Overwhelm in arts and culture. Here is my story, and some thoughts on what might help
As a previous senior leader in the arts, and now a coach working with cultural and public-sector leaders, I know all about overwhelm. I experienced it myself a few times (mainly when I was transitioning in big new roles) and I hear about it a lot from clients, colleagues and friends right now.
I think the pandemic has made that sense of overwhelm worse for many. The never-ending changes, funding bids and restructures, less staff to do more due to change or sickness, and a blurring of boundaries between work and home have all exacerbated the issue.
I wanted to check how widespread the issue was and what other challenges people in the industry were facing, so I recently sent a survey round to a couple of facebook groups, my own Brilliant Transitions facebook group (which offers tips and strategies for leaders and professionals going through change and transition) and the Clore Leadership facebook group.
I asked people to choose from some main challenges and asked them what the main thing keeping them awake at night was, the 3am challenge if you like. I had lots of responses. The most popular two answers were: (1) Feeling overwhelmed and (2) feeling a lack of confidence / imposter syndrome. Of course, these are usually linked, but for this article I wanted to focus on the subject of overwhelm, what it is and what might help.
What is overwhelm?
The stress reduction and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes overwhelm as the feeling that “our lives our somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.”
That makes sense to any of us who have just lain awake thinking of all the jobs they haven’t finished, all the emails still to respond to, etc etc etc. Too much stuff unfolding, too fast for us to ever catch up and catch our breath.
The Oxford Dictionary describes something that overwhelms us as “having such a strong emotional effect that it is difficult for us to resist or know how to react.” In other words, overwhelm just takes us over and stops us in our tracks, paralysed. Or running, running, running in all directions or as if on a treadmill but getting nowhere.
How does overwhelm manifest in our lives?
- Working all many hours trying and failing to catch up
- Work seeping into our evenings, interrupting our family or social life, an inability to switch off at weekends
- Always feeling ‘on’ – this just seems to have got worse since the pandemic when so many of us are working at home and there seems to be more expectation that we should be ‘available’ at all times
- Real deep tiredness and weariness during the day, inability to sleep at night
- Total inertia/paralysis/fear
Sound familiar? Me too, this was my story and how I worked to overcome the overwhelm:
I know this feeling, I last had it when I started a new leadership job in the arts. The sheer volume of the to do list and the emails to answer was overwhelming and never ending. The pressure to get things done now. I was still getting to know the new role, but I wasn’t keeping up. I started working on a Saturday just to have a quiet day to get things done. I was constantly worrying about what I was not doing or messing up. Until one day I thought I need to get some help and do something different. I resented working at weekends and I didn’t want my working life to feel like this.
I signed up to go on a leadership retreat in the Lakes run by a coach called Lois Burton for three days. I was really lucky to have a boss who was able to support that, I know not everyone has that. But on this lovely reflective retreat, I slowed down, I thought about what was wrong In my working life and how I was going to fix it. I remember very clearly when asked to describe how I felt about my work describing myself as buried in a huge pile of feathers with my hands sticking out. It might well feel very different to you and your metaphor will be different. I felt like I was drowning in feathers and I wanted to feel like I was walking in a clearing in a lovely wood.
That leadership coaching retreat changed my life. I came back to work feeling incredibly calm, rejuvenated, I was talking more slowly, my mind was clearer, and my colleague even said to me “ Why are you talking like you’re in a chocolate advert” so chilled out and Galaxy-like was I. I almost didn’t go on that coaching retreat as I was ‘too busy’ but when I got back, I had a really clear insight into what was wrong, and a 100% commitment to being calmer and having more perspective and some strategies.
I also realised really clearly that hardly any of those hundreds of emails that came through in the three days I was gone were in the least bit important. I started accepting that I would probably never get to the end of my to-do list and that was OK. I worked better when I was relaxed and clear-focussed, not when I was frazzled and overwhelmed. I wasn’t saving lives, I was just a Head of Marketing for a museum. I started focussing on my key goals (my Big Rocks, see below for more info on those) and I tried to cut down on the time I spent on stuff that was trivia or time wasting (like hours on emails).
That week, I stopped working Saturdays. I took a meditation course and started going to the local meditation centre literally 5 mins walk away from my work, and I went there almost every weekday lunchtime for their free 20 min session. It helped me switch off from the morning and clear my head for the afternoon. I went for walks, took breaks, stopped for a cup of tea. I started feeling calm, clear and confident and actually growing into my role.
So that was my experience and since then I have helped a lot of clients feeling the same way.
My tips for overwhelm can be summed up like this:
Number One. When feeling overwhelmed, take a mindful break from your work.
Do nothing. Go for walk. Switch off your computer. Sit with a cup of tea and stare out of the window. Do NOT sit at your desk and work though with a sandwich. We need to give our minds time to rest. Do yoga. Download a meditation app and sit or lie quietly for 15 minutes a few times a day. Run. Dance. Paint. Do what gets you out of your head and into a nicer space.
When you feel like speeding up again, which you always will, do the opposite and slow down to get more done.
(It is no accident that I took up meditation when I was most overwhelmed. I’ve been doing it every day for over five years and it changed the way I live and work. Start small and regular and it will help in the most stressful of situations).
Number Two. Concentrate on the Vital Few things that matter most. The Big Rocks.
We only have so much time in our day so we need to try and not waste it on stuff that isn’t that important. Stephen Covey’s brilliant Big Rocks model to think is a brilliant one to help us focus on what most matters to us. Stephen Covey is best known as the author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ which is not a best-seller for nothing. My first ever coach/mentor Peter Thompson told me about this when I was promoted to Assistant Director role at mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough. It was a huge job and I had no idea where on earth to start with the pure volume of work – until I focussed on my ‘big rocks’.
Big rocks is basically choosing the most important things you need and want to give time to in your work, career and life, and making sure you prioritise these. Put them in your diary as immovable objects where you can. They might include holidays, strategy planning or working on major projects or family time. These are the VITAL few. Put them on a list and pin it up next to you, look at it regularly, are you giving enough time to the vital few? The other things which take up our time go around the VITAL FEW (the crises (challenges which are urgent and important, we are pretty good at dealing with those), but it is the time stealers and the trivia which waste our time, the endless emails, the pointless meetings. Cut down on these whenever you can. I have helped lots of clients use the concept of Big Rocks to improve their sense of control, clarity and confidence, and to dampen down the stress and overwhelm. This model really does work.
See here for a video of Stephen Covey illustrating the idea of Big Rocks or invest in his book.
Number three. If you can, get support from a coach or mentor. In the few times I have felt overwhelmed in my job, I have needed help from someone who can support me, someone I can talk to really honestly, without judgement. Who can help me see my challenges from another perspective. Who I feel is on my side. Who believes that I have the resources to change things for myself, for the better. Who hasn’t got an agenda. Work really shouldn’t feel like a series of tidal waves which threaten to overwhelm us. Coaching has helped me to overcome overwhelm, anxiety and confidence issues at key points in my career. It’s helped me turn corners, overcome hurdles, reach summits, grow in confidence and literally transform my career. No wonder I became a coach myself!
Sometimes coaching leads to strategies to improving the way we work and how we feel while we’re there. Sometimes it will lead to a realisation that this particular job / organisation / career might no longer be what we need. Perhaps because the culture of the organisation contributes to the overwhelm and isn’t willing to change. Perhaps because we recognise that we’ve got to a point in our lives where we want to work differently : go freelance, change sector, whatever. If this happens, a coach like myself can help you make that transition.
If you’re interested in coaching because you read this article and it resonates with you, and you want to feel less overwhelmed, stressed, confused or lacking in confidence at this point in your career, then reach out for a free Coaching Discovery chat where we can talk about how I can help. Our conversation will be totally confidential and even if you choose not to go ahead with me, there will be a sense of relief in just talking things through.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a free 30-40 min chat.
Join my facebook group, which offers lots of tips and strategies for cultural leaders and purpose-led professionals dealing with seismic change and times of transition.