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Melissa Shanahan

#154: Break the Overwhelm Cycle

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How often do you find yourself in the mental pickle of overwhelm? Are you filled with dread on Sundays thinking about the week ahead? Does it simply feel impossible to stay on track and get everything on your to-do list or calendar checked off?

Overwhelm is a very real feeling that keeps us swirling in negative thoughts about how there’s too much to do and we’re definitely not going to be able to get it all done. We all experience moments of crippling overwhelm, but if you’re ready to stop running into the next weeks or months ahead cramming, spread too thin, and consumed by dread and defeat, listen in.

There are basic, fundamental principles that will not only prevent overwhelm but allow the experience to be a valuable teacher, and that’s exactly what Melissa had to implement recently in her own life. On this episode, she’s diving into how we create the feeling of overwhelm, and her step-by-step process for breaking the habit of living in a state of overwhelm so you can purposefully show up as the CEO and law firm owner you want to be.

Show Notes:

What You’ll Discover:

Melissa’s recent experience of feeling overwhelmed.

What creates the feeling of overwhelm.

How to get objective about what’s really on your plate.

The quickest way to burn yourself out.

Melissa’s step-by-step process for overcoming overwhelm.

The alternative to creating an impossible plan that leads to overwhelm.

Featured on the Show:

Create space, mindset, and concrete plans for growth. Start here: Velocity Work Monday Map.

Join Mastery Group

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Full Episode Transcript:

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I'm Melissa Shanahan, and this is the Velocity Work podcast, Episode #154. This podcast is for attorneys who are running their own firms. We explore tactics, tools, and stories related to pushing past simply lawyering well and into building a successful firm. Working in your firm and working on your business are two very different things. This podcast focuses on the latter.

Hey everyone! Welcome to this week's episode. So glad you're here. We're talking about overwhelm today. Quickly, before we get into the topic for today, I want to let you know that Mastery Group enrollment window is open right now. This is the way I work with law firm owners. This program is quarterly strategic planning, facilitated.

You get sent a workbook, we guide the whole thing, you have a really strong community, and then after the retreat you have office hours, you can get additional help, and then we have coaching, accountability, and support on a week by cadence inside of Mastery Group until the next strategic planning retreat. If this sounds interesting to you, go to velocitywork.com/join and get yourself enrolled. Let’s get you all geared up and prepared for the upcoming strategic planning retreat for Q3.

And if you're listening to this way in the future, you can still go to that URL, get yourself on the wait list, and then you'll be notified when the next enrollment window opens. For this round, the enrollment closes at the end of May, but the sooner you get in, the sooner you can get acquainted with me and the member area and the resources and our incredible community.

Let's talk about overwhelm today, shall we?  Oh, you guys, I have a bit of a story to share with you, and I'm sharing this because all of the stuff that I share with you here on this podcast that I talk to clients about, and members about, all the facilitation that I do, it's curated to deliver the very best that I've ever learned, that I've ever experienced.

So in my 14 years as a certified coach, I have two different certifications I've worked for a consulting firm for a handful of years doing this exact same work with private practice owners, and then now we have Velocity Work, which is four years old. I have accumulated quite a bit, quite a library of tools and tactics and principles and frameworks and methods from a variety of very smart, very wise people. Some of them are famous and we all know of them, some of them were just people I've met along the way in my career, and I studied them, and I listened, and I document.

I have notebooks full of when I was working at the consulting firm from things that I learned from the CEO of the company and team members and from clients I would go visit, just realizations I've had because of their influence and their help. And I'm saying all this for two reasons.

Number one: Despite the fact that I have all of this under my belt and this is my whole world, it is still very hard to apply in moments.

The second thing that really struck me, and that I wanted to be sure to say here on this podcast, is: Even though it was really hard, the truth is, this stuff works. The tactics, the tools, the principles that I do teach, and I do share, it's worth it no matter how hard it is in the moment to apply.

All right, so here's what happened. I took the last two weeks of April off. I had been planning that for a long time. I used some of it for vacation, I used some of it for big picture thinking for the company. And I did a good job with it, but as I crept closer to my start date back to work, I was experiencing dread. The dread started probably Wednesday, and it got more intense on Thursday, and Friday came, and it was more intense, and I was just being with the dread.

I was noticing it, but in my head, I was thinking, "Well, suck it up, sister. You’ve got to go back to work, right?" And I was trying to figure out, "Why am I having this feeling?" So I was curious about it, but I didn't really sit down, dig in, figure out what was going on here, and it kept ramping as we got closer.

I don't know if you guys have heard about the Sunday Scaries. People talk about that when they don't really want to go back to their job, and they have all this anxiety about Monday, so they call it the Sunday Scaries. I haven't felt the Sunday Scaries in a very long time. And I had them, but the Sunday Scaries started on, like Wednesday the week before.

Each day that went by, my anxiety was ramping, and I was getting more tightly wound and more tightly wound and darker. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was stressed. Very, very stressed. My body, I could feel the stress.

Now, I have stressful moments, I have stress, but this was an unhealthy level of stress that I hadn't experienced in a long time. And I couldn't be present with my family because it was all consuming. It was just there. Even if I could have distracted myself, it was almost like this dark cloud just hanging out with me, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of work that I was getting ready to walk back into and having lots of thoughts about the work that I was getting ready to walk back into.

My gears were cranking so hard and loud in my mind. Not with any particular, it's not like I had certain sentences in my mind, it was just cranking. My head was cranking. It was an undercurrent. Everything. So much so that when I went for a walk on Sunday, I started listening to a podcast, I couldn't even listen to the podcast, I had to switch it. I thought "Oh, maybe that podcast isn't interesting enough," I switched the podcast.

Nope. The next one, it was, like, grating. The noise of the podcast was just grating. It was too much input for my brain; I already had a lot going on in my brain. I had no space for an input. Okay, so we walked in silence, that's what we will do, which I actually enjoy often. Walked in silence, and the silence and just letting me be with my brain in silence by myself on a walk, I just got really emotional.

About a mile in, I had to sit down on a bench, and just let it all out because it had just built up. And once I did that, then I could kind of clear myself a little bit and think, "All right, what are we doing here?  What are we doing here?  I refuse to live this way. I refuse to run a company this way. I refuse to be the kind of wife and mom that is consumed by overwhelm."

So I sat compassionately with myself on the bench for a few minutes and just collected myself, took a deep breath, reminded myself that I've got my own back, that we're going to figure this out, we are not just going to go running into the week, and running into the next month, just spread thin and scheduling beyond work hours, et cetera. That's not what we're doing here.

“Take a deep breath, I've got your back, we're going to figure this out.” So I asked myself, "What exactly is the problem?" And my brain answered back, "There is way too much to do. And it's definitely not going to get done." There were lots of other accompanying thoughts like, "You're going to be a shell of yourself. You think you're not present now with your family, just wait, you're really not going to be present over the course of the next month. You wanted to do this health challenge. You think you have time for a health challenge?  You've got all this on your plate."

So there was all those kinds of swirling thoughts. But the main underlying thought was, “There is way too much to do, and there's not enough time to do it all.”

Now, I know that any time there's subjectivity, you have to cut through it and get as objective as possible. So, "Way too much to do," what does that mean? Like, what is "to do"?  How much is that? Can we quantify this? So immediately, I pulled out my phone, and in my Notes app, sitting on the bench, pulled out the Notes app and thought, "Okay, what are all the things that I need to get done?"

I made a list of all the projects that I needed to get done, that were top of mind for me, that were creating a lot of stress and swirling in my mind, I got them out of my head and documented them. And from there, looking at them, yeah, that is a lot, okay, but still, you're having an opinion about what is in front of you. Make it math. Get as objective as possible.

So I broke down each of those projects into the main steps that I can think of that I'm going to have to do in order for that project to be pushed through. Made a list of those for each of the projects.

Then I went back, and next to each of those, I put the amount of time that I was going to need in order to complete that step of the project. So I did that all the way down the list. By the end of it, turns out, and these are all new initiative kind of stuff, not my normal work recurring stuff. It was 28 plus hours of work.

So then, I looked at my calendar, and I counted up the free space on my calendar, and there wasn't 28 hours of free space between now and May 15th. Okay, so you were right, there is technically too much that needs to get done versus the available time that you have on your calendar. Okay, so now what?  

This is where you get to make decisions. And I chose, and it took me a bit to get there mentally, but ultimately, just to cut out the boring part of the story, ultimately, I got to the place where I pushed off, I delayed two of the projects. I pushed one to August, and I pushed the other to October. And this is the way this is going to go. I'm getting these off of my plate; this does not need to be done by the deadline we had originally stated.

And then I went back and looked at the calendar and could see, "Do I have, now does this fit the remaining, does it fit into the time I have available into the calendar?" And so the answer was yes, I did need to do some finagling, I needed to delegate harder some things, but yes, the answer was yes. So I closed my phone and I kept walking. That probably took me entirely 20 minutes sitting there. And I would have preferred to do it paper and pen, but I didn't have that when I needed to do what I needed to do.

So I kept walking and was just reflecting, thinking. I felt so much lighter as I was walking. I felt a sense of light, not in terms of weight, but like there was light, there was hope in what I was going to be able to accomplish with work. And I could see a path forward that I would be really proud of because I was going to work really hard, right? But not commit myself to something that's unrealistic.

I don't do that typically because I practice Monday Map/Friday Wrap, but because I've been on vacation for two weeks, and I just underestimated, I didn't plan well enough for post vacation, knowing what was going down the pipe, and that was a mistake. This is what happens when we don't plan very well. I got myself into a bit of a freaking mental pickle because I didn't plan very well. If I would have planned better, I wouldn't have found myself here, because I wouldn't have had unrealistic expectations of myself.

There are times when we are planning out what we're going to do week to week, and we were wrong about the estimates that we had, but that's a different feeling than overscheduling yourself, knowing that it's impossible, and you do it anyway. You just assume all of it, and you go towards all of it, and it will burn you out faster than anything else.

And you know what's funny? I had done my map for the next week, so I had some time to focus on some of the things that were stressing me out. But when I would think ahead to a month out, the things that needed to be done, I did not see a way for them to get done. There was this sense of dread and overwhelm that I needed to actually schedule a lot more time this week that I was coming back if I wanted to be on track for getting it done. I just didn't map it properly and far enough out.

Overwhelm is a very real feeling that sucks, depending on the severity of the overwhelm that you're feeling. But we create overwhelm. There are very basic fundamental principles that will prevent overwhelm. But when overwhelm does happen, using it as a teacher so that we can plug back into the principles that will prevent it, is exactly the way to go. That is what I had to do just recently.

You know, it's hard to convey here without being overly dramatic about how severe that was for me. I was not in a good way. I didn't want to go back to work. I wanted to go crawl in bed, and not go to work. I didn't want to face the work. It felt like there was just so much that I just didn't know where to start, and my calendar was already packed because it had been planned out, yet I knew deep down it wasn't enough to be able to get us to the finish line with these projects, so my instinct was to go hide in a hole and stay there.

But you can't do that, so there's this dissonance, and it creates dread. So the overwhelm and dread that I was feeling was extremely intense. The most intense I've felt in a very, very long time, if not ever, and I did it to myself because it was all in my brain. It was all how I approach things from a mindset perspective, and with the decisions that I make around work.

For any of you listening to this that know that feeling, even if it's not as severe as I'm describing right now, but you know that feeling, I want to share with you, in order, the principles, the things to do when you're feeling that, even though you're not going to feel like it. You are not going to feel like doing what I'm getting ready to tell you to do. But the truth is, like I said at the beginning, you should do it anyway.

Because it's really the only way to get to the other side mentally, to lift the weight off of you, to be able to breathe a little easier, to do things in a way that does have your own back; it's not leaving you in the dust, it's the sustainable move to make.

So here's the steps that I went through in that scenario, though not smooth and not pretty, this is what, when I dissected that scenario, and what actually it took to get me to a better feeling place, these are the steps that I teach, that I actually did. Super proud of myself. When I just did not feel like doing it, didn't see a way forward, none of that, I did the stuff anyway.

All right. The first thing: This is just a stance, generally, that you should have, and if you have it, it's going to be easier to call on it in these moments that are really hard. The first thing is: Have your own back. Do not abandon yourself no matter what. Anytime, that's a no. You don't leave yourself in the dust, you have your own back. This is something I practice.

My tendency is to be extremely hard on myself, and this practice has been really useful. I always have my own back, no matter what. No matter how bad I mess up or screw something up or was wrong about something, or kind of thought I shouldn't do this thing and I did it anyway, I always have my own back. I do not abandon myself. I practice that. I'm not perfect at it, but I practice it.

Now, if you'll notice, I had a handful of days before I finally got to do the things that I needed to do, and in those days, truthfully, I didn't have my own back. I did kind of abandon myself, just keep trying to shove down the overwhelm, and "You're going to go do it anyway, this is your job, this is what's required, you're going to go crush it."

That was not the right attitude to have because essentially, what that means is you're sending yourself into battle. That's what it feels like inside, even though that's not real, you're sending yourself into battle and, like, "Hope you do all right, come back home alive, all right?" It's just like you're going at it. That is not having your own back.

So the remaining steps are signals that you do have your own back, but the first and foremost is just that principle and having that understanding and how important that is. With that as a background, this is how we roll, maybe not perfectly, but this is how we roll. Then in moments like this where you feel crippled with overwhelm; you have to just stop.

When I say stop, I mean pencils down. Sit back in your chair, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and take a moment. You have to stop. Because creating that pause will actually allow you to have a more productive conversation with yourself in order to turn the corner so that you can move forward in a way that serves you and others. So you have to stop everything and take a breath.

And, knowing in that pause there's intention, you're about to switch your focus to help yourself, you're not going to dive back into things. You're not going to look at e mail again, no, no, no. This is first and foremost. Move away, back away from what you're doing, pencils down, go for a walk if you need to, go to the bathroom, and look at yourself in the mirror, if you don't need that just sit at your desk and lean back in your chair and just take a minute, and you're going to acknowledge that you're going to regroup.

Once you have done that, the next thing to ask yourself is, "What is the problem here?" And whatever comes to mind, you write that down. What is the problem? And so it may be something like what I gave you, "There's just too much to do in too little time." And that's what you're all spun up about.

Once you answer the question of what the problem is, dissect it. Because invariably, there will be vague, subjective language in there that truly is dramatic. It's what your brain is serving up to you. So there's going to be dramatic, vague, opinion kind of language, and that needs to be interpreted to be literal, specifically what is the problem here, not generally what is the problem.

So you keep getting more factual, more factual, more factual, and then you'll be getting some things that you can actually work with and solve for. In my case, my version of doing that, you know, I was asking what's the problem, I have way too much to do and not enough time to do it, what exactly do you have to do? What is the "way too much?" What exactly? List it out.

And that's where I pulled out my phone, and I started doing a brain dump of all the things that were swimming and swirling in my mind that were contributing to this feeling of "There's way too many things." So that's the next step is to do a download. You have to get out of your head and onto paper all the things that feel like a mess, that are creating the mess. Once you get it on paper, it's much less of a mess. You can move things around and work with it once it's on paper or documented.

And once you've done that, you need to think a little bit deeper about each of the things. So if you have several things, just start with the one at the top of the list, and think through, "What am I going to need to make that better, or to get that done?"

So in my instance, it was a bunch of big work projects, but in yours, maybe it's a team member who is upset and has become disengaged, which is causing problems. Maybe it's a client that you know you need to deal with something that you really don't want to deal with with the client. So it could be anything. Whatever it is, once you get it out of your head and onto paper, you have to answer what needs to be done in order for this to be solved.

And then you start listing out the things. And break it down as far as you can. Because the more you break it down, the easier it is to see what actually is going to be required of you. And so as you break things down, once you have things broken down, then go put the amount of time next to each one of those things that you're going to need to give yourself in order to get that done.

Now, if it's something to be delegated, just put a symbol next to it so that you don't need to put an amount of time next to it, it's not for you, it's four someone else, but all the things you need to do, put an amount of time next to. Now you are getting closer to making it math. The more you can make something math, the less emotional it is and the less subjective it is, and then you can work with it.

It's like a puzzle. Once you can get it closer to math. Facts. Math. Facts, not feelings. I say that all the time. This is a way to do that in these instances. So you get it down to math, then you can work with it. So the next step is to reconcile the time it's going to take, where are you going to do that? Put it in your calendar. And when you start to put things in your calendar and it doesn't all fit, then the last step in this is, you have to make some decisions.

Now I'm going to back up for just a second. Reconciling this with your calendar. So for me, I added up all the time that I was going to need based on what I mapped out in my brain download, and then I went to my calendar and I looked at all the open space that I had for work, and I added that up just kind of quickly in my mind as I went through day by day through the weeks, and I quickly saw that I didn't have enough available space on my calendar to actually calendar time for 28 hours of work for these projects.

Okay. So I'm trying to reconcile these two things, and at the moment I can't. There's too much. It doesn't fit. That's why I say you have to make decisions. This is your chance to make decisions. Be an owner and make a call. What are you going to do about it?  Most people won't do this, so what they do is they just cram. They just go at it the whole time with this crippling sense of overwhelm, and it actually creates such a lack of efficiency and productivity, just having that and carrying it around.

Not to mention, it sucks to feel that. It sucks to feel that for an hour let alone just day in, day out. And then on top of that, the implications on your health and wellbeing, and your relationships. All of it. This is not a way to go.

Okay. So to recap the things: The first is sort of a general principle that is good to practice, which is having your own back always, no matter what. Do not leave yourself in the dust; stay with yourself at all times. And then the second is when you feel this way, stop everything. Pencils down, push your chair back, get up if you need to go for a walk, get away from the spin so that you can start to have some inquiry that's going to be really useful for you. Otherwise we'll just stay in the spin, and you'll keep running through the motions.

So you have to stop what you're doing. Take a breath. The next is to get out of your head and onto paper the problem. Really spelling out the problem. Get as specific as possible, and do not let your brain get away with vague answers. It needs to be explicit so that then you can do something with it.

Once you have all of that out of your head, break it down as much as you can into the steps that will actually deliver you, to the best of your ability, to the ideal result for each of the things that are on your mind, break that down. Is it a conversation with someone? Do you need to make a phone call? Do you need head down focus time? What is it? What do you need? Get all of it out of your head and onto paper.

Then go back and put the amount of time next to each of the things that you have written down, and eventually, once you get through that, which that does not take long; seems like people don't do this step in Monday Map, even. It is baffling to me. It's the easiest part of Monday Map and people don't do it and it gives you the greatest visibility into what's possible.  It is what creates the puzzle pieces. You can see the size of the puzzle piece because now you have a measurement next to it and how much time you need.

And then you can look at the calendar and see the holes and figure out what to plug where. It is the best step of Monday Map. But anyway, we're not talking about Monday Map, we're talking about this. It's the same principal that's applied though, so put the amount of time next to each thing that you have written down, then you can add all those times up, and it gives you a very clear picture of what you're actually looking at in terms of work and what you're facing.

If it doesn't all work in your calendar, then you have to make some decisions. If it's not going to fit, now what? And sit with that question. Don't be squirrely and try to squeeze things in and shrink something here so you can fit it in here. No. You need to create a realistic plan to move through, or else you're leaving yourself in the dust.

You aren't having your own back if you try to gyp yourself with other calendar events to slide these things in. Really, you have to look at what is possible. Making decisions looks like either delegating harder, resetting expectations if people are waiting on certain things and that's why there's pressure with the things that are on your calendar and how you're spending your time, maybe you need to reset some expectations, or you have to remove some things.

And you have a choice. You can either remove some things from your calendar so that things that you deem more important fit, or you can remove things from your brain download that aren't making the cut to your calendar. Those are your options. That's it. Now, you can play with those and have different ways of tackling all of this by maybe doing a little bit of each of those options I just gave you, but those are your options if it doesn't fit.

You know what's funny? The options that we will choose on default is to cram and to do things that set us up for failure and set us up for more stress and overwhelm, won't produce the ideal results that we would really want, yet that's what we would choose because we're kind of comfortable with that path. We're comfortable with cramming, we're comfortable with creating an impossible plan and then thinking we can do it.

We would never articulate it that way, but that's the truth, because the alternative is raw honesty about what's possible and what's not. And from that honest place, you get to make decisions that require you to have a strong stance and to stand tall, head held high, and say, "Nope, we're not doing that."

Making calls that feel scary, or that you don't want to make, but you make them from a really wise place when you're very honest, versus the irresponsible route, which is making choices that actually aren't possible. It's like we sell ourselves snake oil. Like, who do we think we're trying to kid?  

But somehow, it's easier to just keep telling ourselves, "Come on, you can do it. Just go, go, go, go, get all this stuff done, yeah, it's a lot of pressure and a lot of weight, but you can do it." What? It's also, I have this visual in my head you know if you've ever played sports, there's a coach on the sidelines just like, "Go, go, go, go," clapping their hands, and you're supposed to run as hard as you can, or doing the thing that you're doing as hard as you can.

Okay, that is for that moment, that is not for weeks on end. Yet, we do that to ourselves weeks and weeks and weeks on end. That is unsustainable, it's not healthy, you're living in a state of overwhelm, and maybe the reason I was affected so heavily by this overwhelm that I was experiencing is because I don't normally feel that anymore.

I used to feel a sense of overwhelm really consistently, but I haven't felt it in a long time, and a lot of that is because I practice what I preach. I do Monday Map, I do Friday Wrap. And those practices keep you out of the weeds with this stuff. It prevents you from creating impossible plans. This is an instance I got myself in where I didn't think far enough ahead, and I got myself into this state of overwhelm, and it's because I just hadn't looked at what I needed to look at.

I'm hoping that the steps that we've mapped out here for you today are helpful, can really get you over the hump for those of you who experience overwhelm all the time, it's a pattern, it is a habit. And it's a habit that though it doesn't seem like it should be hard to break because why wouldn't you want some relief? It will be hard to break because you are hooked into something. You are hooked into a belief that you can do more than what you can actually do. And you keep buying into it for some reason.

Stop selling yourself the snake oil. Let's do this the right way. Let's back up. Stop. Take a breath. Get everything out of your head and onto paper. Map it out. Put the times next to each thing and reconcile your calendar with what you've got on your plate.

Now, if you can do that, then you'll be in a better position to make decisions based on facts and not feelings. And that is a pro. That's what a CEO does. That's what a great law firm owner does, and that's what we have to step into. I know this stuff, I live this stuff, I breathe this stuff, I practice this stuff, and yet sometimes you're still going to be in these moments, and that's okay.

But I thought I would share with you guys my moment that I just had, and I can see, and I hope you guys can see based on this episode, I can see what got me there, and I'm really glad that finally after a few days of suffering, I was able to do what I tell other people to do.

Though it was messy, and it was not linear; I didn't have this pretty little checklist of things to go down, but I principally understand these concepts, and I know how to get myself to the other side, but it's hard work. And this is what I did, it is also what I teach, and I'm hoping that this can shine a light or shed light for you on how you can do this in your own world, whether a small scenario or a big hot mess. All right everybody, I hope you have a wonderful week. I'll see you here next Tuesday.

Hey, you may not know this, but there's a free guide for a process that I teach called Monday Map, Friday Wrap. If you go to velocitywork.com, it's all yours. It's about how to plan your time and honor your plans, so that week over week, more work that moves the needle is getting done in less time. Go to velocitywork.com to get your free copy.

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