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Juggling? Struggling? Drowning? How to handle overwhelm

Lynne Cazaly - Author

The load we carry at work can be a big one. Many people may not be in a workplace location as much, if at all, and others are working under constraints and pressures we never imagined.

It’s making for a working environment that’s delivering less support and fewer connections than we’d like, and an increase in overload and overwhelm that we don’t need.

Research from Moss, Leiter, Maslach, and Whiteside in Harvard Business Review (of 1500 people surveyed across 46 countries) revealed:

  • “89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
  • 85% said their well-being had declined.
  • 56% said their job demands had increased.”

Ask people pre-pandemic how they handled these overwhelming experiences – of juggling, struggling and drowning under the weight of emotions, work and information – and you’d likely hear phrases of ‘push on through it’, toughen up’ or a rousing ‘come on team!’

But there are new and better ways of working that help us handle overwhelm and importantly, the conditions at work that can cause it. We don’t have to ‘cope with’ or ‘manage’ overwhelm and overload; these have a passive sound of giving in or an aggressive feel of wrestling and fighting it. We can actually outsmart it. Here’s how:

1. Making Sense of Emotional Overwhelm
Sensemaking is the thinking process we use to understand the deeper meaning of what’s going on. The phrase ‘connecting the dots’ explains it well as we link information, insights and data and decide what to do.

The Institute for the Future listed sensemaking as one of the top 10 skills we’d need for 2020 and beyond, and weren’t they right! We make sense – individually or in a team – by looking for themes and patterns and making decisions about them.

The emotions of overwhelm are a great place to start with sensemaking. Instead of pushing emotions aside, stifling or ignoring them, we can apply sensemaking to see what they’re trying to tell us us.

Author of ‘Emotional Agility’, Dr Susan David says emotions simply give us data. Instead of being at the mercy of emotions or thinking more ‘self-care’ will make them go away, a little time asking two sensemaking questions, ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What do I need to do about it?’ can work more effectively. This gives us perspective on emotions and clearer space to think of potential solutions and answers.

2. Outsmarting not Overworking
Newer ways of working also help us ‘work smarter not harder’. Who hasn’t worked back late, worked through lunch or suffered a day of back-to-back online meetings, to end up exhausted? And it might only be Monday!

To keep overwhelm from rising and reduce the effects of endless lists of work tasks, we need more frequent breaks. Rather than thinking you need longer 15 minute or 30-minute breaks, try the ‘micro-break’ of 90 seconds or 2 minutes. Micro-breaks between meetings and work tasks release the pressure of the intense focus we give to work.

The effectiveness of productivity techniques like the ‘Pomodoro’ – where you work uninterrupted for 25 minutes with a timer doing the timekeeping, like your phone alarm – is the ideal way be uninterrupted. But then rest, briefly. This ‘sprint and rest’ looks like ‘Work work rest’, instead of ‘work work work work work’.

3. Solving the Information Overload
The overload of information we’re faced with in reports, emails, meetings and our own thoughts are what The Information Overload Research Group says is ‘data smog’, ‘infoxication’ or the great ‘infoglut’.

Trying to remember everything or soaking information in from these sources all day is unsustainable. Instead, store more information outside yourself, by ‘externalising’ information. Take notes, jot down key points, and avoid thinking, ‘I’ll remember this’. Take the pressure off your brain and let it focus on what’s happening, what it’s about, what you need to do about it. There are those sensemaking questions again.

New ways of working are sweeping the world and transforming how work is planned, organised and completed. Newer techniques like sensemaking, working uninterrupted and externalising information are some of the best ways to outsmart overwhelm and overload.  While the older ways of pushing through, working back and drowning under it might seem familiar, they’re less effective and more likely to burn us out.

Lynne Cazaly is author of Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A Practical Guide to Outsmarting Overwhelm

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