How To Avoid Overwhelm and Manage Anxiety
How To Avoid Overwhelm – Don’t Take Their Monkey!


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

‘HOW to avoid overwhelm and manage anxiety’ is one of the topics that many of my clients choose to work on during a coaching session. They have never-ending ‘to-do’ lists at work and at home. They are racing against time, trying to juggle work tasks, personal errands and other family obligations. They feel like life is spiralling out of control and this frightens them. They feel exhausted and anxious all the time. They have no time for self-care or to work on their personal goals (that’s the most frequent reason given by clients for not doing the coaching homework that they had agreed to do). This is overwhelm.

Metaphors that I have heard clients use to describe ‘overwhelm’: ‘there is too much on my plate and things are falling off’, ‘I can’t breathe!’, ‘I am furiously treading water and trying to stay afloat’. Sounds familiar? I have been there, and know what it is like. My metaphor for ‘overwhelm’ is ‘I am running on a treadmill that keeps going faster! I felt exhausted, frustrated and helpless. If you are also experiencing overwhelm, what metaphor describes your situation?

When I ask my overwhelmed clients what would they like to take away from our coaching session, they often say: “I suck at time management and I want to manage my time better” or “I want to figure out how to manage my anxiety’. Most of us think that it is that we lack good time-management skills. What I have learnt about avoiding overwhelm from my clients is this – it has less to do with ‘time-management’ and more to do with ‘self-management’.

All of us have the same amount of time a day which is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or 168 hours a week. There is no ‘more time’ for any of us. The size of our plate is the same – no matter how you re-arrange the stuff that is on the plate, we are not going to have more space on the plate. The only way to prevent stuff from falling off the plate is to (1) remove stuff from the plate and/or (2) prevent stuff from getting onto the plate. This is about us saying ‘NO’ to stuff that isn’t our stuff.

Avoid Overwhelm Tip 1: “Say No To Other People’s Stuff!”

When my clients start to reflect on their busy-ness, they notice that a large part of their ‘to-do’ lists comprises of stuff that belong to others. They have been ‘taking someone else’s monkey’! What do I mean by ‘taking someone’s monkey’? It is doing other people’s stuff that is not your responsibility.

For example, they find themselves editing or re-doing the work of their direct reports instead of giving feedback and getting their direct reports to do the work because this approach seems to get the job completed faster. When managers do something like that, they are taking someone else’s monkey because it is the responsibility of their direct reports’ to get the work done properly. By doing the work for his direct reports, the manager is depriving himself an opportunity to coach them, and depriving his direct reports an opportunity to learn how to do their job properly. If you are a new manager and would like to know more about giving constructive feedback to your co-workers, manage anxiety and overwhelm in a workplace, check out my fellow coach, Emilia’s blog over at Daring Leadership.

Other ways my clients have noticed themselves ‘taking other people’s monkey’ is doing stuff for family and friends that is not their responsibility. One of them noticed that she spent a great deal of time acting as a mediator whenever her parents got into a spat – which is very often. She started asking herself if it was really her responsibility to be a mediator for her parents. Some find themselves picking up after their spouse and children at home, or shouldering the entire responsibility of running the household without delegating those responsibilities to other family members.

Besides doing things for our family and friends, we could also end up taking on their emotions – we worry for them, we get upset on their behalf, we want to make them happy when they are sad or lonely. You get the picture. It is exhausting to take on other people’s emotions, and we may do so without realising that this adds to our feelings of overwhelm.

When it comes to our loved ones and friends, the lines around ‘what belongs to them and what belongs to me’ could get really blurry because some of us believe that doing stuff for our family and friends is how we show love, that we care. And we may forget to draw a line. The consequence is that we keep doing other people’s stuff, and not our own stuff. Our lives start to revolve around other people’s agenda and stuff keeps piling up. If you say Yes to other people’s monkey, they are going to keep giving their monkey to you. Why wouldn’t they?

Yes, we might think it is important to be helpful (well, that’s a belief that needs to be examined), but NOT at the expense of your own time, energy and goals. There are other ways you could offer help that do not involve you jumping in to do the work for them.

When you say ‘YES’ all the time to others, you are saying ‘NO’ to yourself. One of the ways to avoid overwhelm is to stop taking on stuff that is not your responsibility. It is not always possible to do so, especially if it’s your boss who is delegating out his or her monkeys. If he is responsible for your salary, increments and bonus, then it might be necessary for you to be taking those monkeys. Before you say ‘Yes’ to someone who is asking you to do something, just check in with yourself to see if it is your responsibility to do so. Awareness is the starting point.

Avoid Overwhelm Tip 2: Self-Reflection

If you want to avoid overwhelm, take a pause and examine your ‘to-do’ lists and activities. Where have you been ‘taking on other people’s monkey’? Who has been giving you their monkey? What do you get by saying YES to other people’s stuff? What will happen when you start saying NO to other people’s stuff?

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If you are curious to know how working with a coach can help you avoid overwhelm, please contact me here or email me at maggiesim@holdingspace.sg.

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