How to Deal When You’re Drowning in Processes

Ashley Bryson

18 June 2019

I recently saw a quote online that really struck a chord with me: “Stress is the trash of modern life: we all generate it, but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life” (Danzae Pace). TWEET

As a special education teacher and department leader, I have allowed stress to overtake my life more times than I can count. We all know how stress negatively affects our health and relationships, and, in my line of work, there is no shortage of it—particularly stress from ongoing paperwork and processes. When I’m not teaching, I am writing and checking IEPs (that’s teacher talk for Individualized Education Programs), completing evaluations, gathering data, creating lesson plans, grading, providing professional development and so on.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who deal with this overwhelm: Processes, procedures and paperwork are an inevitable part of leadership no matter what industry you serve. How do you deal with the stress that comes with it all? In my professional career, I have picked up a few tips on how to prevent overwhelm when processes become too much.

Take a beat and remember the big picture.

When you feel like you’re in the weeds, the best thing you can do is take a step away from what you’re working on—it isn’t going anywhere, I promise. When we labor on a task for too long, we become hyper-focused and our field of view narrows. When this happens, all we can see is the task at hand rather than the full picture. By taking a step away, you’re more likely to remember the overarching view when you return. Keeping this in mind reminds us why we are doing what we are doing and motivates us to continue with renewed energy. It also allows us to look ahead to what is coming so we can plan our time, effort and energy accordingly.

Prioritize with flexibility.

Deciding what processes need to be completed immediately and which ones can wait is essential for preventing overwhelm, but you must remain flexible as well. If you are like me, then you are the type of person who does not like to have tasks sitting on their to-do list. I like to be prepared, organized and ready for the day ahead of me. However, despite best efforts, there are always days when unexpected tasks and processes force me to stop, take a step back and change course. This can only be done when we are flexible with our priorities.

One way to stay flexible is to build in extra time for your priority items as a buffer in case something pulls you away from the task at hand. I often find that my priorities change from day to day, or even hour to hour on some days. The key is to remember to keep the big picture in mind to ensure we are staying on course and give ourselves permission to be flexible.

Be a self-advocate.

Advocating for yourself doesn’t come naturally for everyone. It often requires a shift in mindset and understanding that it is OK to ask for help. Our reluctance to ask for help usually stems from fear: fear of looking incompetent, weak, needy, etc. This presents itself often with the students in my classroom. Some students need additional assistance with learning a new concept but don’t like to raise their hand or ask for help because they do not want to “look dumb.” It is often a matter of pride. To combat this, I encourage my students to take risks in their learning. I reward best efforts and give positive praise when they advocate for themselves. By encouraging my students to be self-advocates, I have seen them grow in confidence, self-awareness and have watched them take control of their learning.  

The same goes for us as leaders and for our teams. We must advocate for ourselves and never be afraid to ask for help or delegate where possible. Asking for help is uncomfortable and forces us to admit to ourselves that we cannot do it alone; it feels like weakness but in reality, it is vital to our professional growth. Fortunately for us, success is not a one-man show. It is a collaborative effort. Barack Obama said it best, “Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new.” TWEET

If you need something, ask for it. If you don’t understand, ask for clarification. If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask for help and delegate.

Know your limits and set healthy boundaries.

Overwork comes when boundaries aren’t set and we extend ourselves beyond our limits. What is the point in which the work and processes become too much for you? Where do you draw a line in the sand? Better yet, do you ever draw that line and give yourself the freedom to say no? It is OK to let others know when your plate is full. When someone asks something more of you at a point when you’re reaching your limit, be vulnerable and share what you’re juggling on your to-do list. By sharing what you’re stressing over, you give others the opportunity to jump in and help. Maybe what they’re asking is something only you can do, but one of your other tasks can be delegated elsewhere.

Like I always tell my students, no one will know how you are feeling until you let them know. If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you are not alone but only you can make the choice to do something about it.

Ashley Bryson

Ashley Bryson is an elementary special education teacher and department chair at Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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