I have noticed that springtime has brought so many tasks on people’s desks that it is difficult to even agree on a meeting, say, after a month. The current situation in the world certainly contributes to that. Our hobbies are cancelled so focusing on workstuff from morning till night feels like a good way to fill our days – I mean, don’t you get so much done then? But how do you feel in the process? Overwhelmed a little? Or a lot? Overwhelm is the first step towards burnout – something that, I can assure, nobody actually wants to get to. 

I like how Bill and Dave from Stanford* categorize overwhelm, so I will use this as a basis and ask you which one you are familiar with and how have you dealt with your overwhelm, if you have. If not, maybe you’ll find something useful to try. All of those overwhelms defined below will eventually lead you to burnout if you don’t take measures. So, be as happy as you can be about all the cool tasks on your table, but be also aware of yourself and ready to take action. 

The Hydra overwhelm

… is explained through the Greek and Roman mythology of a Hydra who grew two heads to replace the one that was cut off (btw, did you know, it had one immortal head as well in addition to this to make it even harder for Heracles to kill it). So your tasklist is growing exponentially and there seems to be no end to this. You report to more and more people, there are more and more databases to go through to collect the data you need and more and more outdated computer programs and apps that drive you mad because of the especially unfriendly interfaces. Those tasks have landed on your table without you really having a say in this and it feels there is nobody who can come and take the load off from you. So, I suppose there is just you to take care of yourself. What do you do? 

  • Take the time forcefully out of your workday (or do it outside working hours if that is impossible) and list all the tasks you have at hand. Categorize if needed. You can even add weights to them considering which ones take more out of you than they give, which give more than they take and which are somewhere in-between. 
  • Look at what you came up with and be completely honest about which tasks you absolutely need to do to reach the goals of the team/organization and which you could ditch (or at least postpone) without horrible results? 
  • If you have a boss who is even a little reasonable (most of them are, even if you have never approached them with a conversation as such), then approach him or her respecting their needs. “I know you want this team to reach this and that goal and that we would be productive and happy doing this and I need your help in this.” They see you understanding their needs and so they can be more willing to hear you out and help you or at least explain better if you have missed the importance of the specific tasks. And then you tell him/her which tasks you would like to either ditch or postpone to see if something happens of it. You can set the trial time for it, so your boss wouldn’t feel too scared. Tell them you will try for a month and see if something happens if that particular task is not done and if nothing happens, you can ditch it for all but you will first have the conversation again. 

Happy overwhelm

Then there is this overwhelm that starts out extremely beautifully – you have said yes to so many supercool projects and tasks and you absolutely love doing them all through the night. But then the burnout starts creeping in. And it is maybe even very difficult to understand why on earth this is happening – I mean, you love your coworkers and teammates and the environment is the best you can wish for and clients are giving so much positive feedback you could sail around the world with the wind from that. Well. Let’s face it. You’ve said “Yes!” for too many times and the burnout is not pleasant because the tasks are so pleasant. What do you do? 

  • Well, list the tasks for starters. 
  • Find out whether all of them need to get done simultaneously or maybe, just maybe you can postpone some of them. What would happen if you do? 
  • And then if postponing does not seem to give the result you are expecting, be honest, find one of the coolest projects and offer it to one supercool person you know. Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? “Give away my baby?! Are you crazy?!” Nope, but you will be if you don’t do that. 

Hyper overwhelm

And then, last but not least, there is this startup-overwhelm that Bill and Dave call hyper-overwhelm. This is very similar to the happy overwhelm, but it has a few twists turned on top of the pressure. Well, mostly because building a plane while trying to fly it is not really one of the easiest tasks in the world. Starting any business and trying to fly high from the start will create that situation. People are amazing, the goal is a dream and you don’t care much about your working hours because it’s just freaking awesome what you do! Well, hate to break the news, the ones you know already, this is also a clear path to burnout unless… What have you done for this? Maybe something from the following. 

  • Keep the story fresh for yourself. All you need is a few sentences about how freaking cool and awesome this is and how it is just for a time being when you will all sit down and review how you are doing. As soon as you hear yourself or anyone on the team saying that “bloody hell, this is so hard, it takes so much and gives back so little and the beautiful dream seems too far” or anything close to that, do sit down and reflect and revise. Rewrite the story. This is what keeps you and your team alive and kicking and away from burnout. 
  • Keep your close ones very informed about what stage you are in and be aware of how they feel about not seeing you around much. These agreements need to hold water all through the tough period. 
  • As hard as it may sound, keep yourself out of your head for an hour a day, even 30 minutes is better than nothing. Meaning that do some sports that focuses your brain only to your body at that point of time and allows nothing else. Dancing has this effect for me – you cannot learn a dance if you are in your thoughts, you’ll surely bump into someone or slip. Remember learning to drive a car or a motorcycle – you could not be in your thoughts as you are now when driving. When you commute, why not keep your focus on your body and activities. Meditation, which the last exercise is borrowed from, is supergood to learn to let go of the thoughts. Focusing on your breathing or on your body in other way supports you in that. 

Whichever overwhelm you are facing right now, first, be sure it is not burnout already, as measures to deal with that include therapy to accompany the steps suggested here. If it is still overwhelm, then get aware of which one it is and where you are at the moment. Awareness is the key. As soon as the water (or anything else for that matter) reaches over your nose, it will be superhard to get to the point of awareness. So it’s better to be on time and do it now. 

*Check out Bill Burnett & Dave Evans at https://designingyour.life/about/


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