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Episode Transcript

You’re an engineer, and no matter where you’re working, your job has some built-in stress. Because there are expectations of you to solve problems and reach solutions. You know this about your job. 

But if you’re feeling too much of this stress, it can be overwhelming. Overwhelm is our topic for today. We’ll talk about what it is. How to assess it. And how you can alleviate it. 

What is Overwhelm and Why Do You Feel It?

Overwhelm in your engineering job is the stress you feel when there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. The anxiety that results because you feel you can’t stop working until all tasks are completed. Maybe there’s tension because of conflicting requirements.

You may feel pressure to not say no to anything you are asked to do. You may feel strained because you’re stretched too thin. You may feel overstimulated from learning the latest technologies and processes. I know it all too well.

Overwhelm can also occur when you’re given tasks without the right tools to accomplish them. Or you’re given tasks beyond your abilities without the help or support or guidance to accomplish them. 

It’s not unusual to experience overwhelm when you’re new. New to the field or the job. New to the organization or new to the project. 

Your facing different challenges. Meeting new people. There’s something big ahead of you that you haven’t experienced before. So it can be overwhelming.

Assessing Overwhelm in Your Engineering Job

But when you’re overwhelmed, you should stop and take the time to evaluate the situation. Consider your level of overwhelm and what the causes are. Determine what’s okay and what’s not okay.

A certain amount of overwhelm is not harmful. But too much overwhelm can lead to:

A temporary bout of overwhelm that can be explained and overcome in a short time is okay. Prolonged overwhelm that results in the symptoms above is not okay. 

Assess how overwhelm is affecting your well-being. Maintaining your well-being is your most important job. No one wants you to do work at the expense of your own well-being.

Why Women Engineers Experience Overwhelm at Work

Earlier I mentioned the built-in stress that engineers experience. I believe that you, as a woman engineer, experience a bit of extra built-in stress. 

Maybe in part because you’re one of few women among many men. But also because you tend to put more expectations on yourself.

Women want to show their competence, their excellence. They often want to go above and beyond. Does this ring true for you in your engineering job? This is a strong contributor to overwhelm.

Remember back in Episode 10 on Time Satisfaction we talked about the fundamental axiom of time management. That there’s always more work to do. And that you’ll never get everything done. If you don’t accept this, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

There’s more work than you can do. It’s not your imagination. And it’s not that you’re not good enough or not skilled enough. There really is more work than you can do. So don’t expect yourself to get it all done.

Watch out for the perfection trap. Watch out for the prove-it-again trap. The I-need-to-work-harder-to-show-my-competence trap.

In this case if you’re waiting for someone else to take the load off, you might wait forever. You’re the one that needs to ease up on your expectations and take the pressure off yourself.

Dialing back the number of tasks you pursue in a day does not equate to incompetence. It does not mean you’re not accomplishing your job. In fact it shows your professionalism and skill in focusing on priorities and pacing yourself to do your best work.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. I get that. Sometimes you need a new perspective or some simple steps to implement. Let me help you with that. It’s easy to book a strategy session with me.

Let’s talk about ideas to help you get out of overwhelm at work. This is an important topic. We should talk it through and brainstorm some better approaches for you.

You can take charge. You can notice when you’re in overwhelm and assess why. And then you can speak up and do something about it. 

Speak up when you’re overwhelmed so you can get some help. Your boss may not even notice that you’re overwhelmed if you don’t say something. 

Next, here are some ideas for what you can do.

Tips for Alleviating Overwhelm in Your Engineering Job

  1. Set Realistic Expectations.  This means realizing how much you can realistically accomplish in any given day.  Account for breaks and unforeseen circumstances. Focus more on what you’ve completed and less on what’s yet to be done.
  1. Set Priorities. This means determining what’s most important to you right now, setting that as priority, and letting the rest go. Get input from your boss and team leaders and keep them informed of your priorities.

For each task, ask “what are the consequences if I don’t do this?” If there are no consequences, that task can be eliminated.

  1. Set Boundaries. These are your rules for who, what, where and when. Here are some examples: 
    • I take care of the program management work, not the design work; 
    • I only work on product reviews that have been prioritized by the department; 
    • I take a 30-min lunch and this is my time; 
    • I devote an hour per month to my development plan; etc.
  1. Set Time Frames. Block off specific time frames for tasks that you tend to spend too much time on (such as reading email). Break larger project tasks into smaller, more manageable ones and set time frames for those.
  1. Enforce all of the above. This means stating your priorities and boundaries with confidence. Other ways you can enforce them are by:

I think this last tip is the hardest. And it’s hard because you probably don’t feel comfortable telling people what you’re not gonna do. 

But, listen, you can’t do your job effectively without priorities and boundaries. And the only way to enforce them in a professional way is to state them with confidence.

Trust yourself to know what you need and what is most important. Trust yourself to set priorities. And trust that it’s okay to let non-priority things go. Remember, there will be tasks left undone. And that’s okay.

With this approach, you’ll take the pressure off. It’s teaching you how to handle your workload in a way that is balanced and effective. And thus it’s reducing overwhelm now and in the future.

Next time on Her Engineering Career Podcast our topic will be about favorite engineering bosses and their characteristics. Be sure to tune in for Episode 56.