Being Overwhelmed

Published on May 30, 2018

Michael Brown, Chief Medical Officer at Acesis, Inc. and executive coach to physician leaders

Occasionally, I hear individuals describe “the” solution to being overwhelmed, but as I have talked to many different people, they have described problems that appear to have many different causes. Over time, I have come to notice 14 patterns (perhaps, there are more). By sharing this list, I am not implying that I have solved the problem of people feeling overwhelmed (even for me). Instead, I’m sharing this list in the hopes that people will recognize their primary issue(s) so that they can focus their energies on the corrective actions that make the most sense for them.

1. Are you overoptimistic about what you can get done in the time you have?

Feeling overwhelmed can be caused by overpromising (to oneself and others). Adding a bit of slack to your schedule helps to minimize this issue. Perhaps, your feeling of being overwhelmed is related to how hard you push yourself. That can be good or bad.

2. Do you adequately prioritize your time so that you complete your top priorities before spending time on lower priority tasks?

We need to be clear on what matters to us most and then organize our time accordingly. Are you setting enough time aside for prioritization and planning? Are you following your plans so you do your top priorities first?

3. Are you allowing distractions to slow you down?

There have always been things that have fought for our attention, but cell phones have taken this to a whole new level. Each distraction may appear to be brief, but they can add up to steal an amazing amount of time from each of our days. We must learn to control our environment so that we are not tempted. I personally find that I benefit from occasionally disconnecting my computer and phone from the internet.

4. Are you procrastinating?

Some tasks are so unpleasant that we seek out distractions. I find myself drawn to reading the news when there is work I really do not want to do. To minimize procrastination, breaking projects into small tasks can be helpful. Also, creating clear deadlines for each sub-task can help to push projects along. 

5. Does it have to be so perfect?

Doing a good job is important, but some people work to complete a task to a level of perfection that is not justified by their goals. When good is good enough, additional work may be waste. In fact, some people may have more free time than they realize, but they are choosing to spend what would otherwise be their free time on perfectionistic tasks. These people should consider what they value more: the feeling of completing a task to their internal standard of perfection or their time.  (Of course, I appreciate perfectionist do great work, and sometimes non-perfectionist would be better offi if they tried to get a bit closer to perfection.)

6. Do you work inefficiently? (unrelated to procrastination)

You may lack skills for a task or perhaps are not aware of some tricks that can speed up your work. You might be able to improve with practice, or you could ask others how they accomplish similar tasks so quickly. If you can’t improve, you may need to think about how you could possibly avoid tasks in which you perform poorly.

7. Would you benefit from being a better delegator?

Which of your tasks can be done by others? Even if others can’t do your tasks as well as you, the benefits to your time might be worth it. In addition, delegating to others enables them to grow so that they will be in even a better position to support you in the future. If you are a manager, it is your job to delegate.

8. Are you preparing more than is optimal?

Tasks are more likely to succeed when you prepare, but preparation takes time. The more you prepare for one project, the less time you will have for others. You much decide what makes sense for each of your tasks. For me, I find that one way I like to prepare is by learning as much as possible. Often that involves reading books and articles. The knowledge I have gained from reading is one of my greatest strengths; I now see that some delays caused by the time required for me to study have also been a weakness as well.

9. Are you rushing so much that you are not getting the full benefit out of your efforts (leading you to work more)?

In an effort to get more done, some people do not get the maximum value out of their work. For example, after completing an impressive project, someone who takes time to celebrate with their team and publicizes their success may be more productive than someone who simply rushes off to the next activity. Rushing too much can lead to missed opportunities. It is worth taking some time to reflect on how you might leverage the work you have already done for maximum value.

10. Do you have trouble saying “no”?

Denying a request for help can feel bad.  Even though each individual request may not require that much of us, the combined effect of always giving in can be significant. We all only have a limited number of hours in a day, and we must recognize the sacrifice we are making when we are distracted from our priorities. Learning how to politely say “no” is a skill that is worth mastering.

11. Are you letting things get too complicated?

Letting things get too complicated-  Work and life have many options, and it is easy to get sucked into many worthwhile opportunities that stretch us in too many directions. In personal time management, simplifying goals and desires can save a great deal of time. People who do not simplify their life feel pulled in too many directions, and they can have trouble even keeping track of all of their different commitments. For businesses, it is hard to turn down paying customers, but if the new customers require company resources to focus on areas outside the company’s core competencies, the amount of time needed to properly support the customers may be more than anticipated. Sometimes, a strategic focus (rather than being opportunistic) allows for more efficient and effective use of company resources.  

11.  Do you choose to set your work limits to a point just beyond your abilities?

Some executives say that they feel their work requires them to work 12-hour days, but I question this. I can’t imagine the work of any executive job consistently requiring a set number of hours each day. The demands of work are as infinite as our ambitions (or our boss’s ambitions). In reality, these individuals work toward their limits (perhaps 12-hour days) and then they stop. Unfortunately for them, the stated limit is beyond what they say they want to do (and is often unhealthy). Are you someone who blames work for pushing you to a limit that is really under your control?

12. Are you juggling too many tasks at once?

In an effort to get more done, some people juggle too many projects. Although not obvious to many, this can be very wasteful. Every time people switch between projects, it takes time, and sometimes projects that are not completed quickly risk getting dropped (wasting all the effort that was put in up to that point). By focusing on fewer projects at any given time, more can be accomplished over time. This issue is particularly a problem for members of a department lead by managers who struggle with this issue. These people can feel super busy, but as they flail between projects, they finish little.

13. Are you in a transition phase that is requiring you to take on more than you would ordinarily prefer?

I felt very overwhelmed when I went back to school while working full time. That was a decision I made, and it was a sacrifice for both me and my family. Fortunately, it was only for two years, and it was worth it.  If you are in a temporary situation that is making great demands on you, keep in mind the big picture for what you are trying to achieve. The feeling of being overwhelmed may be real, and it may or may not be worth the sacrifice.

14.  Are you confusing time management with stress management?

Good and bad things happen to everyone, but only you can decide how you will perceive your situation. Might what you perceive as stress be interpreted as normal or even excitement by someone else? If you can’t (or do not want to) modify your situation, might you be able to modify your attitude?

15. Are you not changing because you feel some benefits from being overwhelmed?

Some people are in a constant state of being overwhelmed. This may not be you, but it may be that other person who keeps complaining to you how busy he is. Although he complains, he shows no sign of doing what is necessary to fix his situation. Perhaps, there are physiological reasons for why he puts himself into this state. Whatever the reason, I sometimes wonder if some people either like being in a frantic state (it is who they are) or they like others to think of them as being busier than everyone else.

Each of the above descriptions is relatively brief.  However, I hope at least one of the items listed above resonates with you and that this posting leads you to contemplate how you might improve in whatever way seems most relevant to you.  It is my supreme wish that you then act; make a change that needs to be made. Otherwise, I might have to come to terms with the fact that what I wrote wasted your time and perhaps contributed to your feeling of being overwhelmed.  Your time is yours to control. I wish you the best.

(Of course, I covered each of the 14 topics very superficially, and I suspect there are other causes I have missed. I welcome comments from anyone who wishes to discuss this further.)Report this

Published by

Michael Brown, Chief Medical Officer at Acesis, Inc. and executive coach to physician leaders