Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 10, 2020.
When you feel overwhelmed, you may assume you just need to work harder to clear out your to-do list—but that's not always the right approach, Rebecca Zucker, an executive coach, writes for Harvard Business Review. Here are five ways you can alleviate stress without working longer hours.
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What happens to your brain when it's overwhelmed
"Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating," Zucker writes.
But this approach can be counterproductive, according to Zucker. "The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed," Zucker writes, includes confusion, difficulty concentrating and thinking logically, racing thoughts, and even "an impaired ability to problem solve."
She continues, "Any of these effects, alone, can make us less effective and leave us feeling even more overwhelmed."
Five ways to get stress under control
Instead of trying to work excessive hours to clear off your plate, Zucker recommends you instead "step back and … find a new way of operating."
She offers five strategies to use to do this:
- Identify the biggest source of stress. Zucker says to ask yourself, "What one or two things, if taken off my plate would alleviate 80% of the stress that I feel right now?" Even if you aren't able to offload these stress-inducing tasks, identifying them may still help you "break [your work] down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources, or renegotiate the deadline," Zucker explains.
- Set boundaries.Consider "time boxing" the hours you want to spend on a project, saying no to tasks you don't have time for, and leaving the office at a set time, according to Zucker.
- Resist perfectionism. When we aim for perfection, our tasks can become more overwhelming than they need to be. If spending more time on a project will provide little benefit, just walk away from it, Zucker advises. "Part of this is also recognizing that we cannot do everything perfectly," Zucker adds.
- Outsource or delegate.Before you start your tasks, Zucker advises asking yourself, "What is the highest and best use of my time?" Tasks that don't meet that description are candidates to be outsourced or delegated to other people. "This can include managing selected projects, delegating attending certain meetings, having a team member conduct the initial interviews for an open position, or outsourcing the cleaning of your home and meal preparation," Zucker writes.
- Confront your assumptions. Certain "big assumptions" could be limiting your ability to manage your overwhelm, Zucker notes. For instance, perhaps you believe that "[i]f something falls through the cracks, I'd fail and wouldn't be able to recover from it." That assumption might feel real, but it's rarely correct—and it's likely to make you feel more overwhelmed, Zucker writes (Zucker, Harvard Business Review, 10/10).