Managing Overwhelm: Part 1 Inside-Out

Overwhelm is a feeling many of my clients experience – when it is the end of the year, when they take on new, bigger jobs, or anytime when requests, deliverables and emails never stop. 

What is Overwhelm?

Many admit that overwhelm can feel like it’s hard to breathe deeply, their minds are buzzing, they feel uneasy and anxious, and there is more to do than they think they can get done. 

When leaders are overwhelmed they are often putting – as they say on airplanes – the oxygen mask on others without putting it on themselves, wondering why they are not operating at their full potential (and feeling unhappy, frustrated or resentful).

The word itself comes from the old english word whelmen “to turn upside down, to submerge completely. The connecting notion is a boat, washed over by a big wave.” “Bring to ruin” is also mentioned in conjunction with this word! 

Most leaders start coaching by saying they want to become inspiring, strategic leaders, increase their executive presence, transform the performance of their teams, make a bigger impact, build their confidence and significantly increase their ability to influence, communicate, delegate, etc. 

Before you can take on any of these leadership objectives, you need to start with the basics that help or hinder you from being your best self. 

First, you must start by putting the oxygen mask on yourself.

How Overwhelm Occurs in Leaders

Almost no one starts coaching by saying their objective is to reduce overwhelm. And yet, invariably in the first conversation, they talk about their calendars having no white space, their inability to keep up with requests despite continuously working late and on weekends, losing their cool, having little time to think, focus, or operate strategically. 

A lack of “oxygen” occurs when you are not operating as your best self.  

You don’t feel PRESENT, you don’t have time to THINK, you do not operate STRATEGICALLY. 

In short, you are managing to get by vs. operating as an inspiring leader.

To be inspiring, you need to be able to focus on what matters most and have the impact you want to have. To do this, you must first put the “oxygen mask” on yourself. 

Start with yourself first – the inside-out approach. Then you can then move to the outside-in approach, which we will cover in the next post.

Identify the Practices of Your Oxygen Mask

In my BOLD leadership work, leaders assess where they are gaining or losing the most “oxygen” (by identifying what creates or depletes energy) in order to identify the specific areas on which to focus. Below is a high-level summary of the five areas in the assessment: 

  1. BODY = how well our body is functioning: sleep, exercise, food/drink, etc.
  2. EMOTION = quality of our feeling state: levels of irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, impatience, calm, present, etc. 
  3. MIND = our ability to focus on one thing and be present, reflective, creative, strategic, etc.
  4. RENEW/SPIRIT = the extent to which what you are doing aligns with what matters most, your renewal practices, your ability to be proactive vs reactive, decisions being guided by yourself vs. by others. (One practice I hear is often needed is saying no or renegotiating commitments. Today I heard ”listening to techno music” as a renewal practice – you choose!)
  5. SOCIAL = time and connection with friends, loved ones, belonging needs getting met, etc.

Bonus: look for practices that go across two or more categories, they do not have to be separate. You can weave them together to maximize and leverage your time and energy.

Last weekend I went for a long walk (body) with my dogs in the woods (renew). My husband came for the first hour, and I connected with a friend after he left (social). I solved a work problem (mind) and felt peaceful by the end of the walk (emotion). 

The more you are able to weave these practices together in your day-to-day life, you will be able to realize your (strategic and operational) objectives while maintaining your best sense of self.

While I love sending and receiving holiday cards, I decided with my family not to send them this year given everything else we have going on. The “price” of sending them (lack of sleep, skipping yoga class, feeling less environmentally conscious) did not net out this year. Instead, I sent lovely gifts that support two social enterprises I believe in to my closest friends and team members. Win-win!

How to Put the Mask On

  1. Identify key practice/s. You don’t need to pick something in each; these are general ideas to help you reflect on what fills you up to be your best self (though at least one in each is optimal).
  2. Start small. I call small adjustments the “10% rule.” Get 10% more sleep, drink 10% less alcohol, exercise 10% more, etc. See what makes the most difference. For me, I know sleep, movement and food/drink are the big ones that make or break my effectiveness on a daily basis.
  3. Share your commitment with someone else. Research shows the highest likelihood of success is sharing your intentions with someone else (spouse, coach, peer, etc). Ideally they will pick 1-2 areas to start, as well! I have a client who has a running buddy and they go at 9pm! 

Ask yourself:

What needs to shift to give me the most amount of energy and reduce my overwhelm?

This may seem like the worst time of year to focus on yourself. It’s in fact the best time to start. You will find one or two small practices can have the ability to make a big difference at a typically-crazy time of year. 

My next article will build on this idea further by linking managing overwhelm inside-out to managing overwhelm from the outside-in. I also call this “right sizing your leader-ship” so stay tuned!

If you would like to have a conversation about how to manage your overwhelm, or share what you got from this article, I would love to hear from you.

Yours in practice,


If you are interested in exploring whether we are a good fit to help you and your organization, contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.

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