What Do I Do If I'm So Overwhelmed with Work I Can't See Straight?

Our career coach Liz Bentley talks managing it all.

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Welcome to MarieClaire.com's brand-new job advice column courtesy of career coach Liz Bentley—check back often for her whip-smart real-world wisdom. Have questions of your own? Send them to careeradvice@marieclaire.com to get them answered right here.

Dear Liz: I feel like my time is inundated trying to manage an overabundance of meetings, emails, and chats. It's exhausting! How do I survive and get my work done? —S.K., 26

Dear S.K.: First, know that you are not alone! Communication confusion and overload is a huge problem in today's workforce. It is a challenge we see all over the country in companies of all sizes, leaving many employees frustrated and overwhelmed.

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When I first got into coaching, all I heard about was the annoyances of the constant in-person meetings Baby Boomers insisted on having because they liked to read body language and communicate in person. To the Gen Xers, this was a huge waste of time, but then the Millennials came along and said, "What's up with all this email? Why are the Gen Xers making managing my email inbox a full-time job?"

Since there is no handbook for how and when to use the right communication tools, companies are still trying to figure it out. Some HR departments post news using three channels or more just to communicate one piece of information to satisfy the different preferences. The lack of clarity is a huge time waster for everyone and can be a productivity killer.

From my vantage point, it appears to be a two-fold people problem: People overuse their preferred communication vehicle—email, text, chat, phone—and they don't adapt appropriately to new communication technology.

While this is a collective problem, we are only in control our own actions. So here is what you can do to be a lifter and not a leaner in the world of workplace communication.

1. Avoid Communication Pitfalls

Here's where they can derail us when not used properly:

  • In-person meetings that go on for too long, get high-jacked by "talkers" or just waste time on topics that could be handled in a chat or other forum.
  • Voicemail messages that contain detailed information better summarized in an email or time-sensitive information best for a text—not to mention that anyone under the age of 50 isn't listening to them.
  • Phone Calls that are unscheduled can feel like an intrusion into our personal space not preparing us to answer questions or address issues appropriately. And a longwinded talker can kill an hour and derail us from projects and critical thinking.
  • E-mails…enough already! Some use it as chat, others as a novel or an elaborate guide. And the worst offenders are the "work off-loaders." These people are using email to hot potato work off their plate and onto yours by asking simple questions, not making decisions, or dumping tasks on you. They'll also slow done projects and avoid responsibility with an "I sent you an email on that."
  • Chatforums where people move too fast and miss the message. When they're not thorough enough, this leaves the need to go back and redo the work. And let's face it, sometimes there's simply too much chat.

2. Stop Judging

We all have our own preferred communication tools. Too often, we're unwilling to shift our styles preferring everyone to use our platform, while also judging others for not using our methods. We may think, "Why can't they just get up and come into my office to discuss that?" or "Stop texting and pick up the phone; it will be faster" or "How dare you call me, I was in the middle of something." Take a step back and empathize. Remember, we all view life through a different set of lenses—and how we choose to communicate is a reflection of these differences.

3. Fix Yourself First

While these are issues everyone needs to address, you are in control your piece of the puzzle. Here's how these vehicles should be used:

  • In person meetings: use this when you want to see body language, have a personal connection, or a deeper conversation where meaning needs to be translated.
  • Phone: can be the fastest solution to problem solving or talking through logistics. While it is okay to pick up the phone for a quick question—"quick" being the operative word—it's also great for scheduled meetings where talking through live issues is necessary.
  • Email: is the modern-day memo. This is where we document information and theme it around topics that need to be reviewed and read through more carefully. But make sure they are clear, to the point, and not too long.
  • Text: Generally to be avoided, it's best for quick questions and communication that have urgency and are easy to answer. On off-hours, it's a no-go.
  • Chat: should be used for people engaging in multiple conversations on topics where parties can go in and out at their leisure and read what is relevant to them.

The world around us is changing at light speed and so is our style and choices in connecting with each other. We all need to judge less and get on-board with the new guidelines. It is time to adapt to new tools while also holding tight to the old ones that still work for the right purpose.

"It is time to adapt to new tools while also holding tight to the old ones that still work for the right purpose."

Start by recognizing your own pitfalls and where you need to do your work. Also realize that you need to be effective with all the communication platforms and recognize how to use them appropriately. Finally, realize it will be an on-going effort. It will always be changing. That's just life.

Liz Bentley is the founder of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs for individuals and companies. Drawing upon her background in psychology, previous experience in sales and management, and a lifetime of experience in competitive sports, Liz has a unique appreciation of mindset and the power it has to change patterns of behavior. Liz received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia and her coaching certification from New York University.

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