A Coaching Power Tool By Ann-Marie Purvis, Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND
How to Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed vs. Being Focused
Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus. Alexander Graham Bell
The Feeling Overwhelmed vs. Being Focused power tool described here can be used for the specific purpose of addressing when feeling overwhelmed in a work situation but can also be used for situations outside of work as well. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural human emotion but can make it very difficult to find a starting point to focus on and then decide on effective actions.
Our work lives have become increasingly demanding, presenting us with ever more complex challenges at a near-relentless pace. Add in personal or family needs, and it’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed. In their book, Immunity to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey[i]discuss how the increase in complexity associated with modern life has left many of us feeling “in over our heads.” When this is the case, the complexity of our world has surpassed our “complexity of mind” or our ability to handle that level of complexity and be effective. This has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.
A key change we can make in our thinking is to “flip” our perspective and become more focused. Pinpoint the primary source of feeling overwhelmed. Ask yourself, “What one or two things, if taken off my plate would alleviate 80% of the stress that I feel right now?”. Once the source of feeling overwhelmed has been identified, a person can then start to take steps and move to action.
Feeling Overwhelmed vs. Being Focused: Case Study
“Karen was faced with a challenging situation where she felt overwhelmed as she was being challenged and undermined by her boss in front of his peers in meetings where she was presenting her findings and recommendations for review. Karen was unclear about what she could do to influence this situation as it involved her boss and his peers. Karen felt overwhelmed as she had a strong relationship with her boss and was unclear why he was seemingly undermining her in front of his peers by taking over the presentation and restating everything she was saying and then encouraging his peers to ask questions of him – rather than letting her have control of her presentations and responding to questions herself.
When asked how this makes her feel and what made it so hard for her to talk to her manager about this situation Karen explored what she wanted from her manager and what underlying belief she had as to why he might be behaving in this way. Karen identified that her manager could show support to her as a team member in various ways and how this might be influenced by the way he saw his role as a leader and manager in the relationship and how that might influence what he believed were the most valuable behaviors to show.
Karen realized that she had certain beliefs about what her boss thought of her and therefore what his behaviors in these meetings might demonstrate to others about his level of confidence in her and her recommendations.
Karen realized that she believed she could check in with her boss, to confirm he did have confidence in her but he was not aware that the way he believed he was supporting her in the meetings was potentially undermining the group’s view of her, her role and her presentations.
Karen was excited about having a focus for her discussion with her boss and she no longer felt overwhelmed. She then chose to discuss with her boss, to thank him for his support in these meetings, and to explore with him how to adapt his behaviors to demonstrate this in a different way.”
You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously. Power of Positivity
There are many types of situations where we feel overwhelmed in our working lives. Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating. We also find it difficult to analyze our situations to find a focus for our thinking and to help us to stop feeling overwhelmed and move to action.
The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind, or impaired problem-solving ability. When we have too many demands on our thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen, making us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile. Any of these effects, alone, can make us less effective and leave us feeling even more overwhelmed.
Other focus areas can include setting boundaries on your time and workload. This can include “time boxing” the hours you spend on a task or project, leaving the office by a certain time, or saying no to specific types of work. Saying “no” to escalations and setting expectations create breathing room allowing a person to focus on their priorities with fewer distractions.
Another area that can contribute to feeling overwhelmed is where we need to challenge assumptions. If feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing struggle, it is likely that you have assumptions that are keeping you stuck in unproductive behaviors. Kegan and Lahey refer to these as “Big Assumptions.” [ii]While these big assumptions can feel real to leaders, these limiting beliefs are not likely 100% true and can significantly contribute to a person’s sense of being overwhelmed.
Using Coaching Questions
It is important to be present and listen deeply to our clients. The following questions are not a shopping list but are a resource to help focus our thinking and be helpful in using this tool.
Establishing Coaching Agreement – narrow it down and keep a tight focus
- What would you like to focus on during our time together?
- What would you like to address about that?
- I heard [reframe what the client said…] What would be an ideal takeaway in our time together?
- What will tell you by the end of the session, that you have understood and achieved [restate goal] ……?
- Once you understand the why and get the following steps, what will be different for you?
- It sounds like you have invested a lot of time thinking about [,..] – What needs to be addressed during our time – to achieve that?
- I heard [reframe what the client said] is there anything else you feel you need to do to achieve your outcomes?
- How would you like to feel at the end of this session?
- What would it mean to you to [achieve your goal]?
- What motivated you to choose this goal today?
- It sounds like you have a lot of awareness. What’s been keeping you from being [committed] [able to approach] this?
- I heard…. What barriers are there to achieving your goal?
- I noticed you felt…., what are your learnings today?
- How will you use this learning in your goal today?
- I heard you say “fear” – what is coming up for you?
- I’m noticing a shift in your energy …..what is opening up for you?
- I noticed a shift in your language [Name] – there is so much commitment and focus in yourself, what is coming up for you about this?
- What is the first step you can take to [reframe?
- I’m noticing a shift in your energy and your demeanor …[reframe steps] – when can you start this?
- [ reframe outcome] – How do you feel when I say this?
- What can you do to keep in this state of [calmer, focused.]
- So in order to keep you [ calmer, focused] what support do you need?
- So how will you do that?
- What strategies have worked for you in the past relating to ……[stated goal]
- We explored many things about your work – and you said… What….does this mean for you?
- If I was in your shoes what advice would you give me?
ENDING SESSION – SMART Goal – specific, measurable (date), achievable (resources needed? Realistic – (Support needed?) Timebound
- So given you wanted ……to understand the why and have the next steps,…. how are you feeling?
- We have had a great session today, what are your learnings today?
- How will you use this learning in your goal today?
- At the beginning of our conversation today you said you were looking for ……..where are we now?
- Is there any support you need to achieve these steps?
- Is there anything else you would like to explore today?
- Anything else you need to have addressed to achieve these steps?
- What will hold you accountable to achieve these steps?
- Wonderful, I am glad you are feeling happy and looking happy, I am sure you will take some action to achieve your goals.
- May I have your permission to close this session?
Through coaching and using the approach of moving to a point of focus, by identifying and debunking these beliefs over time, people are able to broaden their previously contracted view of the world and find a focus for their efforts and energy which in turn allows them to reduce their feeling of being overwhelmed and provided them with a greater sense of control.
[i]Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey
[ii]Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey – Big Assumptions