Breathe through the overwhelm

by | 10.02.2023 | General

I’ve just finished a coaching call with a project lead and their pmo.

Tasked with a huge project, they had been struggling to find a structure for the conceptual process of product development and the integration of all the stakeholder input. As with many such projects, their main focus was bound in that one critical success area. It left them with any number of alarm bells ringing in their belly because of a latent suspicion that they might have missed something in other project areas. Their stress levels were on high alert.

Looking at the overall project plan, it quickly became clear that the level of planning was too high. Sucked into the detailed discussions of the main project area, managing stakeholders and team alike, there had been no room to flesh out all the sub-projects. Until now.

The next step was obvious – brain dump everything for each of the sub-projects. Gather input from team members and colleagues about areas that were unknown. Identify those sub-projects that need immediate action or preparation. Identify sub-projects where their own alarm bells were on red alert. Identify milestones and deadlines per sub-project. Sequence actions in each of the sub-projects. Then put it all together and identify dependencies and constraints leading to adjustments in the previous planning. In short, do the steps to create an integrated project plan on an operational level.

I could see the overwhelm in their eyes. Oooph, soo much to do! So many things underneath the sub-projects. That list is going to explode like a watermelon, and it’s going to get ugly, fast! 

That’s when I asked them to breathe. And breathe some more during the brain dump. All kinds of negative beliefs and emotions can come up when we are faced with overwhelm.

“Why did I not do this sooner?”, “How could I let that happen?”, “I should have done this ages ago!”. If you’re not careful, these can soon turn into “I suck at my job”, “I knew I wasn’t good enough!” and similar self-limiting beliefs. Welcome to the negative spiral.

Instead, notice these thoughts and feelings as they show up. Give them a moment’s breath, to give them the attention they want, then kindly let them go. Breathe out. And move on with your task.

Treat it like a meditation exercise. Each thought just wants to be noticed, each feeling acknowledged. Then let it go. Get on with the task. 

Overwhelm has a way to put us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Look it in the eye. Stare it down if you have to. 

Breathe your way through it. Tell yourself “I can handle this”. I know you can.

What are your best strategies to deal with overwhelm? Let me know in the comments! And if you include breathing exercises in your corporate day job, let’s have coffee!