How to survive a stress tsunami
I hit pause on my blog a couple of months ago.
Life at work at work passed the insane barrier and I just cut back on any responsibilities or pressures that weren’t absolutely essential.
I work in libraries which probably brings up a lovely sedate image in your mind of stamping the odd book and drinking cups of tea. In reality, libraries are vibrant places where books are only a small part of what we offer (please visit your local library website for more information). Libraries have also had their budgets cut massively in the last few years and where I work we are handing over two-thirds of the libraries to volunteers. This means that in addition to my usual day-to-day work, I’ve been training volunteers, having meetings upon meetings as we work out how this will actually work in reality and line up the necessary paperwork (of which there is an ever-growing mountain), manage staff being made redundant out of the current structure, while creating timetables and managing new staff into the new structure. Oh and about a hundred other things on top.
I feel like I’m working three jobs simultaneously at the moment, while still being a mum to three young children and making sure I at least kiss my other half goodnight and try and exchange the odd conversation with him.
At times it has felt like I’m frantically swimming just in front of a massive stress tsunami wave of urgent jobs and responsibilities just waiting to crash on top of me and swallow me whole. Everything seems urgent and important and needs to be done right now if not yesterday, and there’s only time to do a fraction of it. Have you ever felt like that?
But we’re planners. That’s why you’re here after all. So what do you do to survive a stress tsunami?
Step 1. Breathe
Seriously, take a deep breath in, and out. Then another one. Steady yourself and then reach for your planner and a pen. No matter how pushed for time you feel you must carve out at least ten minutes and plan.
Step 2: Decompress your brain
Write everything you need to do down. This could be in your planner, a notebook, a bit of scrap paper if needed. But just get it out of your head and onto something. Don’t worry about putting it in any kind of order just write it all out as quickly as possible. If you do need to organise things into categories it could be useful to use post-it notes (see Carie Harlings excellent Brain Dump video here)
Step 3: Organise
Grab a pad of paper and write today on it.
What needs to be done immediately? Be strict with yourself, what absolutely, positively cannot wait one more day. That goes on your today list.
What needs to be done within the next week? Again be strict, what absolutely, positively has to be done in the next 7 days
Step 4: Delegate
Okay, so the things on the list HAVE to be done, but are you the best person for the job? Can anyone help? Some of the things on your list may have been hurled at you by someone who just didn’t want the job on their to-do list. Don’t be that person to someone else. If you are going to ask someone else to do something you need to be sure of one of two things, either they are more qualified to do the job than you, or they are a dear friend who would love to help out and has the skills to do so. Do not start wildly flinging jobs at anyone and everyone in a mad panic. No one will thank you and you will just be making more work for yourself in the long run. Oh and losing friends.
Step 5: Shut the door on more to do’s
Be clear with people who are asking you to do things that you have a lot on your plate at the moment and you cannot take on any more right now (this is true for both adults and children). Or if it has to go on the list it will be done when you have the time.
I took a serious restock of what had to be done and when at the beginning of this month (March) and then I wrote an out of office message on my email for the next time I had two consecutive hours in the office.
Thank you for your email.
I am frequently out of the office in meetings and training volunteers until Monday 27th March and while I will be regularly checking my emails there will be a delay in responding to any enquiries. If you need a response quickly please contact our admin team on ______ and they will put you in touch with someone who can help you.
Just to be clear when I wrote that message the 27th March was in three weeks time. I told you things were INSANE.
At that point I was still frantically swimming in front of the tsunami wave, was barely in the office due to training sessions and meetings and over 200 emails a week were landing in my inbox. Some of the emails were people chasing me up on emails they had sent earlier that I hadn’t managed to read yet because of all the emails constantly arriving in my inbox. Others were people chasing me up for answers the second they knew I was back in the office,answers I didn’t have yet because I hadn’t had a chance to read their email containing the question.
That’s why I chose a date based on when I had more than two hours in the office. It managed people’s expectations and gave me room to actually do some work in. I also began culling anything not immediately urgent from my to-do list.
I began turning down meetings or suggesting they be held in April unless they were absolutely urgent, and a few of the urgent things I asked other people to attend in my stead or made sure I would be sent the minutes. I stopped rescheduling things into my office time because that time was needed and urgent so that I could actually get things done. I am normally that kind of person who is very accommodating and will always make time for people. It took a little bit of time for the message to get through that this was non-negotiable.
I had no more time available.
Anything that could be rescheduled already had been. The vast majority of people were very understanding about this. To be honest the person this was most difficult to get this through to was me. Really I should have should the door weeks before.
Step 6: Make time for you
As the saying goes you can’t keep pouring from an empty jug, you have to give yourself some downtime to top yourself up. Making time for yourself to relax will make you far more productive in the long run than running yourself into the ground.
I realised I was feeling behind on listening to podcasts, on my reading list, keeping up with my blog. Which is ridiculous because they are all things I do for enjoyment, they should not be adding to the stress. I gave myself a pass and told myself anything that used my brain and wasn’t strictly related to work was off the list until April, possibly May. Bizarrely this is one of the things I found made the biggest difference. Home time was now time my brain could actually rest. I made time to journal and I found this really helped to decrease the pressure in my head. I mean that literally, I was getting headaches caused by stress and actually writing things down and getting them off my mind relieved the pressure.
What happened next…
The emails stopped gushing into my inbox and slowed down to a trickle. People began to only get in touch with me about things that were urgent. Usually by phone.
I began chanting two mantras to myself:
- Done is better than perfect – if you only have 15 minutes to spend on a job, spend 15 minutes and send it in. I had to create staff timetables for a completely new team, in a new way of working, for three separate locations, ideally, I would have had at least three hours locked in an office away from any interruptions. I only had an hour. So I spent an hour on it and sent it to my boss explaining that it was a draft and I would be able to work on it further next week. Any feedback she had before then would be greatly appreciated. One job crossed off the list and I went on to my next meeting.
- Even if everything goes completely wrong it is all fixable – I’ve been saying this a lot over the last week as the deadline for the handover is imminent. Actually, as I write this it’s three days away…
At the end of the day, you can only do your best with what you have. It’s a slightly more negative spin on the first mantra really. Basically, both of them have the same idea at the core.
Do your best with what you have now.
By now you should at least feel like you’re in a lifeboat if not in a safe harbour. Maybe a bit soggy around the edges but at least you’ve survived.
How have you dealt with a stress tsunami before? What please share any tips you have in the comments below.
Or are you in the midst of one right now? If you are I wish you all the luck in the world, carve out that 10 minutes to plan right now. Give yourself the room to catch your breath, take a step back and quickly take a look at the bigger picture as it will make it so much easier to work out what is really urgent and important rather than who is making the biggest noise.