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Dealing with "Overwhelm"

The pace of life is speeding up. Technology is the prime mover in this acceleration, exponentially multiplying the amount of information coming at us, whether that be from the proliferation of media outlets (e.g. hundreds of television stations today versus 7 in the 1970s), the acccelerating use of email (the average person receives about 80 per day!), the explosive growth of Twitter and Instagram, or the expanded use of texting (the average teen sends and receives over 60 texts per day).

Demands on individual time have also increased as a function of the weak economy; employers are able to demand longer hours from employees since there is an excess of workers relative to available jobs. Compounding this situation is the fact that life keeps getting more expensive while wages have stagnated.For example, average college tuition is more than TEN TIMES what it was 35 years ago; health care premiums have doubled in the last ten years. This puts increased pressure on workers to labor more so as to earn enough to keep up.

If you're a parent you're dealing with the increased expectation that your children will participate in a wide range of extracurricular activities; football practice, ballet classes, volunteer work, the school musical. All require parental time and attention that in earlier days was not the norm.

Even speech is becoming more pressured. Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.

"A decade ago," he says, "I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech....today people are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm."

It's all too easy to get caught up in this speedup. Unforrtunately, to the degree you do studies have demonstrated that your intellectual performance is likely to suffer, your relationships can be harmed (whether with spouses, children, friends, or co-workers), and that it is likely that the degradation can inhibit your career progression.

Here are half a dozen techniques guaranteed to reduce the degree to which you feel overwhelmed.

ORGANIZE - Clear your desk. Start reducing the height of those piles of paperwork, or the backlog of emails, by spending a few minuites each day whittling them down. Create ONE to do list (ideally on your computer's or phone's calendar program rather than a bunch of papers and post-its scattered in various places).

SIMPLIFY - Take a look at that to do list and get tough on yourself. Do you really have to do everything on the list? Realistically, can you do everything on the list? Pare down the tasks you give yourself and, if necessary, eliminate some of the sources of those tasks (maybe it's time to postpone learning how to knit, or to skip running the half marathon this year, or to drop out of your church's Bible study group).

DELEGATE - Many of my clients feel that they can get a task done faster if they do it themselves as opposed to delegating it. While this may well be true on an individual task basis, the cumulative effect of centralizing responsibility for accomplishing all those tasks in yourself virtually guarantees overwhelm, as tasks so often take unexpected turns. If you are responsible for undertaking and completing those tasks you are going to be constantly barraged by unexpected, time-consuming developments. Enlist someone else to deal with these unexpected complications.

JUST SAY NO - Many people fear that if they turn down a request from a family member, friend, or employer that they are demonstrating uncooperativeness, weakness, or incompetence. While there may indeed be cases where that could be the interpretation, in most instances people understand that we are all busy, and turning down a request in a well worded manner will most likely involve no negative consequences.

PRIORITIZE - With dozens, if not hundreds of demands each day, it's essential to decide which ones deserve attention right away and which ones can be postponed. "What are today's most important tasks?" is a valuable question.

FOCUS - It feels good to check that text, tweet, or email that you just got. In fact, the brain releases a tiny does of dopamine when that happens. The problem is that bouncing back and forth between a task at hand and checking your mobile phone will leave you distracted and unfocused. Resist the temptation to check your devices every few minutes and wait until you've accomplished at least a significant chunk of the important task you're working on.

CALM DOWN - Feeling overwhelmed can create a self-reinforcing pattern of stress in which the addition of even a very small responsibility or task can feel like the straw that breaks the camel's back. Centering yourself through conscious, slow, deep breathing or any one of a number of other techniques (taking a walk, exercising, playing with the kids, etc.) will increase your capacity to deal with extra responsibility without feeling totally overwhelmed.


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