It’s a new year, and for most of us, it’s time to get back to the grind… For some of us, this can bring a certain degree of anxiety, as we wait for work to start up again. Admit it, good or bad, some of us are defined by our careers. It’s how we define ourselves, and how people come to identify us.
Even out on the golf course I’m never just “Brian,” “Doc” or “Doc Bri,” which is typically how people refer to me, as much as I would love to leave work at, well, work. My kind of work never really goes away… Sometimes it feels as if there’s just more and more of it. And so I thought it was time we reevaluated our views of work and how we approach it. Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating.
Our work lives can become increasingly demanding, presenting us with ever more complex challenges at a near-relentless pace. Add in personal and family needs, and it’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed. While CEOs of trillion-dollar companies, like Apple’s Tim Cook, wake up at 3:45 a.m., most of us don’t have quite this level of responsibility.
The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve. When we have too many demands and are forced to keep thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen. This leaves us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile.
If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed, here are some key strategies to try:
Ask yourself the question, “What one or two things, if taken off my plate, would alleviate 80 percent of the stress that I feel right now?” While you may still be responsible for these items and cannot actually take them off your plate, this question can help you identify a significant source of your stress. If it’s the sheer size of the task that is overwhelming you, break it down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources or renegotiate the deadline if you are able — or all of the above. Remain goal-oriented. Remember, there’s always more than one way get things done.
Set some boundaries on your time and workload. I struggle with this constantly. And I’m still working on it. But recently, I’ve tried to develop the habit of “time boxing.” This means watching the hours one spends on any particular task or project, focusing on trying to complete my work by a certain time. It may even mean learning to say no to specific types of work.
Challenge your own perfectionism. By the time I finish this column, I will probably have edited it at least five, maybe even 10 times. Rephrasing paragraphs, moving sentences around, checking and rechecking my grammar. Wanting everything to be perfect can be a very good thing, but without balance, it can be a curse. Perfectionism can lead us to make tasks or projects bigger than they need to be, which can lead to procrastination and psychological distress. Know when “good” is “good enough” by asking yourself, “What is the marginal benefit of spending more time on this task or project?” If the answer is very little, stop where you are and be done with it.
Learn to delegate. Ask yourself, “What is the highest and best use of my time?” Activities that don’t fall within your answer can be taught and delegated to others. This can include managing selected projects, or even delegating attending certain meetings. Personally, I’ve never seen anything wrong with asking for some help. Doing something right doesn’t have to mean having to do everything yourself.
If feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing struggle, it is likely that you have assumptions that are keeping you stuck in unproductive behaviors. By identifying and debunking these beliefs over time, you can broaden your previously contracted view of the world, which in turn allows you to be less overcome and to regain perspective and productivity.