My simple process to manage overwhelm

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I almost didn’t blog this week. I had every excuse in the book, and I knew that you’d forgive me.  Right?


I don’t know what it is about September, but it always marches in and gives me such optimism – right before it smacks me over the head with the million things I’ve committed to in the lazy days of summer. This week, for instance, I’m finalizing the project I’ve been working on at my day job for the past 9 months, starting a new teaching gig (thankfully for a class I’ve taught many times before), building new original content for The Art of Negotiation, and preparing for a brand new course that I’ve never taught, which starts in 2 weeks. That, plus all the other stuff that comes up. I agreed to give a talk on Strategic Leadership to a group of amazing women leaders. I got a phone call from my stylist to say she had a cancellation and could I come for my cut and colour tomorrow instead of in a month (in case you were wondering, the answer was hell yes – it’s been 8 months since my last one), and I know there’s at least one thing that has completely slipped my mind.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me. In fact, I’m sure your life is feeling very much the same. It’s just the vibe of mid-September. Maybe your kids are back at school. Maybe you are. Maybe all of your colleagues are finally back from summer vacation and work is heating up. Maybe you just changed jobs and you’re on that very-vertical part of the learning curve. Or maybe it’s just been a week.

I thought about not blogging this week. It is just one more thing to do, when there are so many other priorities. But as I was going through my own process for managing overwhelm, I realized it was worth sharing it with you. I’ve tried many different approaches to organizing my life – across all of its parts. And for me, the best solution doesn’t involve colour coding my calendar and creating endless to do lists. It’s actually pretty simple – and it all happens in my journal.

How am I feeling and why?

These are the first questions I write about every morning – and some afternoons and evenings. Before I can get into planning my day or the coming week and month, I need to get the emotion out and processed. If I’m feeling great, then I often write about how grateful I am for different aspects of my life. If I’m not feeling great, I do get to gratitude eventually, but I usually start by trying to name my energy. Anxious. Worried. Sad. Uncomfortable. My amazing coach Geraldine De Braune pointed me to this emotion wheel some time ago. And I confess, I pull it up pretty regularly because I often struggle in the “name that emotion” game.

So I name the emotion, and then I write about why. What’s going on? What has actually happened? And what are the stories that I’m telling myself that are getting in the way of clarity and focus? This always-fascinating venture into my own monkey mind often travels down Alice in Wonderland rabbit holes and leads to random associations that may or may not be valid. The important thing for me is getting them out of my brain and onto paper.

What do I need to call in today?

Another of Geraldine’s gifts to me is this question. What do I need to call in? Or what do I need to be successful today? Sometimes it’s a feeling. Confidence. Bravery. Patience. Sometimes it’s a circumstance. More time. Flexibility. Options. Sometimes it’s an action. Advice. Moral support. Assistance with something complex. For me, naming it is absolutely essential. It connects the dots between what I’m feeling and what I need to be productive or effective. And it pokes me to ask for the things that I can actually ask for.

What one thing do I need to move forward to feel successful today?

Before I answer this question, I do a quick scan of my email to see if anything urgent has come my way. And then I write about my biggest priority for the day, exploring why it’s so important, and breaking it down into bite size pieces. Typically an entire initiative can’t move forward in a day. But prioritizing the one or two tasks that I can do helps to calm down my sense of overwhelm.  The key to this is actually prioritizing those things and doing them first. If I can move forward on something that’s important early in my day, I build my confidence and get more done.

What other tasks need to get out of my brain and into my journal?

I like lists. I mean, who doesn’t? But for the longest time, I put lists on sticky notes, and then promptly lost them. Now, I create lists of important tasks in my journal. And yes, I mix work and home. Wash my athletic clothes might be the bullet right above Draft the project report. Whatever comes out of my brain goes on the paper. That leaves more space for thinking. As I complete tasks, I check them off – which is, of course, the most satisfying part of making a list. And every few pages, I  bring the unchecked items forward or x them out, if I determine that they are no longer important.

It doesn’t have to be complicated

For me, I tend to feel most overwhelmed when I have lots of balls in the air and I haven’t yet figured out which ones will be dropping first. This approach is a simple, but effective way to take control of my monkey mind, get the tasks out of my brain, and focus my energy on methodically moving forward by focusing on the most important tasks first.

If you are feeling overwhelmed; if life and work are converging and you feel like something is going to slip, give this approach a try and let me know how it goes. But if it’s more than overwhelm, or you’ve been feeling like this for a long time, then a bit of journaling might not be enough. I encourage you to reach out to your doctor or a community crisis line for support. If you need help finding one, send me an email and I’ll help you get connected.

As women, so much of how we lead is tied to our ability to be mindful in our work. While I love writing about negotiation and leadership, sometimes it’s important to go back to basics. If you liked this article, you might want to read one of my older blogs about how I manage my Sunday anxiety so I can get a great night’s sleep and start my week refreshed and ready.

Keep learning!

If you are interested in growing your negotiation and leadership skills, sign up below to get my weekly newsletter, which features information, education, and learning opportunities that can help you negotiate life more effectively. It’s free and you can opt out at any time. In the meantime, you can read more of my blogs on negotiation.

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