We live in a world that offers us countless opportunities to grow and do and contribute. Trying to make the most of such abundance might leave us facing overwhelm and exhaustion. What do we do when it's all too much?
When the overwhelm takes over
Feeling overwhelmed is a common thread I see in The Productive Woman community and in the emails I receive. Many women (and men) are struggling to manage a job, children, a spouse, or life as a single parent. On top of that we're trying to find time for personal interests (or just to get some sleep). There have been several posts in the Community Facebook group about the overwhelmed feeling that can come when it seems there are too many things to do and we're not doing them well.
I've felt that way. A full-time law practice is rewarding but also demanding and time-consuming. Sometimes it's left me feeling tired and stressed; it's affected my health, both physical and emotional. I’ve been doing this for nineteen years. For seven of those years, I commuted 55 miles each way, every day. When that got to be too much, my husband and I found a small apartment near my office, where I could stay during the week. This reduced my daily commute but kept me from home a lot of the time. Our children are grown, but I was still away from my husband.
We recently made a big change. I reduced my law practice to part-time, and we let the apartment go so I could be home full-time. That didn't eliminate all the stress, though. Even though it's a change I wanted, it's still scary. Practicing law full time has been my life for the past nineteen years. And the change means a drastic reduction in our household income.
In additional to the mental turmoil with making this decision, over the past weeks I've been working long hours, tending to The Productive Woman stuff, trying to be there for my family, and packing and dealing with the tasks involved in a move.
My point? Every choice we make has the potential for times of stress and overwhelm. There might be a woman out there who can do it all, all the time, and always feel good about it all … but I’ve never met her.
No One Can Do It All
What can we do about this feeling of overwhelm and incompetence?
We need to start by being a little kinder to ourselves.
We live in a time when there are many opportunities available to us and for our children, and choices to be made about where and how we spend our time. We tend to judge ourselves harshly. We compare ourselves to others, and from what we see, they’ve got it all together. One of the things I love about The Productive Woman community is that women are coming forward and admitting they are not coping as well as they’d like.
When we compare, we are often comparing our insides to their outsides. We are often comparing our internal feelings of overwhelm and incompetence to their external appearance of calm competence.
We need to remember that what we see on the outside may not tell the whole story. We never know what’s going on in another person’s home or mind. Other people might look at you and think you have it all together; they don’t see what you’re feeling inside.'Be a little kinder to yourself.'Click To Tweet
Time, Energy, and Attention are Finite Resources
Time, energy, and attention are finite resources. What’s spent on one thing is not available for another. Each of us needs to ask herself, “What really, really matters to me? Do my calendar and my checkbook reflect that?” Our calendar and our checkbook tell the real truth about where our priorities are. If they don’t reflect the priority in our hearts, then that is where the disconnect comes in. We know we are spending all of our time, all of our energy, all our of our attention, doing whatever myriad of things we are doing, and yet they are not reflecting what really matters to us.
If you're really busy, but you feel like all those things you're doing reflect your most important priorities, then the answer is to find those systems and tools to help you manage your time and your space so you can enjoy your busy life and not feel stressed out and overwhelmed. We'll probably all feel that way sometimes regardless, but it shouldn’t be a constant part of our daily life. If it is, then we need to step back and reevaluate how we're spending our time. We need to make sure that, with the days we have left on the earth, we're spending them doing the things that are most important to us.“Our calendar and our checkbook tell the real truth about what our priorities are.”Click To Tweet
Practical Steps to Manage the Overwhelm
- Take a breath.
We don’t think we can take a break, because there’s no time, but when our heads are in the weeds, we lose perspective about what matters. If we're chugging along from one task and event to another and then collapse at the end of the day, then we have no perspective on what’s going on. Take time to take a break and breathe.
There's a lot of evidence that taking a break — even (or especially!) when you don’t think there’s time — can have a measurable positive impact on your focus, concentration, mood, and productivity. (See articles such as this and this for more information on taking a break.)
While you're on your break . . .
— Eat something healthy and drink a big glass of water.
— Take a walk.
— Get outside.
— Take a nap.
— Get some exercise.
- Try one of these “55 Gentle Ways to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Busy, Busy, Busy.”
- Prune your schedule.
Start with today. Look at what’s on your list, and pick the least important thing — and cross it off the list. Defer it to later, or dump it entirely, but decide not to do it today.
To get a start on getting the rest of your days under control, make a list of every activity you’re spending time on. Then consider each activity, one at a time. How important is it? How do you feel when you think of doing it? Does it align with your highest priority? Can you remove it by either recruiting someone or paying someone to do it, or simply extricating yourself from it?
When I was feeling overwhelmed in the past month or two, I went through this exercise. I had to look at everything I was doing and weed some activities out. I chose to withdraw from certain activities I’d been involved in for a long time. Within just a few weeks, a new opportunity came along for something I’d been longing to do for ages, and I had the space to do it because I had removed the other activities.
Be intentional about this, and ask yourself, “Does this need to get done, and do I need to be the one to do it?” Nobody can answer these questions for us. We have to — each of us, individually — look at our activities, and make those decisions based on what is important to us.
- Remember to schedule time on your calendar for yourself, for quiet, rest, or fun. Perhaps schedule a few hours each week on your work schedule where there are no meetings. Block that out for quiet, undisturbed work time, or block time for rest, just to relax at home with a good book, or whatever you like to do. Schedule some time for fun, either alone, or with someone you care about.
- Ask for help.
We often have a hard time asking for help, but you might be able to hire someone to take tasks off your plate, or simply call a friend who’ll lend a supportive, understanding ear. Sometimes we just need to talk through what is going on, and to have someone who'll listen without judgment is a valuable thing.
- Practice gratitude.
When we're feeling most overwhelmed and like it’s all too much, it’s important to step back and give thanks. I try to remind myself that there are worse things in life than having too much to do. It means we have choices, that we have opportunities, that we have the privilege to do things, and we have people in our lives who need us and care about us. So much of how we cope with the experiences in our lives come from our own attitude.
- Own your choices.
Remember that we have choices. We think we don’t, but we do. Some choices might have consequences we don’t like, but we can still choose. The life we are living today is a result of choices we made yesterday, and this morning, and five minutes ago. Everything we're doing that we think is making us feel overwhelmed and put upon . . . we have chosen to do those things.“The life we're living today is a result of choices we made yesterday, and this morning, and five minutes ago.”Click To Tweet
Do you think you have to do certain things? Do you feel you have to stay at a job that sucks the life out of you? Do you feel you have to sign your kids up for multiple activities? What else? The fact is, every one of those things is a choice. We might think, “I can’t quit my job. We need the income,” but it really is a choice. Choosing to live a certain lifestyle requires a certain income. There's no right or wrong in this. The point is to acknowledge you’ve made that choice. It’s not imposed on you. We choose how we want to live, and it’s okay to own those choices.
I hope you're hearing my heart here, and know that I’m right there with you, and I’m talking to myself. My husband and I decided that we could choose to live a different way if it would buy some peace of mind and some time together. In our situation, we decided that was what was most important for us. Your choice might be different, but let it be intentional.
It starts with knowing what you want
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your schedule, or inadequate because you feel like you’re not doing well enough, please know you’re not alone. Many of us feel that way a lot of the time, but there are things we can do to change that and to improve our quality of life. The solution starts with knowing certain truths about yourself: What do you want? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life do you want to live, and what needs to change in order for you to be that person and live that life?
What do you think?
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed and stressed out? Have you figured out a balance that works for you? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links:
Announcements & Reminders
- Can I help you get a handle on the “too much” in your life and find space for what matters most to you? Spend time this spring with a group of motivated women like you, in one of my paid The Productive Woman Mastermind groups. If you’re looking for encouragement, motivation, and accountability in achieving your goals and moving forward in a life that matters, you'll find it there. TPW Mastermind groups are small, to allow maximum participation and benefit. New groups will start the first week of May, but the groups are being formed NOW, and spaces are limited, so don't wait–visit the Work with Me page on the website for information and a link to the short online application. Questions? Email me!
- Thank you to our sponsor, FreshBooks. Be sure to check out the 30-day unrestricted free trial they're offering TPW listeners by visiting at FreshBooks.com/WOMAN. Please enter “The Productive Woman” in the “How did you hear about us?” section.
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