We are now a few months into the new year, and many of us may start to feel overwhelmed, guilty or upset with ourselves when we realize our New Year’s resolutions and good intentions have slowly faded away.
When we are rushing through our days, just trying to get everything accomplished and not forget to check on our patients or pick our kids up from practice, it’s easy to lose sight of our goals, our dreams and the priorities we had hoped to accomplish. This is also how overwhelm creeps in, and you suddenly realize there isn’t enough time, money or energy to accomplish everything you had promised…or is there?
After years of self-reflection and coaching clients in various disciplines ranging from veterinary medicine to the campaign trail, I noticed that being overwhelmed is often the indicator that we are not living in alignment with our values or haven’t maintained a boundary. In other words, we are not consistently living in alignment or congruent with the best of who we are and who we know we can be.
The keyword here is consistent. Our brains are silently keeping score of when we show up and follow through—and those times when we either forget to show up or don’t follow through. We need more checks in the “win” column to feel more confident in our abilities. So, how do we get more wins when much of what we do in the practice of medicine is simply outside of our control?
When I start to feel overwhelmed, like a failure or just in a funk, here’s how I break it down to get back on the path towards living my best, most confident life and how many of my clients do the same.1
First, write down everything that is stressing you out and make a list. I’m not a to-do list person, but it doesn’t look as scary or overwhelming as it may feel when I can see that stress in black and white on the page in front of me.
Next, think about your priorities in the five areas of life: health (physical and emotional), relationships (connection with others), finance, mission (personal and professional) and spirit (hobbies, adventure, fun). Are any of these on the list, and what are they? Maybe we’ve forgotten about them entirely, or perhaps they are masquerading as not urgent or important in light of the other shiny worries clamoring for our attention.
Then make a grid. Yes, I’m the math and data geek, but I won’t make you determine the slope of a line on this x-y axis. In the top left quadrant, write “urgent + important,” the top right quadrant write “not important + urgent, the bottom left is “not urgent + important,” and the bottom right is “not urgent + not important.”
You may recognize this as the Eisenhower matrix.2 President Eisenhower made this famous when deciding which items to tackle, which to delegate and which could just be ignored or removed from his plate. If not doing something adds stress to your life, then grab your calendar and schedule it three months from now. In ninety days, you’ll have a better perspective of if it’s necessary or if you can just not do it.
The goal here is to identify what is both urgent and important and do those items first. Friendly hint: Not everything is both urgent and important. So how do we determine what is really important?
Remember that exercise we just did with the five areas of life? Is it essential to one of those five areas and is it of high importance or low importance? Then for the items that are urgent but not important, can you delegate them?
Here’s where we get tripped up; we do the urgent items that are not important before we do the important projects that are not urgent. That’s where we experience the negative emotions because our brains know that we aren’t congruent or living in alignment with what we said was most important to us (our values).
A simple hack to trick our brains and get us back on track to experiencing more joy, happiness and confidence with less overwhelm and stress focuses on what is important but not urgent. Are there a few items that are easy that we can quickly close the loop on? Check the important boxes first and then the urgent ones. Just get something, anything, accomplished and off of your plate, then celebrate how good that feels. If we can get only one or two simple things moved forward, we are telling our brains a new story; “I am capable, I followed through with integrity on what I promised—I got this!”
With this new-found confidence, make a plan for those important projects that aren’t urgent. The ones that take hours, days or even weeks of uninterrupted time that we’ve been procrastinating on, because who has a three-hour block of uninterrupted time these days?
What are the three to five big pieces of the puzzle that will get this project moved forward to completion? Grab a clean sheet of paper and write those across the top. Under each one, write what the two or three needle-moving activities are; the bare minimum to get this piece of the project accomplished. Do you know how to do it? Have you done it before? Do you need to learn something? What can you do first?
Often, once we break those big projects down into smaller sections and subsections, they aren’t so big or overwhelming and we learn that it doesn’t have to be done in just one order. Can you knock off some of the more manageable parts and pieces to gain momentum and confidence towards the more complex or time-consuming details?
Make a plan. When are you going to do these needle-moving activities? Where do you have pockets of 5, 15 or 30 minutes to start to knock this off your plate?
We often don’t have the confidence when we don’t feel competent, which is why we talk about the confidence-competence loop in high performance and positive psychology. It’s a self-perpetuating or infinite loop. When you feel more competent or capable, you have more confidence so you can and will perform that next task with excellence. We need to practice those skillsets to become both more competent and confident.3
As veterinary professionals, we are smart, strategic people who can devise a plan and reasoning as to why something can’t be done that will be airtight. So, today, I’m challenging you to ask yourself, how can I do this? Where can I find the time?
Finally, go with the flow. Be grateful for all of your successes, wins, challenges and the times you were a hot mess but you showed up fully and did your very best to push yourself to learn and grow along the way. The more we celebrate the little wins and fully integrate those into our identities, the happier and more confident we will feel. Allow yourself to ride the wave of momentum you are creating by accomplishing these tasks.
That simple act of appreciating yourself for a job well done puts more points in the “win” column and tells your brain that you have the clarity around what’s important because you showed up and followed through. You are capable and competent, and therefore, you feel less overwhelmed and have more confidence in your abilities.
This is one tangible formula for how we can hack our brains and put the competence-confidence loop into action and convert that overwhelm into confidence. +
- Demaree, A. (2020, March 27). Quick Tips to Overcome COVID19 Overwhelm [Video blog post]. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://youtu.be/WNSm0ctEFcA
- Clear, J. (2020, June 09). How to be more productive by using the “eisenhower box”. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box
- Dehmer, J. J., Amos, K. D., Farrell, T. M., Meyer, A. A., Newton, W. P., & Meyers, M. O. (2013). Competence and confidence with basic procedural skills. Academic Medicine, 88(5), 682-687. doi:10.1097/acm.0b013e31828b0007