A few years ago I offered a basic overview of what I called “Work Overwhelm” to a gathering of my colleagues. It included the definition of overwhelm and several well-intended but impractical suggestions for coping. I say impractical because while I am a true believer in the benefits of practicing yoga, walking, stretching, eating well, taking time for oneself that does not include work or children, and sleeping more deeply, I observe so few people actually committed to doing all of these things — not just once or occasionally — but doing them over and over again and again.
I called this post “Whelming”, but I did not know that was actually a word. Later I looked it up, and found this definition:
- Engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something): “a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm”.
- Flow or heap up abundantly.
The first definition I interpreted to be negative, while definition # 2 seems positive. The image of the swimmer in definition # 1 reminds my of my father. An attorney, writer, teacher, and former distance runner, he has found a home in the open water in recent years. He swims regularly in a pool but frequently dives into rivers and seas.
The consequences of my father’s swims are certain; he is physically strong, confident and seeking ever more challenging time on the water. The unexpected outcomes include uncertainty of path, process and finish, due to the way in which open water swimming events are conducted, and the nature of the sea.
Tonight, we talked casually about an upcoming swim of significant distance that he hopes to undertake in a few months time.
The fact that he will finish the event without doing any harm to himself is almost certain.
It is not a fact.
There is a risk that we take in all that we do. For me, the physical risk is easy to digest, but the mental risk is less so.
Just the other morning a client for whom I am working mentioned at least two of her colleagues being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of e-mail they receive – and consequently they are less able to respond to queries or requests in a timely manner. In the same breath this woman assured us that the busy-ness factor did not prevent them from working effectively, and I can absolutely agree that most overwhelmed people with whom I’ve worked ARE indeed effective. They take on mountains of tasks and make it to the summit and eventually make their way back down to a less tumultuous place. I’ve observed the journey to be exciting, but somewhat painful.
Does it always have to be this way?
I’m not sure. I think it might.
Knowing that the work won’t go away (and being one very grateful to have work indeed), how can we manage so that we are able and willing to take on great and meaningful work but not sacrifice A.B.C. in the meantime?
Please note that your A.B.C. may differ from mine.
What is important to you?
What matters to your family – especially – those with whom you share a roof?
How do those activities for which you are not paid fit in?
They may (should!) include any or all that follows:
Talking (to that one person who will pick up the phone for you no matter what)
Writing (not a grant, not a spreadsheet)
Dining (not in a car, not on the move)
I’ll quote from the poet Shel Silverstein:
“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender com sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
I’m hoping for a little feedback here, because I’m at a loss to provide any creative answers to what overwhelmingly is the problem of overwhelm. I want to meet the person who can put forth a plan for magic bean buying that benefits both the procurement team and the vendor.
Wishing you and yours a weekend that sparkles with unplanned experience and unexpected outcomes.