you by note or email. Expressing gratitude is restorative

Stepping away from your computer for lunch or a short break may not be a panacea for feeling overwhelmed, but it does offer a moment of restoration.

Scott Eblin uses a great phrase: “As a leader, you control the weather.” I ask my clients, what weather system do you want to bring to your team, your organization -- or your life, for that matter?

By incorporating any one of these routines into your leadership practice, I am confident the weather you create will be cool and calm rather than stormy and stressful.

 

Elisabeth Hayes is an executive coach who works with ambitious mid-career professionals and senior executives to expand their leadership skills, transition into next-level roles and navigate career moves. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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