How To Negotiate With Overwhelm In Your Work

Who hasn't had a moment when your ever-ringing cell phone, or continuously pinging e-mail alert hasn't brought on the urge to throw your mobile device away? If you are a fan of Devil Wears Prada, it’s impossible to forget how put-upon assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) dealt with being on call 24/7 to her beastly boss Miranda Priestly, who was played to ice queen perfection by Meryl Streep. The only way overwhelmed Andy was able to achieve relief was by throwing her phone in a fountain!

Many of you reading this will identify with that sentiment. The flash of victory in Andy's eyes as she finally escaped the shackles of her workload. You may have a demanding job, a challenging boss, or both. You could also be self-employed and wearing every hat needed in your own business. But the quickest way to solve your feeling of overwhelm with your work isn't always going to be the one that keeps you in your professional role.

Added to the stress of dealing with this type of situation, boundaries between your work and home life are now even more blurred. The pandemic means many of you are working and living in the same space. The result is you are hooked into work every moment of the day and night, The demands of e-mail, Zooms, phone calls, WhatsApp, and Slack, can leave you feeling like you are drowning with no rescue in sight.

Unfortunately, you usually can’t follow through with the daydream of disposing of your phones and unplugging when you feel overwhelmed.

Your sense of overwhelm may be because you really DO have too much to do. Personally, and professionally, the workload is a nightmare for you to handle. Woe betide you admit that to yourself in the capacity of being the boss of you! Or if you are employed by someone else, to those above you. The impossible deadlines and mounting to-do list are just accepted. This probably is in part because you are weighed down by the old mantra that as a woman, you have to work twice as hard as a man to be recognized or achieve the same respect. As women, we have been conditionalized to do everything. If you have a full-time job, (as your own boss or working for someone else) you will run the house, look after the kids, and manage a repertoire of other tasks, without complaint. It’s a badge of honor to keep all those balls in the air. We have become martyrs to the cause we want to release ourselves from and shoot ourselves in the foot in the process.

You're being influenced by beliefs that can hold you back from negotiating what is considered to be a reasonable expectation of you when it comes to your workload. And from your productivity. Even Miranda Priestly respected her former assistant for her stance. So, the question is, how can you reach your own potential while you're being influenced by a daily mantra of telling yourself you're not good enough? And that you need to continuously over-compensate?

Tapping into your own natural skills to negotiate your work and life balance can ease the feeling of being overwhelmed. Then you can be empowered to push past limiting beliefs that may have been holding you back in your potential.

What Are The Effects Of Overwhelm?

The effects of being overwhelmed show up differently for all of us. Some of you might get irritable and short with those around you. Others may feel debilitated by the metaphorical steaming hot volcano lava and ash, which is hurtling down the hill with only one escape route. Maybe you feel so depressed that you'd rather call in sick than face overwhelming demands.

When you have that feeling you can’t cope, you start to release the stress hormone, otherwise known as cortisol. This leads to that feeling of a knot in your stomach, which is identified as anxiety.

A raised cortisol level is a side effect of being stressed and overwhelmed. And it also has an impact on your ability to fight off infections. So this can lead to you suffering from decreased immunity. And in our current climate, having a healthy immune system is something you must be mindful of.

At the same time as this is happening, your serotonin stores begin to go haywire and get pushed out into your body. Serotonin is known for its roles in mood, the sleep-wake cycle, and impulse control. If your overwhelm is causing those to dip, you are going to experience other effects.

As your serotonin levels drop, it can trigger feelings of irritability and anxiety. You feel worry running through your mind like an uncontrollable train about to come off the track. Research has shown low serotonin levels are linked to anger, sleep issues, mood issues, cravings, aches and discomfort, and a low sex drive.

If you are overwhelmed by all the effects overwhelm can have on your body mentally and physically, there is one more to consider. It also links into your primeval brain which tells you the only two options are fight or flight. So, you get angry and want to hit out. Or you feel like curling up in a ball and just not dealing with whatever is causing you the overwhelm in the first place.

So in this world of coping with overwhelm, frustration and irritability are your new norm, even though you know it's not your true nature to be that way. You may notice you're procrastinating more, although you're the type of person who really likes to get things done. Maybe your office or workspace goes from super-organized to super messy and reflects how out-of-control you feel. You convince yourself that giving up and walking away from your role – Andy Sachs style - is the only way out when - usually - you'd think through the alternatives.

One of the most important places to start managing feeling overwhelmed in the workplace is to recognize it in the first place. You must acknowledge the reason for your irritability or depression and the triggers.

The voice in your ear, nagging that, "I can't get this all finished," or "I'll never make it," is a constant companion when you are operating in overwhelm mode. As a negotiation coach, I teach powerful women to understand the person they have to have their toughest negotiations with is themselves! Your inner voice is often your hardest critic and most formidable adversary.

As Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, once said: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right." Pay attention to how you speak to and about yourself. You may find yourself accomplishing more while being in a better mood. In fact, you may find your entire life changing for the better.

How You Can Manage Your Overwhelm With Your Work

One of the best ways to help yourself is also one of the hardest to accept when you're feeling like you have too much to do. And that is to seek ways to unplug, which can be part of a coping strategy when you feel overwhelmed in the workplace – whether that be a real office or a home office, right now.

If you're actively feeling overwhelmed, one of the most helpful things to do is start by calming down. This is one of the places where mindfulness techniques really excel. They provide a little oasis for you to allow some of that energy (which psychologists call arousal) to dissipate.

Start by closing your eyes for a minute and focus on breathing deeply. Count your breaths. The 4x4x4x4 technique (otherwise known as box breathing) is a great way to do this, and a method I teach to people who take part in my programs. Breathe in for four counts. Hold for four counts. Then exhale for four counts. Hold for four counts. Repeat. Break the cycle of thinking about how much you need to do by focusing momentarily on something else.

Getting out in nature can help you find your center when you are struggling to find calm within yourself. World renowned author and alternative medicine practitioner Deepak Chopra suggests standing outside and either touching a tree or feeling the grass with your bare feet. This enables you to reconnect with the electromagnetic fields of the earth and can bring you an instant feeling of relaxation. All the devices you surround yourself with on a daily basis (your phone, your computer, the TV) can interrupt your natural connection to nature. And you only have to commune with nature briefly, for a minimum of five minutes, to reap the benefits.

Take time to plan. Using your precious time to plan may seem like a rookie move – after all, you could be using that time to work, couldn't you? However, actually setting aside some time to create a plan of action will make the rest of your time working much more efficiently. It's going to help you train your mind to focus on the positives and set achievable goals.

Once you have figured out your plan of action, make use of the 80/20 rule. This gives us a way to sift out which tasks to prioritize. Most of us get caught up in tasks that really don't have much of an impact on our future. The 80/20 rule works to divide our tasks – as 20 percent of the activities we do, stand for 80% of the results we produce.

For instance, if you have a list of 10 actions, 2 of those actions will have a more significant effect on your future than the other 8 put together. So, you can start finding a high-priority task and work on achieving that one thing. It helps us if that task is one that you can complete quickly, as beginning with a "win" motivates us that we are making progress, rather than starting with one that you can't cross off your to-do list. Which of those tasks will you work harder for? Which holds a supreme amount of significance in your life? Are you okay with working late and missing a family dinner, or would you treat certain activities in your life as non-negotiable? Get clear on what is most important to you, and you can negotiate and achieve a healthier work-life balance by establishing your boundaries.

Another way overcoming overwhelm is delegating your work. Yes, in the 21st Century we all want to feel like we are superwoman and we can do everything. But you are your own worst enemy when you take this stance. By passing on tasks which you know someone else can do, it frees up your time and your mind.

You can also eliminate what is not a necessity. Does your to do list REALLY have to be completed today? You can feel a sense of failure if you don’t finish everything you have written down. But by deciding if the work you have to complete is time sensitive or necessary at this moment, you can give yourself a moment to come up for air.

I attended an event where Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and author of fifteen books, was asked how she manages her workload. I sat poised for the answer. Would you suggest an organizational app? A very early start? A hairstylist who comes to her place of work? No. Her advice was simple. Get good sleep. Bad decisions are made when we are tired, she said.

Pulling late nights because there is "just so much work to do" is counter-productive and will leave you feeling overwhelmed. Make sure that you get enough sleep and don't sacrifice your sleep in favor of your in-box.

Countless studies have consistently shown that adults need seven to eight hours of restful sleep each night to function at a high level the next morning. And at a new job, having a ready-to-go attitude is even more vital as you are still working to make positive first impressions. Do whatever you need to do to get a good night's sleep, whether that means you try using blackout curtains, earplugs, a sleep mask, or essential oils to aid your sleep, then do it!

Showing up to work without having had enough sleep, will work against you when you show up in a bad mood. You'll also be less productive during your shift, adding to your stress levels and making co-workers question why you were hired.

When you're overwhelmed, you're working your brain really hard. Give your gray matter the break it needs and deserves and tackle the work when you're well-rested. It will get done tomorrow and likely better than you could get it done tonight if you'd stayed up most the night at your screen.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at debunking the myth regarding women and the art of negotiation.


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challenging boss, choice, demanding job, mindfulness techniques, Negotiation, overwhelm, power, work life balance, workload

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