Raise your hand if you entered the lockdown thinking, ‘Ahh! Now I can work and sleep whenever I want.” Now, raise the other hand if you were sorely disappointed! If both your hands are raised at this point, chances are you’ve felt like this multiple times during the lockdown: Trapped and ready for imprisonment!
Considering my love for timetables, I thought I had the perfect formula to work from home- one that gave me enough nap time during the afternoons, at that. A week later, the harsh reality that nobody was indeed prepared for a work-from-home model, including my organisation, hit me. Since most of my work was coordination, setting processes in place involved trial and error, multiple arguments, and sleepless nights.
One day, after pulling a 17-hour shift and clicking the send button, all I wanted to do was crash. And just as the bed beckoned me, I realised I had 3 hours to sleep before the next day’s work started. That’s when the panic hit! The processes I set in place hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that I was human. How long would I be able to keep this up until having a full-blown breakdown?
The to-do lists kept getting longer and days kept getting shorter.
However, just like a ray of light in all its dramatic glory, I found the answer (or a few, actually). When you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, it can seem like the only way to get through it is by keeping your head down and working on the tasks. But in reality, it’s the small steps that matter. Here’s how you can take a breather if you’re drowning in work.
1. Prioritise Tasks
If objectively looking at your tasks for the day is making you feel overwhelmed, write them down in order of priority. Highlight whatever needs to go out that day or the tasks that are contingent on you, and work on those first. The others that can handle a slight delay can come later.
There are days where the same tasks switch priority level, depending on everything that’s on my plate. For example, if I have to upload an article, I do that first, especially if mine is the only article scheduled for the day. But on days when I have other, more important tasks and there are multiple articles scheduled for the day, I can take the leeway and upload my article the next day.
If you have one major task to do over multiple days, break it down into simple, actionable steps. Once you have laid out whatever you need to do each day, you’ll easily see the final result take shape. Do this to avoid overwhelming feelings, and stay calm and focused.
Taking out a few minutes every day to do this exercise can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed in the future too.
2. Schedule Short Breaks
Schedule a short, 10-minute break every two hours or so, and make sure you take it. I usually prefer short breaks because:
a. It keeps my mind rejuvenated throughout the day.
b. Longer breaks feel like a waste of time when there’s so much to do, and I usually end up never actually taking them.
c. I feel more charged up after the break, rather than thinking ‘why do I need to go back?’
You can use this time to scroll through social media, take a walk around the house, or just nap!
3. Take A ‘Workation’
I often find that finishing pending tasks during a holiday works best since I wouldn’t constantly be interrupted with meetings and ad-hoc tasks.
No, this doesn’t mean you have to waste the holiday working!
Set a time when you wouldn’t normally be doing much. For example, my definition of a holiday is waking up late and lazing around in bed until noon, so I wouldn’t dare touch the morning for any work. Instead, I work in the afternoon, between 3-5 p.m, which is otherwise spent scrolling on my phone and passes away in the blink of an eye. This way, I get some work done and also spend my holiday the way I want to.
It’s also important to have enough time for yourself during a holiday, so this works best only with smaller tasks, and not large ones that would typically take up an entire day. If large tasks are making you feel overwhelmed, speak to your boss instead of spending the entire holiday working.
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4. Speak To Your Boss
The ‘silent warrior’ archetype might work well in movies, but nothing good ever comes out of suffering in silence. It took me a long time to come to terms with this, but my boss never knew my situation because I didn’t tell her. The work always got done at the end of sleepless nights and panic attacks, so there was never the need to question how I achieved results.
We perceive breakdowns as dishevelled hair, dark circles, underperformance, and social isolation.
So, when someone talks to you with made-up hair, wide smiles, achievements, and friendliness, you’re bound to assume they’re completely fine.
Instead of waiting for someone to notice you’re not okay, tell them. Fill your boss in on all your tasks and which ones are overwhelming you. Be prepared with solutions, whether it’s to delegate some tasks or work on them later. This way, your boss will be more inclined towards listening and helping you out.
5. Take A ‘Silent’ Pause
When I feel overwhelmed, it often feels like there are 10 voices in my head talking at once. With each task fighting for priority and one part of my brain saying, ‘looks like you’ll have to stay up all night to work’, the will to face the challenge head-on dies there and then. Enter, silence!
At times when the noise gets louder, pause for a minute or two. Shut your eyes, breathe deeply, and force all the present thoughts out of your mind. Focus on something that’s calming. I imagine the ocean- its smell, the feeling of water hitting your feet, and the crashing sound of waves.
The silence will normalise your heart race and instantly make you feel relaxed.
6. Organise Your Work Space
A cluttered space means a cluttered mind. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and notice your workspace is a mess, it’s time to clean it up. Keep your surroundings minimal and only place whatever you use every day (laptop, water bottle, pens, etc.) on the desk. The rest should go on a shelf or in a basket nearby.
Decluttering and cleaning helps me stay calm and focused, and having a clean desk at the end is like killing two birds with one stone!
7. Talk To A Colleague
Depending on the nature of your work, there are bound to be certain periods of crunch time. In my case, it’s usually during an event or a launch, and struggling to meet targets makes me feel supremely incapable.
These are times when everybody on the project ends up working on overdrive, so chances are it’s not just you.
Catch up with a colleague and ask them about how work is going. Everyone has their own way to deal with pressure, and a colleague who understands how the project works could offer tailored advice. If nothing, even knowing that there are others in the same boat will help you feel much, much better about yourself. It also helps to think about the fact that this is not permanent – things will go back to the way they were once the project is complete.
8. Do A Grounding Exercise
Feeling overwhelmed often presents itself like anxiety, where your thoughts spiral out of control. Grounding helps bring you back to reality and refocus on the present moment. Here are some physical grounding techniques I find helpful when having a panic attack.
- 54321: Use your senses to list everything around you. Find five things you hear, four things you see, three you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Cold water: Dunk your hands in cold water. As soon as the water slightly shocks your body, focus on how it feels. Does it feel the same on the fingertips, palm, and back of your hand?
- Focus on your body: Going from head to toe, think about each part of your body. Does your head feel heavy? Can you feel your shirt on your shoulders? Is your heart beating rapidly? How does it feel when you wiggle your toes? This will shift focus and help you reconnect with your body.
It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the work seems never-ending. And take it from a chronic worrier: your thoughts will only make it worse without a solution. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, take another look at your tasks, clear your mind, and you’ll see the difference!
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