Two years into navigating a global pandemic, many of us are living much of our lives in the “red zone” where stress is so prominent it actually limits our ability think clearly. We lose focus, concentration, creativity and patience.
Stress is especially high for working mothers and Black women who, data from McKinsey & Company show, are among those most likely to consider downshifting their careers or even leaving the workforce due to ongoing pressures related to the pandemic. While Omicron numbers are finally starting to recede, many women have become so overwhelmed and exhausted that finding the road out of the red zone of high stress and reactivity back to the green zone of responsiveness and a sense of calm and control has felt elusive.
You’re not alone
When we asked women to describe how they were feeling right now, many described being frazzled, anxious, exhausted, under-appreciated, distracted, stressed, frustrated, torn, overstimulated and, most of all, overwhelmed.
It makes sense. Research shows women already pull more than their fair share at home and the pandemic has added new demands, including full-time homeschooling for many. That’s why we asked two working moms and coaching experts to provide actionable tips for lowering stress levels and finding a new balance right from the trenches where they, and all of us, are currently leading. Our goal is not perfection, but thriving personally and professionally despite unique challenges.
As the Chief Mentor of Working Mother’s Mentor, host of the podcast of the same name and mom of three, Julie Finn is on the frontlines managing her own full life and helping clients figure out how to live a big and bold life while balancing family and personal time. “You may not be able to change your circumstances or your work set up, but you can always change how you think,” she says.
One way to do that is by implementing straightforward tweaks to conquer the very real fact of overwhelm including:
- Revise your standards. Maybe towels don’t get folded and put in the closet but rather just pulled right from the clean laundry basket. Sometimes, dinner might mean everyone fends for themselves from among reasonably healthy alternatives in the fridge. You can adjust your standards based on what is realistic in the moment.
- Focus on the task at hand. Neuroscience shows that multitasking is unproductive and that what looks like multitasking is actually constant “multiswitching;” toggling from one thing to another with a loss of concentration each time. So, focus on one thing at a time to get more done more quickly with better results and, possibly, enjoy the process.
- Set boundaries and learn to say no. Without boundaries, you can feel frustrated, burned out, overwhelmed and even resentful. With them, you can feel empowered. Best-selling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace and licensed therapist, Nedra Tawwab, says, “Boundaries are needs and expectations that make you feel safe and comfortable in your life and in your relationships.”
- Manage energy as well as time. While we often think of productivity in terms of time efficiency, Finn reminds us that working while exhausted is counterproductive. Tasks take longer and you are more prone to mistakes.
- Schedule what you want to happen. “If there’s something that’s important to you that’s currently not happening, put it on your calendar and treat it like you treat other obligations,” Finn advises. When time is carved out in your calendar for meditation, running or having a family dinner, it is far more likely to happen.
Meeting the needs of children
- Recalibrate your home life by challenging outdated ideas of who does what. Even elementary school kids can feel a sense of empowerment from mastering tasks and contributing at home. Remind yourself often that yours is not the only name that can show up on a chore list.
Of course, there are few things in life more precious than family and children. Still, you cannot be everywhere all the time. “My number one tip for balancing work with your kids is to categorize your time as obligatory time
that’s dedicated to work and external obligations, and elective time
that can be spent with children and on personal needs,” explains DeLise Bernard, founder of SurvivingHomeschool.com and a ten-year veteran of homeschooling her children.
She recommends using a shared calendar where even young children can see when you are available and when you have work commitments. Just make sure, she cautions, that you shut down your computer and put your phone away during elective time and really focus on the family. She also suggests having a separate work space if possible so you can make a physical transition as well.
Bernard is also a big advocate of empowering children with age-appropriate agency and decision making. They can use tracking tools to monitor their assignments and exercise choice in which activities they attack first. They can also learn to consult a list of suggested activities they are expected to try before coming to you to announce they are bored.
How to do it all
Finally, when asked how to keep up with everything without burning out, both Bernard and Finn agree: you can’t do everything. “You have to prioritize,” Bernard says. “Success is based on trade-offs. You have to define what success looks like for you starting with the premise that you can’t do it all, especially at the same time.” Maybe one day you prioritize a family dinner and another day you prioritize getting a new project outlined but know you will not get all emails answered.
“These times are forcing people to ask for what they need and create boundaries,” Finn adds. “The positive result from that will be that you will see that people don’t react as negatively as you fear. As a coach, I often ask people to step outside their comfort zone, and when they do, they see that they survive and it’s not as scary as they had thought.”
It can feel daunting to ask for the help you need, create meaningful boundaries and prioritize the self-care activities that make it possible for you to keep going. But those are exactly the strategies that can move you from the amped-up, stressed-out red zone into the green zone where you can breathe again, regain a sense of calm and safety, and keep your brain online and engaged. As Finn reminds us, “At the end of the day, you can’t give what you don’t have.”