Feeling Overwhelmed?


Here are 8 ways you might be contributing to this problem!

A serious but largely overlooked problem in philanthropy is feeling overwhelmed. As odd as it seems, overwhelm often comes more from our minds than from the physical world. That is, we may indeed have a boatload of tasks to take care of, but how we view our situation has a lot to do with whether we feel helplessly overwhelmed or appropriately busy. Our thoughts tip the boat in one direction or the other.

Here are eight ways you might unintentionally contribute to a feeling of overwhelm:

1. You wear it like a badge of honor. When asked how you are, how often do you respond, “I’m busy”? I’m guessing fairly often. I’m guilty of this, too. In fact, you might even boast about how busy you are. It might be your upcoming board meeting, the virtual gala you are planning, or juggling work and kids during COVID.

But being busy and feeling overwhelmed is not a badge of honor. Your booked schedule is not proof of your importance. It’s probably proof of your exhaustion! In fact, keeping busy might be a form of procrastination. Instead of stuffing our calendars, we need to create more unstructured time to relax, think, and do nothing. In fact, studies show that periods of being idle makes us more creative and better at problem solving.

The “busy brag” is also contagious and can negatively impact organizational cultures. Netflix and Virgin Group have begun combating this by offering employees unlimited vacation time. Not only does this help them attract top talent, it neutralizes a culture of “busy bragging” even as employees are still held accountable for results. Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap, offers this practical advice: “Take the ‘busy’ badge, throw it in the trash, and replace it with one that says, ‘rested.’”

2. You set unrealistic expectations. One way we do this is to set up a series of tight deadlines with no real plan for meeting them. Another example is scheduling relentless back-to-back meetings, with no time to think or follow up on what we agreed to do. A colleague told me his foundation has a culture of double-booking meetings: For example, you might schedule an hour-long meeting with a colleague to discuss an important matter, only to discover that you actually have just 10 minutes because she booked another meeting at the same time. Think of how much overwhelm that practice is causing!

3. You don’t have a strategy, much less a plan. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you don’t know what you are trying to do and you don’t have a plan. You end up engaging in lots of disconnected activities. You get pulled in different directions and jump on too many charitable bandwagons. As a result, you feel overwhelmed by a growing list of obligations, and you get frustrated that you aren’t making headway on any of them. You need a strategy to help you prioritize which tasks to do when—and which to ignore, at least temporarily.

4. You don’t have systems in place. Perhaps you don’t use basic systems and processes to help you conduct your work. As a result, you’re frequently late and overwhelmed while completing routine activities. The systems you need might be simple, such as clearing your email inbox each day, or complex, such as installing a new grants management system.

One family foundation trustee described the chaos her family experienced without a grantmaking process. The board had no process or schedule for reviewing proposals or approving grants. This was intentional, because they thought the lack of a grantmaking system would allow them to be nimble and make quick decisions. In fact, the opposite was true. “We were all over the place. . . . As proposals rolled in, we had to drop what we were doing and respond. We felt like we were being really responsive. But really, we were just disorganized. On one hand we’d say we needed to hurry, but then we’d reschedule board meetings, and funding decisions got postponed for six months.”

5. You don’t invest in technology that could help you. There are myriad ways that investments in technology make us faster, more effective, and less exhausted grantmakers. This might include online grant applications, employee volunteer systems, and giving platforms. Technology investments can also help our grantees to scale up their solutions.

For example, Business of Good Foundation (Ohio) supports mentoring to help first-generation, low-income college students persist to college graduation. It does this by supporting America Mentors, which uses MentorcliQ technology on a smartphone or tablet to match students with mentors and enable guided interactions between these pairs, fostering strong relationships through timely and relevant conversations. All for free. The outcome? More than 3,000 students have been mentored and graduation rates increased from 8% in 2011 to 80% in 2017. The foundation hopes there will be a time when all first-generation college students have mentors.

6. You don’t invest in people who can help you. You don’t need to go it alone. There are plenty of people with expertise who can help you—you just need to engage them. Who am I talking about? Virtual administrative assistants, speech writers, communications experts, family offices, strategic advisors, and event planners. Employees who could handle work you don’t have the time or expertise to do. I’m also talking about people who can handle nonwork- related tasks for you, such as mowing your lawn, cleaning your apartment, and preparing your taxes.

Why invest in outside help? I can think of at least three reasons:

First, you will free up your time and brainpower to do what you are best at. If you’re best at engaging employees in meaningful volunteer opportunities, why would you spend your time on data entry?

Second, you can always improve. Why be good when you can be great? Why be great when you can be fabulous? A trusted advisor can help you prioritize your goals and hold you accountable for meeting them.

Third, when you invest in people who are smarter and better at an activity than you are, you might find that the quality of your organization’s work improves dramatically. After all, if you have an entire group of people attacking projects from their own individual strengths, things start getting done quickly.

7. You don’t take care of yourself. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you run yourself ragged. We often forget how much our physical, mental, and spiritual health contributes to our success. Does any of this sound familiar? Lack of sleep, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, and not enough time spent with the ones you care most about—family, friends, pets, and yourself. Not to mention that this can contribute to serious problems such as diabetes and depression. The conventional wisdom is true: You can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.

8. You believe feeling overwhelmed is normal. You’ve felt so harried for so long that you’ve come to expect it. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel calm and on top of things. In fact, you wonder whether you ever felt this way. If you’ve gotten to this point, you need an intervention—and quickly! This is especially challenging and insidious when those around you are suffering the same problem. When your colleagues, family members, and friends constantly describe being behind, busy, and stressed, you feel pressured to feel the same way.

What amazes me about the list above is that everything on it is usually within our power to change—or at least influence. In many ways, we enable and facilitate our own feelings of overwhelm.

Of course, overwhelm is also triggered and exacerbated by experiences and traumas beyond our control. You might live in a community experiencing a natural disaster or violence, experience racism or homophobia, have a serious health problem, or have lost a loved one. We are also still dealing with and responding to the ongoing pandemic that touches every funder’s mission, strategy, geography and focus area.  There are a lot of real-world factors that can overwhelm us, whether they come from our workplace, community, national politics, or personal identity and experience. When oppression, physical health problems, mental health concerns, and similar major life issues are involved, it is important to take action.

Counseling, support groups, religion, peer groups, and family can be powerful sources of strength. So too can volunteering, community organizing, and participating in social change activities to eradicate the situations that cause these types of traumas.

Sometimes the contributors to overwhelm are powerful and constant. Other times they are more subtle. Regardless, they all have an effect. Although we might not be able to remove some of these at their source, we can at least try to mitigate them.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, let’s talk. Schedule a call with me and I can help you identify what’s causing you to feel overwhelmed. Together we can create an action plan of the most important things for you to focus on, and also what you can stop doing. The work you are doing is too important and I’d be honored to help. Schedule a call today!

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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