“I tried carrying the weight of the world … But I only have two hands” – Avicii, Wake Me Up
As an executive, you make a powerful impact on your company every day, through every interaction and every decision.
Leaders like you are often the go-to people when the going gets tough. But what happens when the going gets tough for you? Feeling overwhelmed is hardly unique to executives; yet leaders often deny, ignore or push away the feelings, accepting it as part of their role, or assuming that they “should” be able to power through it.
Are You Overwhelmed?
Depending on your personality type, the signs of overwhelm may or may not be obvious, according to Nancy Scheel, an executive and career coach who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office.
“While many of our executive coaching clients maintain the false appearance that everything is just fine, others admit feeling ‘off their game,’ but have trouble figuring out the cause.”
Persistent and multiple difficulties that are uncharacteristic often serve as red flags — signals that shouldn’t be ignored. As Nancy explains, “Overwhelm often causes people to shift into a set of behaviors that may be quite atypical for them. For example, a normally logical, controlled person may become volatile or moody; a normally high-performing achiever may disconnect and uncharacteristically drag their feet on deliverables.
“If overwhelm is affecting a leader’s physical and/or emotional well-being, there will be signs that their body is in a pervasive state of ‘fight, flight or freeze.’ The resources of their neurophysiological system have been diverted or marshalled against a perceived threat.
“As a result, they are likely to experience a disruption in many or most areas of everyday functioning: eating, sleeping, energy, productivity, efficiency and even relationships.”
Overwhelm can manifest itself in 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 and/or activities)
- Physical aches and pains — headaches, back pain, digestive issues, fatigue and more
6 Executive Coaching Strategies to Conquer Overwhelm
Recognizing the signs of overwhelm is progress in and of itself, because it puts you on the path to make changes. Executive overwhelm can be managed.
As Nancy tells executive coaching clients, “The most important first step is to calm your nervous system. While there are some in-the-moment ways to do this, for lasting impact, adopting certain strategic daily practices will let your nervous system ‘stand down’ so that the body can heal.
“It may be challenging because your system will likely 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 leadership coaching strategies can help you prevent a relapse of executive 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. Clearing the mental clutter helps you process and manage all of this incoming information with greater efficiency and impact.
- Increase work/life balance — When you’re working a 10- or 12-hour workday (or more), it’s hard to imagine doing anything but work. Leaders are especially prone to extending their work day in order to find “quiet time” to do all the things that they can’t find time to complete at the office. Yet, as we remind our executive coaching clients, creating the optimum work-life balance is critical to maintaining relationships and ensuring your overall well-being.
- Cultivate mindfulness — As Nancy clarifies in Can Mindfulness Really Make You a Better Leader?, 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.
- Prioritize physical health — It’s tempting to skimp on sleep when you’re crunched for time. Yet getting the right amount (current recommendation is 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 is one of the most powerful ways to approach life — and leadership — from a proactive stance rather than a reactive one. As Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of O2E Brands asserts in an article drawing a parallel between business and surgery, “critical thinking time is essential in a complex, rapidly-changing digital economy.”
- Control your thoughts — At JMA, we remind our executive coaching clients: Your perceptions create 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. Taking control of your mindset — especially eliminating nonproductive thought patterns that can contribute to overwhelm — will catapult you to new levels of energy and performance, allowing you to reach your highest potential.