There is a cruel irony in the too-common experience of feeling nearly paralyzed when you most need to launch into action to meet mounting and pressing demands.
Perhaps you’ve just been promoted and are realizing fully for the first time how much your responsibilities have grown; are returning to work after the birth of a child; or just trying to clear the slate before vacation. Feeling overwhelmed can cause us to take the exact opposite steps from those that will actually improve the situation.
When you know the traps (and can identify those you tend to fall into), it becomes a little easier to navigate high-demand times, as well as everyday juggling, more effectively. Watch out for these pitfalls and consider far more effective options.
Like the expressions we use to describe it (such as being “under water” or feeling “buried”) being overwhelmed can actually feel dangerous. There are real, as well as magnified and exaggerated, consequences to missing deadlines, being unprepared and falling short of expectations. The fear of failure can become so great that decision making and action become nearly impossible.
Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, suggests shifting your focus from ideal solutions and outcomes to the best options available to you right now. That way, you not only get to test out approaches that may well work, you also break through your paralysis and generate momentum to keep you moving forward. When you don’t act, you reinforce the idea that you are powerless and incapable.
You go it alone
Far too often, we assume no one has ever made the mistake we’ve made or felt as overwhelmed as we do and conclude that asking for help would simply highlight our inadequacy. In fact, asking for help earlier can often save time, money and heartburn.
If you can step back for just a minute to realistically assess the situation, you will begin to see where the big holes are and who is most qualified to help you fill them. That might mean starting with a big-picture person who can help you think through the entire situation and develop a game plan. Or, it could mean identifying specific expertise or sheer people power to carry out tasks you’ve already identified.
Most often, we feel overwhelmed when tackling something new and high-stakes situation, or even because of our own or someone else’s unrealistic expectations. Those are realities that are best brought out into the open in a candid discussion where you can lay out the challenge, get key questions answered and share your suggestions for how to accelerate progress toward a shared goal. When you outline the path ahead, others become more willing to join in and help you get there.
You shut down creativity
The mind likes to wander a bit to come up with creative new ideas. But, when you’re overwhelmed, that can feel like a luxury you don’t have. We talk about “powering through,” and “buckling down,” and struggle to even consider novel solutions when we feel stressed.
“Because we have less cognitive and emotional bandwidth to consider other options, we become less flexible about adapting to the demands of the situation and default to our dominant ways of handing things,” Boyes explains. That can lead to an over-reliance on familiar skills that have worked in the past even if they are not well-suited to the current situation.
When you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself if a fresh approach might help. The answer may point you in the direction of new ideas and people who will complement your areas of expertise.
You get too busy for meaningful action
When we feel overwhelmed, we often fail to prioritize the actions that would help the most. You can feel too busy to even bring a staff member up to speed so she can pitch in. Or, you cancel dinner with a friend because time is at a premium. But taking a breather to think and refresh, or bring other hands to the task, can stop you from spinning your wheels and enable you to see a better way forward.
Despite sounding counter-intuitive, stopping for a minute to really think is often the best move to consider first when you feel overwhelmed. That gives you a chance to realistically assess the situation, organize for action, call for help and start making real progress.