I remember during my recruit training for the Phoenix Fire Department, one of my training officers grabbing me after a less than stellar search and rescue evolution and asking me if my intention was to underwhelm him. At the time, I had to hold back the smile which was creeping in from the irony of his comments. The truth was, while I may have been underwhelming him, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the smoke, confusing building layout, and the need for total team cohesiveness.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many of our clients are sharing that they are feeling overwhelmed. It may be the sheer load of their work, the unexpected fires (and fire drills) they are asked to put out, or their perceived need to multi-task, but the result is the same - that impending feeling of heaviness, despair, and confusion that comes with the emotion of feeling overwhelmed. This is a terrible feeling but there is a high performance response that can not only help you quickly gain control, but also build a new level of energy and resilience.
The first step, immediately upon experiencing the feeling or thought of being overwhelmed, is to recognize and label the feeling. This simple yet critical step allows your brain to gain comfort in knowing what is happening and how to recognize that there is a solution.
The next step is to give your brain another option to take rather than panic. This means controlling your emotional response so you can think logically and clearly. For many of my clients, I have them visualize a fork in the road where going left is the habitual response they usually have when they are overwhelmed. The option to the right is a new response where they recognize the culprit (feeling overwhelmed) and they immediately switch to a slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Once you visualize yourself taking this newly available choice, you can calmly breathe in through your nose on a count of four and out through your nose on a count of eight. Repeat this sequence four times and notice the immediate change you experience in how you feel.
Next, now that you are in control of your emotions and you have detached your habitual response from the emotion of feeling overwhelmed, quickly assess what challenges you are facing that made you feel this way. You may want to make a list so that there are no unknowns. Now that the sharks are out of the water and you know what is on your plate, the next step is to prioritize these things. Which things really need to be done now? Which things are critical for your success in the next hour? Which things, if left undone, will potentially create a landslide of issues?
Once you have gained clarity on your most urgent issues, break those down to what is in your control and what is out of your control. Being aware of what is out of your control is important, but even more important is purposefully choosing to focus on the things within your control. Now that you have identified your highest priority and the things you can control within this priority, you can now determine several small steps you can take to move a little forward towards a solution.
There is no greater mindset killer than when the brain feels buried in demands and doesn’t know how to move forward. Just gaining that feeling that you are in control and you are moving forward is a powerful feeling of autonomy. As you make progress on your list of demands, you begin to feel a sense of accomplishment, and you build your confidence and resilience to handle tough challenges.
Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Creating drama by telling everyone around you how busy you are only feeds the problem. Making a choice to gain control, and implementing the sequence above, is the way to become a Sustainable High Performer.
As always, I would love to hear what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder & Chief Performance Officer