When my work and life are harmoniously integrated, I feel my most happy, my most balanced and fulfilled. For me, it's not so much about working less, as about finding a way for work and life to coexist happily. For the most part, I feel like I've achieved this. But there are still times (I think for all of us!) when we lose our tune, when we start to feel overwhelmed, when the harmony becomes dissonant and clashing.
Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed like this, I get trapped in that mindset where I think, "I can relax when I'm finished". The problem is that life and work don't stop. The key, then, is learning to create those pauses for yourself. Lately, I've been really feeling that I need to step back, give myself a moment to take a breath to regain my energy and to hear my own voice.
(1) Empower yourself
First and foremost, do a gut check: Some of us are gluttons for punishment when it comes to work. And, sometimes, it's not as much that the work is too much as that we are taking too much upon ourselves.
Stress has a strange suction of its own. It can be hard to pull yourself back and insist upon your personal space, down-time, rest and exercise. Be honest (but not judgemental) with yourself: How much of this can you control? Empower yourself to make decisions for your overall wellbeing. Trust that those decisions are better for you AND for your quality of work.
(2) Know your limitations
I think we always push ourselves to do more and to achieve more. And we're right to -- that's where breakthrough success can come from. But in certain moments, life is really about stepping away. When you're in the middle of something, it can be hard to get an objective perspective on it... this can result in you feeling overwhelmed. But it can also mean that you don't give yourself the opportunity to step back and see the work from a new, creative more productive perspective.
Sometimes, I notice myself and those around me feeling hung up on things that others won't notice or appreciate; that don't make a difference to the end result. When I'm feeling overwhelmed with work, I'm less equipped to step back and make those judgements.
It's important to remind yourself to see the big picture and not get wrapped up too much in the minutiae of execution. We sometimes cast a wide net of tactics (more time consuming) as opposed to being more strategic (less time consuming but more thoughtful). It's also important to scale your expectations to achievable priorities.
(3) Switch off entirely
I really believe that the key to hearing your own voice and finding your rhythm again is to step back entirely for some alone time. We all have a favourite way of switching off -- whether it's going for a walk or reading a book. No matter how busy work is, it's important to have some time every day when you STOP thinking about it altogether.
I especially try to switch off close to bedtime so that I don't go to sleep thinking about all the things I have to do when I wake up in the morning. If your brain is constantly in a stressed mode thinking about work, you may even find you're dreaming about it! Not getting good, deep sleep can definitely exacerbate those feelings of being overwhelmed.
For daytime, I also keep a few golf clubs in my car...and head to the driving range on a particularly stressful day...an hour of hitting those balls can do wonders for my frame of mind...:)
(4) Change gears
Your only two modes shouldn't be "stop" and "work", though. You also need to keep some variety in your life even when you're working long and stressful days. And you need to convince yourself that it's okay to step away and do something else for an hour or two. Turn off your phone and spend time away from computer screens. Read a book, get some sunshine and fresh air. Move.
I even find that doing simple chores for a half hour can help alleviate stress. Something like cleaning out my closet is perfect because it also gives me some small (large) sense of accomplishment. When projects seem never-ending, it's good to "finish" a simple chore because it gives you that lovely sense of closure on something.
The other thing I do is stay committed to my exercise regime. Sometimes a huge project can be the thing that makes people fall out of their good habits. I've done this in the past, skipping workouts so I could keep working, letting myself have "treat meals" because I felt so deprived. I learned the hard way that this only compounds the problem (stress actually makes your body hold onto weight too -- so there's no worse time to stop exercising and give into comfort food!) I now put my workouts in my calendar and treat them like appointments I must keep (working out with friends makes this easier too!)
(5) Get organized
Once you've allowed yourself to step back from work, to bring some balance into your days, make sure that you don't just throw yourself back into the chaos of work. You'll only repeat the cycle! Instead, get organized: Picture your goal and work backwards. Plan what you have to do every day. Ask for help and delegate tasks appropriately. Make sure you share your plan with those on your team so that everybody knows what needs to be done and the burden doesn't just fall on your shoulders. The more organized you are, the more confident you'll feel each day: You'll be able to chart your progress and share it.
Sometimes, what's really making us feel overwhelmed is fear of failure. We expect a lot of ourselves, but we don't always trust ourselves or feel like we have an adequate support system to achieve our goals.
Instead of only looking forward and striving for the NEXT thing, pause and look back... allow yourself to register what you have already achieved -- this will help you feel more confident and competent. Remember that the times you've been nervous in the past were also some of the times you achieved those accomplishments. Trust that you can do it again, take a breath, think about the result you want, take action and then simply relax.