Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist, offers practical advice on how to tackle feeling overwhelmed to increase productivity.
Many of us struggle to cope with the heady mix of work pressures, family needs, health issues and a burgeoning social calendar, and we feel the answer lies in the need to address our time-management skills. We become more and more overburdened as jugglers of these spinning plates and feel increasingly overwhelmed. The solution, however, lies in our ability to learn when to stop because we are truly overwhelmed, versus embracing change and the tasks ahead.
Why Do We Tend to Feel Overwhelmed?
Stress – We tend to feel overwhelmed when stress gets the better of us. Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. As soon as the brain secretes more of the stress hormone cortisol than is useful, we are wired to narrow down our focus to concentrate on the perceived threat for survival. The problem is when we are too stressed for a prolonged period it can lead to risk of serious illnesses such as cancer, stroke, depression and heart failure because of side effects such as increased blood pressure, raised stress hormone levels, muscle tension, sleeplessness and a compromised immune system if left unresolved.
Constant internal chatter is partly responsible: “I am going to fail”, “I don’t know what I am doing”, “It needs to be perfect”, “I need to finish this today.” The pressure we put on ourselves, rather than the actual task, is often the tipping point in feeling overwhelmed.
Being overwhelmed by incomplete tasks is a common problem. We feel there is simply too much to do and not enough time to do it. We often start one project but don’t finish it and then move onto the next leaving us with the feeling that we are never actually moving forwards or getting anything done.
Being bombarded by information. The stress we face because of the constant bombardment of information, over multi-tasking and the need to be available 24 hours a day is extraordinary. Digital technology has blurred work/ home boundaries. Even holidays can be disturbed by having smart phones on the beach and therefore employees can’t get away from work. We are more stressed than we have ever been, more unable to wind down, with stress, anxietyand depression behind one in five visits to a GP.
So How Can We Stop Feeling Overwhelmed, Reduce Anxiety Whilst Increasing Productivity?
It’s not a time-management problem, it is an interruption problem. How often do we truly spend on 100% uninterrupted focused work getting what we need to do done? Interruptions, false starts and procrastination cloud our perception of how much time we actually spend productively. Avoid disruptions. Take a moment to turn off phone notifications you don’t need while working. Can you work in a different location to reduce the chance of being disturbed?
Clear your desk and have a designated workspace without distractions. A tidy desk is a tidy mind ready to focus.
Make a list of all your tasks. Dump your concerns onto a paper list or diary or use an organisation app to help clear your head to get on with the tasks that need to be done. Tick them off when they are complete for a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes starting with smaller, easier tasks is helpful before tackling the challenging ones.
Plan your day. Prioritise urgent tasks, factor in disruptions and an unforeseen duty or two, and allow time for a short walk to freshen your mind. Be realistic about how long a task or project could take and factor in breaks.
Know your most productive time of day. If you are a morning, afternoon or evening person plan your day accordingly, so you do the most important or tricky tasks when you are at your best.
Shrink fear. Often the things we are really afraid of may not be quite as frightening as they seem. Try to talk positively to yourself and keep everything in context.
Parking worries – Go back to any concerns once you have achieved a few goals. This way of thinking is a powerful way to manage your diary for short periods.
Sleep well to be at your most productive. Getting enough sleep is vital because it improves your concentration, memory and decision making. Examine your ‘sleep hygiene’ – limit caffeine after midday, no screen time in the one to two hours before bedtime and have regular bed and getting up times.
Use exercise to get more energy or shake off that stress, and try meditation to clear your head and focus clearly.
Reward yourself. Block out some time for hobbies and seeing family and friends to help your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. You will be galvanised into focusing and just getting on with it, firm in the knowledge that play time is just around the corner. The brain is more efficient when it has produced a cocktail of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters so prioritise pleasant pursuits in your spare time means you will be far more productive during your working day.
About the expert
Dr Lynda Shaw is a change specialist, a regular professional speaker, chartered psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist, Fellow of The Royal Society of Medicine (FRSM), Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society (AFBPsS), Fellow of the Professional Speaking Association (FPSA) and author of adult and children’s books! A hugely popular speaker with an innovative, practical and immediately applicable approach, Dr Shaw offers insights into a variety of relevant and often controversial issues including the importance of change.