Notes on Overwhelm

Written by Jennifer Griggs

Last Thursday, in appraising my day at its close, the word that arose for me was overwhelm. Many of the people with whom I work have expressed a similar feeling. Overwhelm is not comfortable although each of us has our own tolerance for overwhelm. I personally like my feeling of overwhelm to be at about 6 or 7 on a 10-point scale. I am accustomed to this feeling from years of medical training, the academic life of grant writing, juggling multiple projects, mentoring, clinical work, and conducting research. Don’t get me wrong–I am in no way proud of this or arguing that having a high level of tolerance is a good thing–it’s just my “set point.” I’m working on dialing down my overwhelm. (More on that in a moment.)

It is not always the case that overwhelm is a difficult emotion. We can, for example, be overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, or awe. But this kind of overwhelm, that I am feeling, that people I work with are sensing, is neither adaptive or sustainable.

The word overwhelm is from the mid-14th century and originally meant to turn upside down, overthrow, knock over. Early in the 15th century, it took on the meaning, “to submerge completely,” to be “washed over, and overset, by a big wave.” And then–get this–in 1520 the word meant figuratively “to bring to ruin.” So it’s an apt word to describe having too much to do and soon and the less adaptive state of drowning, the feeling of being crushed, under water, unable to breathe. Overwhelm often means our nervous system is overstimulated. We can feel scattered, fuzzy, and frantic.

There’s another piece of overwhelm that I have noticed and that is the feeling of helplessness, lacking agency, being unable to find strategies to rise above the waves and to stay above them.

So what can we do to manage overwhelm? Here are some tips that I use and recommend to the people with whom I work:

1.Write down everything on your mind. Seriously, everything that is out there circling around, buzzing in your ears or pushed down to be dealt with later.

While you may think this is not possible, it is. While you may think that seeing everything written down will add to your overwhelm, doing so will actually help you put “edges” on the “everything.” While you may remember additional things after you think you’re actually done, you will eventually pour everything out onto the page (or pages).

2. Appraise your to-do list. It is likely that there are things on your list that have been there for months or even years. Ask yourself, does this really have to be done? Is this a “zombie” that needs to die? Are you the absolute best person to do this? Create separate lists such as a “Someday/Maybe” list, a “Reconsider” list, and a “High Impact” list. You’ll come up with your own list of headings once you see everything laid bare for this exercise.

3. Identify and appraise your beliefs. We often believe that we have to do something that, in fact, we don’t. If you’re like me, you may volunteer for something in a moment of high energy or helpfulness and then find it’s adding to the overwhelm. You may believe that since you’ve said you’ll do it, you have to do it. You may believe that you have to do the things others are awaiting before you can do what is important to you. Or that you can’t say no because “they’ll” never ask you again (they will, I promise).  Or that if you aren’t overwhelmed, you’re not needed or relevant. Figure out what other stories you’re telling yourself about each to-do and then hold those stories up to the light, turning them left and then right. Ask yourself if something else may be truer.

4. Ask for help. If someone else has put these things on your list, it is their responsibility to help you manage the work. That is, if you have someone you consider your boss, collaborate with them in prioritizing, breaking down the steps, reconsidering the work altogether, or finding collaborators. As much as you may believe it is a sign of weakness to ask for help, it is not. (This would be an example of a belief to reappraise.)

If something on your list is not aligned with your strengths, identify someone who is better suited to the work (unless of course this is something you want to learn, in which case that will factor into your decision making).

5. Prioritize. By now, you should have winnowed down the number of items on your list. Even if you have not, the next step is to assign a priority to every item. You may wish to assign a level of urgency and a level of importance to each item. The top rated items are those that are both urgent and important. I have a strategy for the urgent but less important items–I try to fit them into the spaces that arise when a meeting is canceled or when I’m waiting for someone. These are also great things to ask for help with. The not urgent, not important things get jettisoned, and the important but not urgent things are broken down into smaller parts (actually every task is, but these are the key ones to break down into the smallest manageable steps). 

6. Take breaks and check in with yourself. This whole process does not work if you just cram this process or all the other things onto your to-do list. The point is to turn down the volume on overwhelm rather than to amp up the drowning feeling. Tracking your level of overwhelm on a scale from 1 to 10, taking into account your ideal level of “whelm,” can help you repeat as needed the above steps.

7. Consider a bigger change. The feeling of overwhelm is a signal–to your body, your mind, and the way you live your life. If your work is so heavy that you feel submerged, it may be time for a more substantial change. You know in the movies when people take their arm and sweep it across their desk? You may need to do a similar thing…you may need to consider an entirely different way to be in relationship with your to-do list, your work, or your life. A reset if you will. Every time I’ve done this, something new has appeared that is more aligned with my bigger goals, bigger than just filling in all the boxes on my checklist.

A final note–if you are a leader and your team reports being overwhelmed, it’s time for a major reset. A culture of overwhelm is not sustainable. A culture of overwhelm is not the way to lead your organization to be better tomorrow than you are today. More on this next time.

You don’t have to do this alone.