“I don’t have enough time!”
This is the first thought that comes to mind when I feel overwhelmed. I have been there many times and I bet you have too.
What does overwhelm look like for me?
A full to-do list with patients and meetings back-to-back.
A pressured, hurried feeling with a twinge of anxiety.
A sense of failure that I have not taken care of myself, and I have allowed this to happen.
When I feel overwhelmed, I run out of energy, and I find it hard to be productive. I just want to check out instead of concentrating on getting things done.
Often there is that recurrent cycle of fatigue, poor sleep, and a lack of control.
Have you been there too?
How did we get to this place?
It can be a combination of reasons.
For me, I always thought it was because I had a hard time saying no and that I was not productive or focused enough to do it all.
Turns out, it was more likely because I was excited and saying “yes” to too many good things. I was interested in being involved and put too many things on my plate. I also felt if I wanted something done right, I had to do it myself. So, I added things to my list that may have been done easily by other people. Of course, some items ended up as my responsibility because they were mandated by my superiors. But not all of them were. Lastly, there are things like pandemics, loss, or circumstances that are out of our control that takes up our time and changes our plans.
To address this, my first thought was to try to become more productive. Instead of taking things off my to-do list, I started studying what I was doing and what was taking up most of the time. I listened to productivity podcasts and read books on how to be more efficient. Turns out there were some good ideas out there but that was not the answer. Ultimately, no matter how productive I was, there were still too many marbles in my jar. Marbles were spilling out of my jar. There was no way I could add any more into the container. I needed to make some space by removing some things from my jar.
In a commencement speech, former CEO of Coca-Cola, Brian Dyson, described a metaphor where you were juggling five balls that represented the main priorities in your life. Some were rubber and would bounce if you dropped them and if you were fast you might even pick them back up without missing a beat. However, some of these were glass, as valuable as the finest crystal, and if they fell to the ground they were irretrievably lost for good – broken into many pieces. These balls for him were work, family, health, friends, and spirit. He placed only one as a bouncing ball. These may be different for you.
How do we start to clean up this mess of overwhelm?
The key to starting to overcome this sense of overwhelm is to determine what is at the top of your priority list. The first step is to identify a time for you to focus on this. Is this a large block of time or an hour each week for several weeks in a row? Use this dedicated time to determine what is taking your time now and what you ultimately want to fill your calendar.
Make a list that includes all the things you are doing now, all the things you have committed to doing but have not started, and all the things you want to do that are not in those two other buckets. This can take many pages.
After this, it is time to narrow down the list. How do you do this? There are several strategies to try. Take some time answering each of these.
1 What is important to you on this list? What aligns with your top values and strengths?
2. When you are 80 and sitting on a rocking chair spilling out words of wisdom, what do you want to be known for? What do you want your legacy to be? When you are looking back over your life, what will be the most essential way you could have spent your time?
3. What on this list fuels your energy and what steals it away? What do you look forward to doing and what do you put in the procrastination pile?
4. Envision what you want to be doing in 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years. To do that, what do you need to say yes to now? Also, what do you need to say no to for that to happen?
Sometimes, the answers to these questions may surprise you. They may lead you down a different path than where you are now. No matter what, they should be your answers and not others’ expectations of your priorities.
The thoughts you have as you decide your priorities can change in different seasons of your life. This is not a process to do once and never revisit. Set aside time to reassess the balls you are juggling every few months, every year, or every five years. This is time well spent and will pay you back in clarity and focus so that you can overcome that feeling of overwhelm!
Marion Mull McCrary MD FACP is a practicing primary care general internist in North Carolina and a national board-certified health and wellness coach. She is also a Women in White Coats Writers Fellow and Podcast Co-Host. Her website is http://www.marion-wellness.com, and she can be followed on Instagram and Facebook at marionmccrarywellness.