Stop the Bus! How to deal with overwhelm…

By Karen Amos

I was working with someone this week who confided in me that she was feeling completely overwhelmed with work.  My response?  ‘Stop the bus!’  Well, this gained her attention if only to wonder what on earth I was talking about (particularly seeing as there was no bus in sight) – which was compounded by my next instruction, ‘Turn off the ignition. Now get off the bus!’

Feelings of overwhelm are no stranger to most of us – I include myself in this.  Issues and tasks mount up and we become less and less effective, whilst proportionately becoming more and more anxious.  It frequently leads us to a complete standstill, or at best, with us tinkering around the edges with minor activities, whilst the important stuff is left unattended.

To be honest, I’ve found myself in just that situation this week, so thought I’d share a few thoughts and strategies on how I’ve dealt with this.

  1. Stop the bus!

In order to deal with overwhelm, we need to stop the endless cycle of panic, fear and urgency that’s gripping us.  We need to recognise these are just feelings – our feelings.  They don’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the world around us.

One way to do this is to ‘Stop the ‘overwhelm’ bus’ by literally doing just that – stopping and taking time out to evaluate your situation.  ‘Are you joking?’ I hear you exclaim!  ‘That’s the point, I can’t take time out and that’s why I’m feeling overwhelmed!’

As I alluded to earlier, we need to check out the reality of this situation.  Chances are if we’re feeling overwhelmed, we’re being completely, or at least relatively, inefficient.  We aren’t working at our best, or most effective, so looking at it that way, wouldn’t it be a good investment to take at least a couple of hours out to fix the situation, knowing you’ll be back to full capacity when you’ve done so?

However you visualise it, stop your bus, turn it off and get off.  Plot out a couple of hours for yourself where you won’t be disturbed, take a change of scenery if that helps, but lift yourself out of that head-down, flat-panic world.

  1. Work out what’s important

It’s so easy when feeling overwhelmed, to get caught up in tasks and minor activities.  This just leads to a vicious cycle of firefighting, where you haven’t a second to look up and take control.  As a result, your first task needs to be to identify what are the important, significant issues and goals you should be dealing with.

I’ve just re-visited my 12-week-year planner, to re-focus and remember what I’m actually working towards.  Seeing things in a ‘broader-brush’ context is often immediately comforting.  If you don’t already have a plan or strategy, just ask yourself, ‘What would I like to see that would make the most difference in 6/12 months’ time?’ and start from there.

  1. Prioritise

This is a word that’s thrown around like confetti, but let’s face it, if it was that easy we’d already be doing it, right?  The problem with overwhelm is that often everything feels like a priority.  You feel leaned on and obligated to other people too.

I’ve found there are some great coaching questions to help weed out what’s really a priority.  Try a few of these:

– Does this help me achieve my bigger plan/strategy/aims?

– Do I actually need to do this? What will happen if I don’t?  (If you’re not sure, try a very informal risk assessment in your head – i.e. What’s the probability and severity or not doing this).

– Is this my priority/issue, or is this really someone else’s?

– If it’s someone else’s, how do I hand this back to them, or help them with this?

– What one thing could I do right now that would make the most difference?

– When do these things actually need doing by?  Set some new timescales according to your capacity.

– Is there someone else who can help with this?

  1. Facing your demons

Just one final thought – I often work with clients who feel overloaded with minor activities and tasks at all levels in organisations.  There’s a common theme when we start to drill down though, which is that we often focus on small tasks and activities, as they’re easier and less daunting than tackling the bigger issues.

Again, useful coaching questions would be:

– Being honest myself, is there anything I’m avoiding right now?

– What would I advise someone to do in my position?

Hopefully, you’ve found something useful in there, for you, or a member of your team and can stop your runaway bus or train and embark on a more enjoyable and productive journey.

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Karen Amos is an executive coach and founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports business owners and managers to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a practical, down-to-earth approach to improving working lives through better leadership, communication and working relationships.