Losing it when overloaded or at personal risk
“I’m losing it,” a client confided recently. “I’m short tempered and abrupt with my staff, I’m forgetting details, I even got into a fight with my wife.” It’s no wonder, with his double-booked schedule and a new hard-to-read boss. “I’m usually tougher than this…I’ve handled a lot on my plate before,” he reasoned, as he struggled to figure out why he felt like he was out of control.
Everyone has their limits and it can surprise you when you hit the wall, especially if you have a long track record of juggling a lot of responsibilities and handling pressure. In my experience, the sense of coming unglued tends to be linked to two different causes: the quantity of responsibilities has hit the tipping point; or the personal risks –loss of credibility, status, self-esteem, and/or admiration—are threatening your very core. And if both hit at once, you can experience a meltdown.
In the case of sheer overload, it can be a tricky balancing act. For example, I am at my best when I have a lot to do. I get my momentum revved up and I can knock off tremendous amounts of work. It’s exhilarating when I can tick off half of my to do list before the day is done. For me, those bursts of productivity are satisfying. But if I have to operate at that speed every day, it burns me out.
Like a speeding car racing down a hill, you have to put on the brakes. You may not be able to control the volume of work but you can intentionally slow down your pace.
Some of the things I recommend to put on the brakes and regain control:
- Negotiate timeframes, deadlines and deliverables. Rather than racing toward a fixed outcome, perhaps the deliverable can be modified to give you a little breathing room. Monday morning may work just as well as Friday afternoon for the weekly report. Perhaps half of the data will be enough to get things moving on a project –and the team can get started without every T crossed on the front end. Frequently, we go crazy racing toward a goal we feel is intractable, rather than adjusting it for reality.
- Go for a walk. I know it seems counterintuitive when you’re swamped but even 20 minutes on a treadmill or a walk outside at lunch will give you a little down time that you can use to clear your head, or if you choose, think through a problem in a more meditative state.
- Talk slower. It will make you appear less frenzied and help you stay calm. It will also keep everyone else around you from freaking out. Think of it like the “duck paddle” –glide smoothly through the chaos, even if you are paddling like hell underneath.
- Close your door and block out some time to pound through whatever is piling up. Once you feel you have made a dent in the pile, your anxiety will start to fade because you will feel some progress toward completing the task.
- Stay late and clean up the mess on your desk. Simply sorting through and organizing the piles will help you to stage a plan of attack and allow you to come in fresh the next morning and get productive fast.
- Give the key people around you permission to “manage” you. For example, ask your assistant to remind you, push you, and even nag you about balls you can’t afford to drop. Ask your staff to step up and take things off your plate and push back if you are meddling in areas they can handle.
When you are losing it as a result of being overloaded, you can usually fix it with tangible steps. However, when you start to slide down the rat hole because of a threat to something deeper, it can be harder to regain control.
It can often come on as a result of the ground tilting beneath your feet, and your ego, self-esteem, and values are being affected. For example, your former boss loved your work but the new boss seems dismissive; your peers are hostile toward the project you’ve poured your heart into; a younger version of yourself is stealing the limelight.
Depending on your personality, you may act outwardly (irritability, temper flares), or inwardly (loss of confidence, withdrawal, depression, or self-defeating behaviors such as drinking too much).
Working with a coach, or trusted colleague, who can hold up the mirror and help you regain a more objective perspective is usually helpful. If you can strip it down to the bare reality of what is actually happening, and how you are choosing to interpret it, you will begin to get a grip. For example, does the new boss really dislike you, or is he just busy getting acclimated in his new company? A good coach can also help you identify some tools you can use to take positive steps, instead of self-defeating ones, to regain your balance and feel more in control.
Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist.
She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
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