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Mental Health

Feeling overwhelmed: 6 steps to take when everything feels like too much to manage

If you ever feel like life is becoming a never-ending list of things to do and keep on top of, these six steps can help you take back control. 

What are your expectations for tomorrow? Next week? Maybe you are looking forward to a dinner with friends, a holiday or perhaps something big is happening at work. Looking ahead, you may feel like there is a never-ending list of things to do, to tick off and to keep on top of.

Technology has helped us escape mundane tasks and open up a world of possibility. We can multitask and exchange huge amounts of information, we are able to be faster and quicker at decision making and we can be independent through self-service. 

Technology is also driving us to higher and higher levels of expectation of ourselves and others. Social media is a brilliant enabler, but on the flip side it presents us with an aspirational lifestyle which can seem just always slightly out of reach.

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Overwhelm is real. It can sometimes feel like life is happening to us rather than we are living our lives.

If you feel like this, you are certainly not alone. Many of us can identify with this and yet the way to overcome it can sometimes contribute to more overwhelm: exercise, sleep, eat well… more things to add to the to-do list. And the things that promise to help us can leave us feeling even more inundated.

Here are some ideas about what really works to enable us to feel fulfilled without overextending ourselves.

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1. First step: acceptance     

Time is finite and so is our capacity. Accepting that not everything will get done, and understanding that the constant aspiration to tie everything up with a bow before we can truly experience our lives is unattainable, is the first step. Reaching a point where we are comfortable with what might seem like chaos while we focus on the things that are really important is liberating. It can be difficult for us to see our priorities until we reach acceptance and let go of the need to do it all. Whatever is done, or is left undone, is how things are.

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2. Be clear

Be clear on your purpose and what you are trying to achieve. When we trust that fulfilment lies in the acceptance that we cannot do everything, we give ourselves permission, but also the accountability, to make choices about what is important. A way of reframing this question to help us find greater clarity is to ask ourselves: If we take the long view, what impact would we like to have? Starting from this long view of impact, work backwards to determine what is important today.

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3. What can only you do?

We can have big dreams and big ambitions and lead a life filled with growth and impact, but we don’t need to do it all alone. Be really clear what you want to do and what only you can do and, for everything else, ask for help from others. When you have a clear vision, others will gravitate towards you and want to be part of your world. Be someone who lets people in so you can achieve outcomes together.

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4. Where is your energy? 

While we have a finite capacity, that capacity is enormous when we are doing something that we love and brings us energy. What lights you up? When do you find yourself in a state of flow when you lose track of time? While we all have things to do which are not filling us with energy and engagement, choosing to spend more time in activities that bring us energy rather than deplete our energy gives us reserves to draw on and keeps us feeling in balance, motivated and positive.

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5. Rest is active

In order to perform at a high level and give our best, we all need time and space to reflect and recharge. Our energy is a mix of dynamic action and rest. We can sometimes feel that rest is idle, it is indulgent. However, rest is essential in order to maintain high performance. In nature we see cycles of growth and cycles of slow down through the seasons and so it is true of us as well. When we reframe rest to see it as part of our ability to be action oriented and effective, we provide ourselves with the opportunity to make sense of all the distractions that we are facing and to be more intentional about the choices we make and where to focus our energy and time.  

Vantage Points

6. Own it

Often, we can feel that overwhelm is happening to us and we are not in control of our workload, the family commitments we have, the endless life admin we must attend to. It is true that we are not in control of the external requirements coming towards us. Once we reach acceptance that we may not do everything, we open ourselves up to what we do own. And we do own the choices about where we spend our energy and what we prioritise.

It can be helpful to see everything that is happening in our lives in broad awareness, almost like a blurred background. And we can then see the choices we make for our lives in clear, razor-sharp focus, which helps us to not be distracted into the never-ending amount of demands. Only then can we move from overwhelm to clarity, focus and a realistic view of what it takes for us to thrive.  

Paula Leach has over 25 years’ experience in HR. She runs her own business, Vantage Points Consulting, and is the author of Vantage Points: How To Create A Culture Where Employees Thrive.    

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