Our Ask the Expert blog this month has been created by Helen Calvert, a MOE Foundation Certified Coach providing life coaching to business owners, and founder of business support agency Clear Day.

I set up Clear Day in October 2018 to provide freelance admin support to business owners and small organisations. Clear Day has since grown into a business support agency, providing PA/VA services, and marketing and social media assistance. I have a team of eleven associates who assist me in clearing the days of our lovely clients. A new addition to the business in 2020 was my coaching practice, as I obtained my coaching certification from the MOE Foundation. I provide coaching to business owners who are ambitious and focused, yet struggle with anxiety and overwhelm, perhaps finding that imposter syndrome hampers their progress. I can help those who are unsure of the next steps for growing their firm, or who have recently expanded and need some help figuring out what kind of leader they want to be.

We are all different

Different clients face different challenges when it comes to feeling overwhelmed. Are you a creative type who chases the latest shiny object and finds it hard to knuckle down to the every day tasks? Or are you focused and logical and find it most overwhelming when things happen unexpectedly and your day gets thrown out of whack? We do not generalise, we meet every client where they are and help them to work with who they are rather than against it. There are some things though that tend to work for everybody and they are often very simple.

The three B’s

Let’s start with my favourite mantra: “breathe, bathroom, beverage”. No matter what is happening, unless something is actually on fire you have the time for all three of those things. Taking literally five minutes to breathe deeply, have a wee and grab some hydration will make you so much more capable of dealing with the crisis / unexpected problem / sudden panic / bout of anxiety.

You may think that something so simple cannot possibly make a difference, and you would be right in the sense that breathing and drinking don’t solve any crises at work! However, what they do do is calm your mind, calm your body and provide you with a better platform for facing what is happening. When we are breathing shallowly, have a full bladder and are feeling thirsty, we are distracted and we are sending a message to our brain that all is not well. That is not the best starting point for dealing with anything.

Don’t believe me? Try it next time and see how much calm it brings to your day.

You don’t ask, you don’t get!

The next crucial item that people often miss out is to reach out for help. If you have someone to whom you can delegate or ask for practical help, fantastic. Many of us don’t have that luxury though, but we can still reach out and feel less alone. Just telling a member of your team that you are feeling the pressure will help you to feel a bit calmer – “a problem shared is a problem halved” is a cliché for a reason.

What if you don’t have a team? Reach out to someone in your network. Being a business owner can be a lonely thing, and we all need to have a network of others who get it and to whom we can reach out and just say “it’s all going to sh*t today!”. Can they solve the problem? No. Will feeling heard and like someone understands help you to feel calmer? Yes.

 If you work in a culture where admitting to overwhelm is seen as a sign of weakness, you can show real leadership by standing up and saying “sometimes things get hard”. It only takes one person to give others permission to admit reality, and suddenly everyone’s stress is reduced as they realise that they are not the only one who sometimes feel the pressure. We all do, and trying to hide that does no one any favours. Sure, stay calm in front of your clients, but within your team or your network it is important we all share what we are really experiencing. It is empowering.

This is where business culture or group culture comes into its own. If you are leading a team, true leadership involves revealing your own vulnerabilities. I am not talking about breaking down in tears, I am talking about making it clear that you are human, you make mistakes, you feel overwhelmed at times, and you understand that your team experiences the same. It is then possible to have open discussions about techniques to manage that, rather than everyone feeling isolated and as if they are the only person who sometimes struggles to cope.

Set your expectations

Clear expectations are key to overcoming the overwhelm – your expectations of yourself and your expectations of others. If you are self-employed nobody else has the power over your working practices. It is down to you to take care of yourself, and to make it clear to yourself what are your expectations. Have you ever sat down and worked out the working hours, time off, holidays and mistake handling practices that you expect of yourself? If not then now is the time. Otherwise, you will work all hours, rarely take a break and berate yourself for every misstep, which is surely not why you became self-employed in the first place.  

If you have employees or team members, a similar approach can work to ensure that they don’t experience overwhelm either. Again, it all comes down to clear expectations. Sure, some team members will try to get away with doing as little work as possible, but the majority of people want to do their best. If you as a leader don’t tell them what you expect, they will just keep working and working, in fear that doing less or taking time off means they could disappoint you.

Be clear in your employee communications and handbooks how you expect your team to look after their physical and mental health. Encourage them to take their allocation of holidays, encourage self-care, and encourage work-life balance. Crucially though, you have to demonstrate this yourself. If you tell them they can take time to look after themselves when necessary, but they see you working every hour available and burning yourself out, they are going to believe your actions, not your words. Demonstrate self-care and sensible working practices, and you will encourage that in others.

Balancing the scales

We hear a lot about healthy work-life balance. The important thing is to work out what balance means to you. Not everybody needs a balance of activities every day, we all have different rhythms. Personally I tend to work flat out on my business, the housework, and parenting, and then collapse and do nothing for a full weekend when the children are with their Dad. Other people will prefer to carve out a little time for themselves every day.

It is also important to consider what you are actually trying to balance. Is watching TV genuinely downtime for you or does it leave you feeling flat? What activities truly fill your cup and make you feel replenished? How often are you scheduling these in? 

A dose of realism

Be realistic. List out everything that requires your focus: work, children, partner, other family responsibilities, household management, hobbies, self-care, your personal circumstances. Then build a routine that is honest about your capacity. It is no good having a beautifully crafted work routine if it takes no account of the realities of the rest of your life. Far better to be realistic and build in time for everything that is important to you.

Kindness goes a long way

My best tip for overcoming the overwhelm at work? Excessive kindness. That is really what it boils down to. The difference it makes when we stop being unpleasant to ourselves and start being excessively kind to ourselves is immense. What does this mean in practical terms? Attending to our basic needs – not allowing ourselves to go hungry or thirsty or miss a toilet break. Wearing clothes that make us feel comfortable and safe. Taking breaks to get fresh air and stretch our bodies. Positive, kind self-talk, always. No more constantly berating ourselves inside our own heads. Planning time off. Taking time off. Giving ourselves what we need, when we need it, instead of imagining we have to work ourselves into exhaustion. Asking for help. Taking care of ourselves when we have to push out of our comfort zone and do something scary and new. 

I could go on and on. Essentially though just be kind to yourself. You are the only person you will spend every single second of your life with, so it will be a long ol’ life if you are mean to yourself all the time!

Apply the brakes

If you want to better improve your headspace the answer is to Stop. Which is much harder to do than it sounds. When we have loads to do or are worrying about things, the adrenaline starts flowing and we get this feeling that it is dangerous to slow down. We have to catch that feeling, and literally take a breath. Physically calm down to stop the adrenaline from flowing, and then press the reset button by taking ourselves for a walk, changing our environment, doing a different task. 

Those times when we feel we can’t possibly get it all done and we’re totally overwhelmed – those are the times we actually need to stop and move away. Spending an hour clearing our heads with some fresh air, some exercise or something else that works for us will lead to the next two hours being so much clearer and more productive. Instead of spending the full three hours being “busy” and achieving very little.

This brings us back to that original mantra. Breathe, bathroom, beverage. Do that and you will then feel clearer and be able to work out what it is you actually need to do, rather than running around in a panic. Encourage others to do the same. Let’s create workplaces and spaces where tending to our needs is the normal expectation. Overwhelm will be a rarer beast if we do.

Helen Calvert, Clear Day

Helen has twenty years of experience in admin and organisation, and also knows well the personal challenges of anxiety, family health problems and just trying to get it all done!

Helen hosts the podcast The No Bullsh*t Guide To A Happier Life – quick but not necessarily easy tips to get everything you want out of your business and your life.

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