So many leaders right now are burnt out, tapped out, and strung out. Too much to do, too little time. Juggling too many things. Wearing too many hats. Pulled in too many directions. Carrying the weight of too much responsibility. Buried under too many emails and to dos.
In short, they’re overwhelmed.
Partly, there’s a cult of busy-ness in the workplace. When asked, “how are you doing?” a boss-friendly answer is “I’m so busy.” Double booked calendars, constant texts, and overflowing inboxes make us feel needed and important. And us servant leaders in particular tend to take care of everyone else’s needs before ever taking care of our own.
So what’s the opposite of overwhelmed?
Merriam-Webster suggests these antonyms: unimpressed, indifferent, disinterested, uninterested, unconcerned, bored, dispassionate, impassive, unemotional, jaded, incurious, emotionless.
Maybe that’s fine on an English essay, but in real life, and especially in leadership, while I don’t want to be overwhelmed, neither do I want to be any of those adjectives either. I want interest, concern, passion, emotion, and curiosity in my life.
I think that the opposite of overwhelmed is spacious.
To get a sense of what spaciousness might feel like, take a moment to consider these 5 true or false questions. Which, if any, feel true for you in the past few weeks. Apply a 'black and white' approach. If you have any doubts about how true it is for you, leave it blank.
__ I take regular breaks throughout the day to renew and recharge.
__ I rarely ever work in the evenings, on weekends, or on vacation unless I choose to for the joy of it.
__ I know how to manage my energy by sensing when I’m frantic, stressed, or low, and making an intentional shift.
__ For the most part, I’m fully present with what’s in front of me (people, projects, myself) as opposed to being distracted, multi-tasking, and dwelling on the past or future.
__ I’m intentional with how I spend my time. I create a good balance between meaningful activities with long-term value and immediate demands.
Spaciousness would feel like taking breaks and real vacations and nights off. It would feel present and intentional. It would mean knowing your body and emotions well enough to notice when you’re stressed (because it’ll happen) and knowing how to shift. Most importantly, spaciousness preserves all those other things – interest, concern, passion, emotion, and curiosity – while shedding the overwhelm.
So… how do you actually transition from overwhelmed to spacious? Here’s three ways.
The root cause of overwhelm is too much to do, not enough time. There’s only 24 hours in a day. Even Einstein can’t create more time. Thus, we have to accept that not everything will get done.
Productivity cannot be about getting everything on your list done or squeezing every minute of every day. I love this definition of productivity from Charles Duhigg: “it’s basically being able to first identify your goals, what actually matters most to you, and then being able to achieve those, without stress and strife and a sense of incompleteness in chasing them.”
So my suggestion, and that of many other time-management gurus is to pick three. Think of your time and energy capacity as a big glass jar on a pebble beach. Your jar can only hold so much. There’s just no way to carry every pebble and rock (all the projects, emails, and responsibilities waiting for you to do). If you aren’t proactive, your jar will fill with little pebbles and grains of sand – the quick and easy things like texts and emails plus everyone else’s demands – and there will be no room left for the big rocks that matter most to you.
Instead, every morning or at the start of every week, pick three big rocks. What three goals matter most to you this day or this week? Laura Vanderkam (that time-management guru I mentioned) suggests setting a weekly priority in each of three categories: career, relationships, self. By distributing your rocks across different areas of your life, it’s easier to maintain a good balance.
Centering is a cross-cultural practice rooted in many religious and contemplative practices. It originated in Christian monasteries, Buddhist temples, and Hindu shrines but finds a modern day home in the mindfulness practices embedded in places as diverse as martial arts studios, high-performance athletic competitions, baby delivery rooms, corporate board rooms, and yoga classes. The idea is for a person to find their core center – one’s bodily source of greatest calm, clarity, and warmth – and access the inner wisdom inside them. Often, but not always, a word or phrase is offered as a meditative focus: a mantra, God, ohm, peace, joy, love, etc.
For many of my readers, you may be saying, “WTF Irene. You’re a neuroscientist and declared agnostic. This is really woo woo. Is there any hard evidence that this stuff works?”
There’s a rising number of studies on centering as a way to reduce stress and overwhelm in everyday people, not just monks. For instance, this 2021 paper by Stephanie Dorais and Daniel Gutierrez at the College of William and Mary used a randomized controlled study design to show that daily centering for 10 minutes every morning and night reduced stress. Meditation in general, of which centering is one type focused on wholesome awareness and emotion, has beneficial effects in treating a huge range of stress-related disorders: headaches, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart disease, longevity in the elderly, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and chronic pain. When you look at the brains of those engaged in centering meditation, there’s consistent activation in specific brain areas like visual-processing and imagery areas (like the fusiform face area and precuneus) and regions needed for regulating thought and action (like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and motor cortex), and quieting of the insular cortex which is involved in thinking about others.
This is a 7 minute centering meditation I recorded for you to try. Try it as a break in your busy day when you need to shift away from stress and exhaustion towards spaciousness. Or try it every morning and night like the students in the study on stress reduction. (In the Going Further section, you’ll find lots of other meditation resources to experiment with.)
Sometimes, when you are really burnt out, to get back to baseline you have to get away. Take a Internet and phone free vacation. Go backpacking. Get to the beach or the woods. Travel to some exotic, hard to find corner of the globe and disconnect. (Psst… there’s a great women’s leadership retreat in Mendocino this fall if you’re into that sort of thing!)
When your body is in frantic survival or burnout mode, you have to pass through recharge and recovery In order to return to a place of passion and purpose. In one’s day to day world, a short 10 minute break is perhaps all you can do. But for full scale overwhelm, block time for a truly work-free vacation to heal.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Use get aways sparingly. Escapism is a bandaid treatment, not a cure. The root cause of overwhelm is too much to do and not enough time. Escaping won't fix that. When you come back from your get away, the to do list will still be there bigger than ever. You have to make a long-term systematic change to yourself or the environment in a way that changes the expectations for how much you do and how you do it to achieve a permanent fix.
Watch Laura Vanderkam’s fabulous TED talk on Time Management. It’s not about shaving off tiny bits of time here and there. It’s about getting clear, really clear, on what actually matters.
Read more about it on my blog. Start with one of these three articles: To do list management (on energy management), Needing a brain break (on stress management), or Jedi mind training for normal humans (on meditation). .
Listen to a conversation with Charles Duhigg on Habits and Productivity on Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. Favorite quote: “Throughout history, there has only been one killer productivity app, and that has been thinking more deeply.”
If this article was helpful, consider forwarding it to an overwhelmed friend or colleague. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, please do. Insights and ahas. Not too often. No spam.
Now enrolling for the 2023 Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat! It’s both the get away you might need PLUS hands-on practice towards creating spaciousness in your daily life. It’s 4 days, 3 nights starting September 29, 2023 in Mendocino, California. Glamping. Gourmet food and wine. Sea kayaking. Creative visioning. Find your flow. Create lifelong connections to other brave, badass women. Grow your inner wisdom. Emerge with outer presence. Apply today.
If you like quizzes. I’ve got a new 25 question quiz on integrated leadership. The 5 questions above are just the first five in the spaciousness category. How do you score on flow, connection, inner wisdom, and outer presence? Try it here.
And here's that link again to the centering meditation I recorded for you to try.