How to Shift from Overwhelm to Engagement


Overwhelm is a common experience among nearly all of the working people I know. We are all busy, that’s for sure, and the labor system we live in tends to ask for more and more, and then some more. Perhaps that’s just its nature. For me, the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling engaged, as I operate within this system, is usually a question of perspective. That is, how do I internally react to what companies, managers, institutions, governments, or family members are asking of me?

I don't know about you, but when I'm overwhelmed, I generally feel totally out-of-control, as if  there’s way too much for me to do, understand, or otherwise respond to, that I'm drowning in  work and have no hope of finishing. When I'm engaged, though, I feel connected to my own power of choice. I'm working because I want to work, and I'm doing in a way and at a pace that I want to be doing it. It has a feeling of eagerness, or at least of genuine interest and commitment.

If you experience work-related (other any other kind of) overwhelm, this post hopes to assist you in reflecting on your particular situation, and in considering how you might practice shifting from overwhelm toward a state of healthier and more sustainable engagement. NOTE: This topic is, of course, vast, but in hopes of avoiding overwhelm and sticking with engagement, I'm going to keep it brief!

1. Do one small thing for yourself

Self-care isn’t optional, it’s mandatory (like food!), especially if you live in a society like ours that tends toward overwork and isolation. Self-care can be anything (exercise, meditation, chocolate, a bath, a good book, a burger) as long as it is completely unrelated to your work. To reduce overwhelm and move toward engagement, we need to back away slowly, so to speak, remembering that we are humans first, and workers second. We need to feel, in our body, that we are ok, in order to counteract the messages from overwhelm which are telling us that all is not ok. Self-care does this. It provides us with small, essential doses of comfort, relaxation, nourishment, and pleasure. When we give ourselves those things, even for 5 minutes a day, we calm the nervous system and that generally takes the edge off the overwhelm.

The reason these tiny acts of self-care may be hard to implement is that the pattern of overwhelm is probably telling you that you don't have time to finish your work much less eat lunch. How can you possibly meditate for two minutes? There's no time! I know, I've been there, and it seems impossible. But I promise, as soon as you decide you have time, you will have it. Really. Eat lunch. Breath for two minutes. And then go back to work and see how you feel.

2. Get realistic

Are you asking too much of yourself? This is not an idle question. Unrealistic expectations are rampant in American work culture, so much so that they have become normalized. Many of us actually believe we should be able to magically fit in three extra meetings or two extra research reports at the end of the day, or that we should lengthen the work day until midnight or beyond in order to complete the extra tasks because, well, someone asked. And by the way, also fix the loose kitchen tile, do the laundry, and help the kids with their homework.

More is not always better. More is not always possible. More frequently leads to mistakes and getting the flu. If you thrive on 14-hour days, that's great! But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there might also be a very good reason for it. Take an honest look at what you’re expecting yourself to do on a daily basis, and consider whether it’s actually a realistic standard.

3. Take back your power of choice

Our inner state generally mirrors our outer circumstances, and each can influence the other. When you take change of your inner state, even a little bit, you reclaim your power to impact both. Even a statement as silly as, “I choose to feel overwhelmed right now,” can initiate a shift in perspective. Engagement comes from choice, and the act of choosing itself makes it easier to keep on doing it. Try out other points of view that may shift you closer to a state of engagement. No matter how demanding the external circumstances, you can always choose how you see them and feel about them. For example:

"I choose to focus on one thing at a time."
"I choose to feel grateful that I have this job/family/opportunity."
"I’m doing the best I can, and I choose to believe that’s enough."
"Even if everything isn’t done perfectly, I choose to believe it will be ok."


How do you understand the experiences of overwhelm vs engagement? How do you navigate between them? Leave your own pro tips in the comments!