How to Cope When You Are Clearly In Over Your Head

No doubt, I had bitten off way more than I could chew.

While I generally enjoy juggling many plates, I knew a few months ago that I had stepped over that invisible boundary of “busy” into “overwhelmed.”  That’s when I had decided to replace my old part-time teaching job to instead devote those hours to a startup business.  It was 100% the right move: working with former colleagues whom I respect (who respected me back), getting back into the startup business scene (which I love), and having a job that worked around my crazy parenting schedule (which takes up the majority of my time).

But it wasn’t as easy as shifting my hours from one job to another.  A teaching job has set hours and a schedule, so it’s more predictable in terms of when the work comes in.  Being an entrepreneur means grabbing opportunities as they come, and that sometimes means long nights.  Long nights, unfortunately, do not mesh well with feeding cranky babies at midnight, nor taking care of children when my husband needs to take an unexpected business trip.  So things like exercise and sleep started to slip, and that caused another cascade of problems.

I knew I had to do something when my lack of sleep pushed me into acting like a cranky toddler, irritable and irrational.  Something needed to change, but what?

We all reach points where we feel overwhelmed, treading water instead of thriving.  When these moments happen, I boil my life back down to the basics by going through these steps:

1. Decide exactly what you need in your life.

This means taking a hard look at what activities you can keep doing, and what you can’t.  My top priority is my family, which to me means devoting a large chunk of my time to child-rearing and also regular date nights with my husband.  For my sanity, though, I needed some “me-only” time too, and that means I needed to keep the part-time job that I loved.  It also meant making time for proper sleep and exercise too, since none of the above meant anything if my health starts to decline.

2. Those that don’t make the list, get cut.

Before switching jobs, I was making progress on some personal projects of mine, including gardening and home improvement.  Now both of those have to be relegated to the backburner.  Although I feel disappointed to give them up, they free me up to focus on things I really need to accomplish.

3. Make a schedule to fit in everything.

Even after cutting off some activities, there were still not enough hours in the day.  That meant I had to make some compromises to fit all activities in.  My main compromise was to hire a babysitter a few hours a week, something I had never done before.  However, doing so gave me some much-needed work time in the middle of my day, while still ensuring I can be my child’s primary caregiver.  This allowed me to meet both goals without feeling like one was overriding the other.

4. Evaluate, go back to #1 as necessary.

So far, my new schedule has solved that horrible overwhelming feeling and cut back my stress tremendously.  However, that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you have to try steps 1-3 several times to make things feel right.  And even when you get into a rhythm, small things like an uptick at work or even the changing of the seasons can send you back into a tailspin.  Make sure you evaluate your life schedule on a semi-regular basis, so that it doesn’t catch you off guard.

If the above steps sound ridiculously straightforward, you’re right.  It seems obvious when you’re overwhelmed that you need to re-prioritize your life.  But when you’re in the thick of things, you sometimes miss the fact that you need to rearrange your life.  I let myself feel terrible for more than a month before I finally realized something needed to change.  The earlier you can identify that you’re in over your head, the sooner you can start “right-sizing” your life so that it works for you, instead of against you.

For me, I’m sure things will go fine for a while until something throws me off again.  Maybe it will be when my kids go to school.  Or I’ll want to go back to work full-time.  Or perhaps my husband will switch jobs.  These will require another reevaluation of my life, and that’s okay.  Change is the only constant.  And on the bright side, I might find time to plant that flower garden one of these days.

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