When Overwhelm Kills Productivity

Overwhelm has become so common that it’s one of those verbs we’ve turned into a noun. I think there’s good reason for that. We live in a time with virtually unlimited access to information and communication. It makes both play and work a constant thing that we can only escape by “unplugging.” I’ve had to do that a few times over the last couple of years when I felt my priorities slipping, but that’s often a self-induced overwhelm.

There are instances of overwhelm when we can’t simply unplug to help deal with it. Life will throw things at us, and those things can absolutely overwhelm us. I had that kind of overwhelm over the last few months, and I learned something: That kind of overwhelm kills productivity.

My Latest Overwhelm Story

My overwhelm started late last year. My department at work was a person short, and we were actively looking for a new employee, but few applied, and most weren’t a good fit. When I finally found someone who might fit, my one full-time employee gave me notice, then left before her two weeks were over. Her final day was when I interviewed the new employee, who was (thank God!) someone I really wanted on the team. At the end of the year, a month later, my part-time employee retired. That left me even more short-staffed than I started. Just me and one trainee. I’m happy to say that we finally got a new full-time employee last month, but the months of searching and trying to keep up a three-person department with two people (while training that second person) was hectic. This has also been during a time when I have been actively trying to make my department more efficient and organized. As you can imagine, that priority got backburnered.

The overwhelm continued into this year with illness. I’ve had two major sinus issues, and I’m just getting over having Covid in late May/early June. That happened just two days after hiring our new employee. No joke. Again, hectic.

Add to the work stuff family concerns that I won’t get into here. Some serious ones have popped up over the last few months. Those add to the stress.

Now, work and family are must-dos. My company is wonderful and super-understanding, but stuff still has to get done. We were behind for a few months, but we worked our tails off to not drown. Family stuff, I took as it came. But what about all the other stuff in my life?

The biggest of the “other stuff” for me is that I’m writing a novel. With my full-time job, it’s not always easy for me to find time to write. I mostly have to write on the weekends, because my brain just wants to shut down when I get off work during the week. This is also my first novel. It’s a struggle. I’m learning a lot, studying different aspects of writing and fiction, and trying to find my voice, but there is so much doubt. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but it can definitely be a struggle to get words onto the page.

One step I’m taking to help my writing is going to my very first writer’s conference. I’ll be attending Realm Makers in July, and while I’m super excited, I’m also extremely nervous. I’ve submitted the first ten pages of an unfinished first draft for critique. I will sit down with a professional for 30 minutes and get feedback. I’m ready for the slings and arrows. I have no delusions that those ten pages aren’t riddled with problems (and I have to take a moment here to thank Parker and Marian from the Lorehaven gang for doing a pre-critique for me. They helped a lot.) Another mixture of emotions comes from meeting people in person who I’ve come to know online. This introvert must socialize face-to-face! The days at this conference are long, and my social meter is going to run dry before it’s over, on top of nerves of critique, and honestly just having this be my first conference experience.

Another piece of the writing puzzle is this blog. I feel like my blog is the best way for you guys to get to know me, and for me to provide you with content that you will (hopefullly) enjoy. There is so much I want to share with you all and give to you as content! Sometimes I have trouble figuring out where to start. Blogging on most topics requires research of some kind, and writing always requires time and editing. Even blogging.

Then, of course, there’s reading. This blog started mostly as a review blog, and I continue to review books here (though not as many as I used to). When there’s so much other stuff taking up my time, reading can get pushed aside. Especially if I happen to be in a slump. Which I am.

And then all the other “other stuff”: learning about my French heritage, including learning the language; keeping tabs on the publishing industry, both as a reader and a writer; and (most importantly) studying the Bible more.

This isn’t counting all the topics I’d love to read more on in general (science, history, human trafficking, women’s issues, apologetics, theology, etc. I’m a person with many interests, and they are all important to me in some way. So, it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed with things that I “have to do.”

Last month, I was honestly and truly overwhelmed. To the point that my supervisor asked me how I was doing and I almost cried. This was a couple weeks before the new employee started. We were more behind at work than we’d ever been, I was in the middle of working on my critique submission for Realm Makers, and I got bad news about a loved one’s health (the crisis period has passed, but it was a serious illness). I was stressed. I was overwhelmed.

The Lesson

I mentioned earlier that this period of overwhelm taught me something: overwhelm kills productivity. But how?

It’s not just a sense of having too much to do and no time to do it. You can still be productive while you’re behind. As long as you’re moving forward. When I say that overwhelm kills productivity, I mean that overwhelm can stop you from being productive. It can stop you from moving forward. Then, as you fall behind, you become more overwhelmed. Everything’s important, and you don’t know where to start. So, you don’t. You find something to do that will make you feel busy, but doesn’t require much concern, and it neglects the stuff that truly needs to be done. Or maybe you avoid it all together. Everything is so overwhelming that you need to take your mind off of it most of the times you think about it, so you binge a tv show instead.

I’m not judging. I’ve been there. I’m just leaving that train station. The only way through it, is to get through it.

Getting Through the Overwhelm

One way that I’m trying to work through it is by using a planner. I have a love/hate relationship with planners. I really do. As I write this, I’m realizing that I left my planner on my desk at work for the second day in a row. Thankfully, I remembered to do the things I had marked down for this evening, including to work on this article. But despite the irritations of keeping up with a planner, I’ve learned that I remember things better when I use one, and I do things more consistently. The hard part has always been finding the one that works for me. There are so many planners out there with stuff I just don’t need in them. But that could be a whole separate article.

I’ve invested in some productivity books and other resources. I’d learned some tips and techniques prior that helped me keep up as much as I did with this latest stretch of overwhelm, and I intend to fill my productivity arsenal to the brim. If overwhelm strikes again (let’s face it, it will) I want to handle it like a pro! Or, at least not like a complete amateur.

Something that I made sure to do when I could was to ask for help. Whether this be actual assistance, or to push back a deadline, or to miss a meeting… I asked for help. As I mentioned before, the company I work for is great, and I’m blessed enough to have a supportive supervisor and an understanding leadership team. We cannot be afraid to ask for help. If you think asking for help makes you look weak, get rid of that mindset! If you don’t ask for help, then end up drowning under everything, it would look like you thought you could handle it all and failed. That’s when you’ll look weak. But if you can own up and say, “You know what… I could really use some help with this,” people will see you’re staying in control, that you realize what’s important, and that you are doing your best to get things done. Having my department fully staffed again is definitely a help, and allows to me focus on things that I had to put aside during the overwhelm. Which brings me to my last piece of advice learned from my latest experience.

Let some things go. I know. It’s hard. But not all things are of equal importance, and importance can even shift as time passes. For me, my job was my top priority at the time. Had things gone differently for my family member, that would have shifted past work in priority as much as I could make it. Obviously, my novel is important, but once my critique submission was finished, I had to put that aside for a while. I did one French lesson and made a list of books to read on French history. I haven’t touched that since. Why? As much as I want to learn about it, it’s not a necessity.

If everything is a top priority, then nothing is a top priority.

Regrets? Just one.

The one thing that I shouldn’t have let slip that I did was Bible study. It’s the only regret that I have from this latest overwhelm experience, because God is our rock, and Christ is our peace. I neglected my peace in a time when I greatly needed it. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson to learn from this. Everything else got handled as best as it could, but my relationship to Christ was neglected and pushed aside when things really started to pile up. I didn’t make it a top priority.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you dealt with overwhelm? What was it like for you? How did you deal with it? What would you do differently? Share in the comments.

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