“I’m feeling overwhelmed with so much to do at home and work. I have a big proposal that needs to be in tomorrow and then I have a presentation to prepare before Tuesday with Monday already full with stuff, so if I don’t get a move on I will be working the weekend which I haven’t got time for, as lots on at home with kids’ social schedules, building work and a poorly husband who can’t drive. I so need to be super efficient and effective right now, but telling myself that still isn’t getting me there! I just can’t mentally apply myself to anything important and I am procrastinating a lot and making lots of cups of tea!”
This is a quote from Eleanor, one of my clients. She’s not alone in feeling overwhelmed and the description of her week echoes those I’ve heard from most of my clients at some point. If I had a pound/dollar/euro for every time I heard the word “overwhelmed” from my clients over the past 16 years, I’d be a rich woman by now!
90% of the women I’ve worked with over the years have had caring responsibilities – usually for children, sometimes for ageing parents, sometimes as carers, and increasingly – as I get older! – I am noticing that many of my clients have both children and parents to look after. 21st century life is busy for most of us, but for women who are mothers or carers, ‘busy’ is taken to a whole new level.
I get the “jugging act” and “balancing act” of work, life and family. I get it because I speak on an almost daily basis with my clients who are striving to master that juggling act. I also get it as I’m at the sharp end myself! as a mum, with a coaching practice and a new business, maintaining a house, raising 2 energetic boys (and of course my 4-legged “boy”, Ernie) I often wonder how on earth I keep going! And just like my clients, I’m keenly aware of the dangers of burnout and conversely, the importance of carving out time for my own health, wellbeing and happiness. But how do we carve out that time when we have so much on our plate?
Of course, the more we have on our plate, the longer it takes to clear that plate. And the plate is never empty. Just as soon as you’ve cleared a space, something else appears on it. Looking at that plate, piled so high that you don’t know where to start, can be completely overwhelming!
But here’s the issue: For the most part, we are loading up that plate ourselves. We are largely responsible for our own tendency to fall into overwhelm, as we are so busy trying to be Superwoman.
Are modern women a “generation of control freaks”? Judith Warners, in her New York Times bestseller “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” thinks so – and control freaks who are unable to say “No” to boot: In “Perfect Madness”, Warners cites an article from Redbook, a women’s magazine about the cult of busy-ness amongst modern women:
“What has modern woman done with the four or five hours she used to spend at the wash line? Chances are she has let herself be dragooned into doing something that is just as tiring and time-consuming. She is working on one more committee, helping out at a pre-kindergarten art group or collecting furniture or clothing for the town swap shop.. permi(ting) the time saved by (the) mechanical devices to be wiped out by increased standards of performance”.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a description of a stay at home mum: The “modern woman” described above is also highly likely to be building a career, as well!
Here’s the rub…
“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: The feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, whilst raising one’s children as if one did not have to work”
There are 8 main reasons for overwhelm in talented women that I have observed over many years of coaching. Only the first two are external; the other six are about talented women getting in their own way by trying to be that mythical creature – Superwoman:
One of the best ways to let go of the habit of being Superwoman is to get real on your expectations of yourself. Superwomen with control freak tendencies tend to have unrealistically high expectations of ourselves. This inevitably leads to overloading your metaphorical plate which in turn leads to you becoming overwhelmed. Getting into a cycle of coping-overwhelm-coping-overwhelm is not, as you might have already suspected, a sustainable one. Ultimately it leads to burnout and this has some serious health implications.
Checking in with your expectations of yourself is simple, but not always easy. Simple because you just have to take a step back and ask yourself, “What am I expecting myself to do here?.. Is this realistic/reasonable?” However, it is not always easy – because you are likely to be so ingrained in the habit of handling everything and getting things done that your default position is to respond to each challenge with
“How can I fit this in?”
“Where are my expectations unrealistic?”
This is why it is helpful to speak regularly to a good Coach or a friend, to get them to reflect back to you. You need someone who can pull you up short and point out the obvious…
“Hang on, you’ve just told me that today you are going to do A, B, C, D and E at work. That’s going to take you at least ten hours, and you’ve only got six working hours in the day!”
Gina had a big list of “must dos” in her week but she was frustrated with herself, as she wasn’t achieving them. She said:
“There’s no reason I can’t do all of these things. I just need to be more efficient with my time”
We drew up a grid and sectioned into days of the week and waking hours in the day. We walked through every single thing that Gina wanted to achieve in an average week.
Gina had a picture of how her life was going to be completely perfect with every element of a balanced life incorporated. She believed that the only thing that was stopping her was her own lack of time management. She believed that, if only she could get it right, she would be able to “do it all : Time for work, time for the kids, time for herself, time for her community, time for her hobbies and time for many other projects she was trying to juggle.
As we listed all the elements of her ideal week, I asked Gina how many hours per week she wanted to spend on each activity in her life. As we went through every element of her week, I asked the same question and quietly added up all the hours.
She was shocked when I told her the total hours: In order to achieve everything, she needed to have over 130 waking hours per week. There was no room in Gina’s week for the unexpected curve balls that have a habit of popping up regularly and certainly no room for anything to deviate from plan. Most of all, there was no room for sleep! It left her with just over 5 hours per night. Hardly a perfectly balanced life!
This was a reality check for Gina and it was a useful exercise. But she was only doing what millions of women do – over-estimating what she could achieve in the time given and setting expectations that only Superwoman could meet!
You might have a to-do list, and you beat yourself up because you haven’t achieved it, try this exercise yourself. Get real about how long things take – by underestimating you will feel constantly disappointed with yourself and constantly anxious.
This is a painful way to step up – no doubt about it! Looking at how long things really take is uncomfortable. However, this is the only way to prove to yourself that you are setting your expectations too high.