Try This When You’re Feeling Overworked and Overwhelmed


Dear Emily,

This year I started out motivated, with goals for health, productivity, and things I want to learn at work and personally. However, our company is undergoing ANOTHER reorganization. Some people were let go and other jobs are being moved overseas. I’m a people manager with teams in three countries. I wear many hats and am constantly behind on email and projects. I work long hours and am overwhelmed and exhausted. Leaders are now setting goals and objectives, stressing “work-life balance,” and I’m not the only one feeling frustrated and angry because it feels like lip service. My sleep is suffering and my exercise plans are down the toilet. It feels like a downward spiral. What can I do?

Spiraling Downward

Author: Emily Gregory


VP Development and Delivery VitalSmarts


Dear Spiraling Downward,

You are asking the right question: “What can I do?” Last year was tough for so many people, and this year is unfolding similarly. There are so many things you can’t do—change the rate of globalization, ease the financial pressures on your organization, and so on. But there are things you can do to take control of your experience, get out of the downward spiral, and start moving in a new direction. Here are three ideas to help you make that happen.

Remove the small rocks. Think about your ability to handle stress as a kind of bucket. We each have a different size of bucket, a different capacity to handle and manage stress. Both big things and small things, a death in our family, unemployment, or chronic illness to a messy house, an unexpected veterinarian expense, a colleague missing deadlines, or a sudden disruption to the toilet paper supply chain. We do okay until the moment our bucket overflows. At that point, we become overwhelmed and shut down. “It is all just too much to handle! Nothing can make this better! It will never end!”

When we hit shutdown mode and start frantically searching for a way out, our tendency is to focus on the “big rocks.” How can I remove those huge stressors and find relief? The problem is you usually can’t remove the big stressors; they are often fixed. You frequently can remove the small rocks, but we also often discount those. The world is falling down around me and having a clean house isn’t going to make a difference, right?

The key to getting out of shutdown mode is not to remove all stress, it is to get your stress level below the top of your bucket. And yes, removing a big stressor might do that. But so would removing a few small stressors. So, start by looking at those small rocks. What can you do about those? Can you step back from a community volunteer assignment for a few months? Can you tell your extended family you need to skip a couple of family dinners? Can you hire someone to clean your house or order from a meal delivery service for a month?

People routinely underestimate the contribution of small stressors to their overall level of stress and thus discount the impact that removing the small stressors can have. You don’t have to fix everything to feel better about everything, you just have to move a few small rocks.

Ask, “What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?” Once you have created some temporary breathing space by removing the small stressors, you can evaluate your situation. What is it you really want? For you? For your family? For your career? In our Getting Things Done® course, we call this identifying the very next action.

Most of the time we come up with plans that are so far removed from where we are that they seem impossible. After all, everything is horrible and out of alignment right now. That’s okay. The question is not “What would it take to achieve all my hopes and dreams?” The question is “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?” All you need to do is identify the first concrete step and make a plan to take that step. When you are at the bottom of the spiral, don’t try to take five steps. Take one. Then congratulate yourself, notice how good it feels, and decide what your next step is.

Renegotiate. Change can be a significant source of feeling overwhelmed. We make commitments, our situation or reality changes, and then we feel compelled to keep our original commitments. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of making and keeping commitments. And I think a commitment made under one set of circumstances can be reconsidered under a different set of circumstances. So, take a good hard look at your commitments and then identify the ones you need to renegotiate. Do this at home and at work.

For renegotiation conversations at work, lay out the facts and then involve leaders in collaborative prioritization. For example, you might start a conversation by saying, “Six months ago, you asked me to take on this project. I agreed. Now, because of the changes in our organizational structure, you have asked me to take on these three responsibilities. I see the need for this and I want to succeed with these new responsibilities. In order to do so, I’d like to re-evaluate my previous commitments together and see what makes sense.”

I hope you are noticing that none of these three suggestions is magical. None will pull you out of the downward spiral overnight. It took more than a day for you to get where you are, and it will take more than a day (or a single conversation) to get to a different place. But by focusing on what you can do, you can start to move forward.



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