Feeling overwhelmed is hardly unique to executives; yet leaders often deny, ignore or push away the feelings. They accept it as part of their role, or assume that they “should” be able to power through it.
As a leader, you’re the go-to person for others when the going gets tough. But what happens when the going gets tough for you?
Are You Overwhelmed? Notice the Red Warning Flags
Depending on your personality type, the signs of overwhelm may or may not be obvious. Some leaders are able to maintain the false appearance that everything is just fine. Others admit feeling “off their game,” but have trouble pinpointing the cause.
Let’s talk red flags. When you have persistent and multiple difficulties that are uncharacteristic for you, these are signals you should not ignore. Overwhelm may cause you to behave in quite atypical ways. If you’re normally logical and controlled, you might become strangely volatile or moody; if you tend to be a high-performing achiever, you may disconnect and start foot-dragging on deliverables.
If overwhelm is affecting your physical or emotional well-being, there will be signs that your body is in a pervasive state of “fight, flight or freeze.” The resources of your neurophysiological system have been diverted or marshaled against a perceived threat.
Once overwhelm happens, you will experience disruption in many or most areas of everyday functioning: eating, sleeping, energy, productivity, efficiency and even relationships.
The red flags of overwhelm can manifest as a variety of symptoms, including:
- Emotional volatility
- Inability to concentrate or listen
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling pervasive dread
- Constantly irritated or annoyed
- Numbness or withdrawal (from people or activities)
- Physical aches and pains — headaches, back pain, digestive issues, fatigue and more
6 Strategies to Conquer Leadership Overwhelm
Let’s keep it simple — after all, you are already feeling overwhelmed! Re-read the list above so that you can really recognize the signs of overwhelm. Even this knowledge and recognition alone signal real progress, moving you onto the path toward change. Yes, leadership overwhelm can be managed.
In general, the most important first step is to calm your nervous system. It’s best to make a daily habit of doing simple, strategic breathing practices will let your nervous system “stand down” so that the body can heal.
Paradoxically, slowing your system may feel uncomfortable to you. Keep up the practice anyway. Your body and mind may resist the initial attempts to slow it down. If you’ve ever had someone tell you to “calm down” when you were really upset, you know what that resistance feels like!
Once you’ve begun the healing process, the following executive coaching strategies can help you prevent a relapse of leadership overwhelm:
Promote clear thinking — Information overload is a way of life, especially for professionals in leadership roles. Facts, figures, requests, questions, complaints, noise… there is no shortage of demands on your attention. Clear the mental clutter so you can process and manage all of this incoming information with greater efficiency.
Increase work/life balance — With a workday that’s 10 or 12 hours (or more), it’s hard to imagine doing anything but work. Leaders are especially prone to extending their workday to attend to all the things that they can’t find time to complete at the office. Yet creating the optimum work-life balance is critical to maintaining relationships and ensuring your overall well-being.
Cultivate mindfulness — There are two types of mindfulness: mindfulness in the moment, and the practice of mindfulness. Together, they can boost your leadership capacity to new levels through focus and clarity.
Related: Can Mindfulness Make You a Better Leader?
Prioritize physical health — It’s tempting to skimp on sleep when you’re crunched for time. But getting the recommended seven hours of quality sleep can keep stress at bay, improve cognitive performance and promote physical health. The same goes for exercise and eating well. Healthy habits provide a foundation for your overall well-being.
Block out time to think — Taking time to think, which is essential for effective leadership, often seems like a luxury. However, when you reactively careen from one thing to another, your lack of focus and clarity generates mental fatigue, poor decisions and inefficiency. Schedule periodic blocks of time for yourself to think strategically and creatively. Set up specific times, durations and locations that align with your natural preferences for best focus while also minimizing distractions.
Control your thoughts — Your perceptions strongly shape your realities. If you think your To-Do list is unmanageable, it will be. If you believe that your shortcomings will get in the way of your progress, they will. Your thoughts create your moods, which influence your behaviors. Take control of your mindset! When you eliminate thought patterns that contribute to overwhelm, you can achieve new levels of energy and performance — allowing you to reach your highest potential.