I'm normally a sunny, glass-half-full kind of person. A "gosh am I lucky to do the kind of work I do" sort of person. I get excited about my latest project, eager to dive in, and utterly absorbed by what I'm working on.
So I knew something was up when a cloud of gloom and hopelessness descended upon me recently.
Actually, I knew exactly what was up. That is my classic response to Too-Many-Things-On-My-List Syndrome.
Uncomfortable as that familiar depression is, I've come to view it as a gift — a clear sign from some wiser part of myself, letting me know that it's time to take a few things off my plate.
Once upon a time, my response to overwhelm was to simply try to push through the mountain of tasks. But I've learned the hard way that it's counter-productive. (Don't believe me? Here are 5 compelling reasons to cut yourself a break.)
The trouble is, when we're up to our necks with work, we tend to get tunnel vision.
We get so focused on getting our stuff done that we forget to pay attention to our own well-being. We lose perspective and forget how fundamental self-care is to our productivity and effectiveness.
So it's important to listen for clues.
What's Your Sign?
We're all different. That thing that's a big flashing warning sign for me may never start flashing for you. Yours might be something different.
Here are two types of signs to watch for that can let you know it's time to seriously scale back:
Tune in to your inner experience. Do you notice...
- Feelings of gloom, depression, or hopelessness when you start thinking about everything you need to get done?
- Negative self-talk related to your ability to get things accomplished and your worth as a human being?
- Disproportionate anger or resentment when someone makes a small request of you?
- Panic symptoms (racing heart, lightheadedness, tightness or pain in your chest, etc.) when you look at your overcrowded calendar?
- Other physical symptoms such as headaches or neck pain?
- Insomnia — either trouble shutting your mind off at bedtime, or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about your to do list, or both?
- Exhaustion that stays with you even after getting a decent night's sleep?
- Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly because your head is spinning with so many different thoughts?
If your psyche doesn't scream quite as loud as mine does, try watching or listening for outward signs instead. You might notice things such as...
- You're working much longer hours than you know you should.
- Your friends and family are complaining that they aren't seeing enough of you, or that you aren't really present when they do see you.
- Your workspace has become unusually messy.
- The number of emails in your inbox has exploded because you just can't keep up.
- Your eating habits have become much more unhealthy of late.
- You find that you can't relax without the aid of alcohol or other drugs.
- You're coming down with a cold or are otherwise more vulnerable to illness than usual.
- You've broken out in acne — a not uncommon physical response to the skin's increased oil production during times of intense stress.
- You've reverted to nervous habits such as nail biting or pacing.
Keep an eye on yourself, your moods, behaviors, and environment. Learn to recognize your own signs of overwhelm so you can take prompt corrective action.
Having trouble recognizing your pattern?
Ask those closest to you what signs they notice that tell them when you're overwhelmed. You might be surprised by their insights. Or look at the family you grew up in — how do they respond? There's a good chance your style might be similar.
Once you've figured it out, the first step toward doing something positive with those negative experiences is to welcome them as the gifts that they are.
And then tune in next time to learn 5 simple strategies for reducing your overwhelm!