The stress of having too much to do and too little time to get it all done is a wonderfully modern problem. After all, it can mean you wield great authority, are working on big and important problems, and, in many cases at work, you are well-compensated.
But being “Overworked and Overwhelmed,” as Scott Eblin named his latest book, is not just some problem we’d all love to have. Being overworked and overwhelmed means you are risking your health, your relationships and — despite your endless hours of work — your ability to be productive, to lead and to make smart decisions. You’re probably not prioritizing, not setting boundaries. You’re almost certainly rushing from one task and thought to another so quickly and so often that you aren’t listening to or focused on any of it. When’s the last time you took a deep breath (or three, as he recommends)?
What is this problem caused by? Well, probably a mix of things; the smartphone, e-mail, the Great Recession and a certain American trait of loving work over all else are certainly contributors. What is the fix? Well, that’s a trap Eblin won’t fall into: He will tell you steps you can take, questions you can ask yourself, ways to plan out goals and how you can achieve them, but he will not give you a one-size-fits-all solution.
What he does say, however, is that people can be mindful about what their routines and priorities are, and how they approach their lives. The goal isn’t to make work perfect or to get out of it. Rather, as Eblin writes in the introduction:
“This book is a guide to learning to work differently — mindfully — so you are more clear about the results that most merit your time and attention and how you need to show up to offer your highest and best contributions as a professional and as a person.”
I understand this problem — and how it can come from positive events and good intentions. I have daily editing deadlines. That, for my whole professional life until the past few years, was my basic duty and goal. The rest was gravy. Stressful? At times, but I’m good at editing and understand how to get it done on time. But since 2012 (and these are positive developments), I now manage people, am involved on non-deadline projects and tasks that don’t have to do with editing, and I frequently find myself staring at e-mail wondering, “What the hell was I supposed to be doing? What should I be working on? I have a million thoughts and can’t make sense of any of them.”
That distraction, something most of us are familiar with, harms my productivity during what should be my best working hours. That distraction stretches my days, leads me to idling checking my work e-mail and other apps on my phone during what should be my leisure. Because my job involves reading and comprehension, sometimes even reading something vaguely work-related in topic during my off-hours will trigger a response: I’ll suddenly notice how tense I am when all I’m doing, or so I thought, is reading something for fun.
A related issue: I sleep well, generally, but do I sleep enough hours? Do I go to bed with any sort of routine? Or am I catching up on work? Distracting myself from work?
All of these things are part of my life. Not insurmountable. Not terrible. But these are the sorts of things keeping me — and likely most of you — from becoming everything that we could be. “Overworked and Overwhelmed” takes on these topics specifically and in the broadest sense.
So, how will I try to regain some perspective, and be smarter so I can be better? In Eblin’s words:
“[M]indfulness is the intersection of two qualities: awareness and intention. By awareness, I mean awareness of what’s going on both around you and inside of you in any given moment. Being aware enables you to act in the moment with the intention of creating a particular outcome or result.”
I won’t (most likely) be taking up several days a week of yoga like Scott has, and I won’t necessarily follow exactly what the many leaders he interviewed did to be more mindful, less stressed and ultimately better at work and life. But that’s the point — this is a roadmap toward finding your own solution. Here are some things I found particularly insightful:
Living by example
Eblin has been an executive, and he’s been a coach and leadership development expert, among other things. So, he has bona fides. But he has also lived this struggle in a direct way. He describes some of the challenges he faced — and shifts he made — after being diagnosed in 2009 with multiple sclerosis. Not being overworked and overwhelmed is literally key to Eblin’s health, not just catchy alliteration.
Slow and steady
People are drawn to solutions that are quick, easy and relatively painless. Certainly, so many articles and books on leadership and management are titled with the idea that if YOU DO THESE 3 THINGS, YOU WILL WIN THE DAY. Of course, this is rarely the case. Life is a struggle in maintaining habits and routines, or overcoming the negative engrained habits in favor of better, healthier (we hope) routines. There are no quick fixes.
Eblin spends a good deal of time in his book on the importance of finding your best routines, which come in four varieties: “physical, mental, relational, and spiritual.” We do not “create” routines, though; we must assess the ones we already have and decide where to go from there. As he writes:
“When was the last time you stepped back and took a look at the routines you go through most days to ask if each of them is really in service of your showing up at your best? Chances are, it’s been a while. …
What are the routines that I either have in my life already or need to add to my life to enable me to show up at my best more often than not?”
Know what “Peak You” looks like
All this talk of not being at our best leads to the obvious question, the title of Chapter 5, “How are you at your best?” This is a good question, one that undoubtedly is answered by many people in terms of what they accomplished, not how they worked, the mindset they had, the processes they used. The answer, Eblin says, is to take some time to reflect, to breathe deeply. Then, describe what exactly being “at your best” looked like, felt like; find what links those events and feelings — keep taking those breaths. At the end of all this, pat yourself on the back.
There are a lot more work to do after this process, but the idea of actually asking “What is my best?” is simple and effective. And, as a bonus, he asked nearly 20 leaders what they describe themselves as when they are in the zone.
We probably are familiar with the benefits of exercise, but Eblin goes into not only what those benefits are, but also the many ways that the leaders he interviewed get that exercise. The benefits of movement aren’t just about set periods of exercise: As he tells Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak, sitting all day, without breaks or any chance of scenery, leads to well-tested degradation of performance and creativity.
“Movement is really the key to your health and overall well-being, but it’s also key for your mental performance,” Eblin says to Rockwell in the first of two audio segments at that blog post.
It starts with a choice
There are many other areas of the book I could mention, but, as I’ve said, you won’t find a “fix.” “Overworked and Overwhelmed” is a powerfully written yet modest proposal: an attempt to guide overworked, on-the-way-to-burnout people gradually toward the solutions they wish to achieve.
In this sense, the book isn’t just for leaders — many millions of us don’t manage our own schedules, much less other people. Many of these people and others have financial, logistical and familial struggles and little power to change them.
What can each of us do, regardless of our situation? Recognize what we can control and try to improve our lives through those avenues, understanding that not all problems will be solved, or for forever. As William James once wrote, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” “Overworked and Overwhelmed” can help you make that choice.
James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.