I was working with a client in San Francisco when I listened to the doctors’ meeting at my dad’s bedside. He had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, underwent many tests, and was clearly not improving. We knew the meeting wasn’t going to deliver good news.
And it didn’t. My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and had a tumor in his lung that was 10-17cm in size and growing quickly. They gave him 2-3 months to live, and my brother and I knew it wouldn’t take that long.
Three days later, I flew home to be with him. A week later, he died.
As you can imagine, it was a chaotic time and very reminiscent of what I went through with my own mother’s death just a few short months ago.
The only thoughts you have are of being with your loved one. Except that work doesn’t work that way. While I could move some clients around, change some appointments, and lighten my load, I couldn’t walk away from everything I did. I had to guess a good time to move an appointment (I had no idea if Dad would last two days or three months). Trying to figure out my schedule felt futile, but of course, I had to.
When your personal life is chaotic, trying to manage work feels impossible. It doesn’t have to be a family death, as there are dozens of other scenarios when this is how we feel and yet cannot completely walk away from our job.
Keeping your head above water can be hard when pulled in a million different directions. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed, staying focused and productive at work can be challenging.
I instilled a few good habits as my dad transitioned to his next life so that I didn’t burn out. I learned them from losing my mom when I came quite close to burnout.
- Acknowledge boundaries. I intellectually know that I can’t do it all, but in times of crisis, many of us try.
What is reasonable to do, and what can you give yourself a pass on? There are times when you simply cannot do it all. Setting boundaries with yourself and others can help you focus on the things that really matter, so you can better manage your time and energy.
At work, make sure you prioritize the tasks that will have the greatest impact. This means focusing on the projects with the most pressing deadlines and saying no (or, not right now) to those who won’t make a big difference. You don’t have to say yes to every request, and it’s ok to set limits on how much you can take on. And, in times of crisis, your coworkers can help you too. You would help them if they were in the situation, so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask too. Remember – a little bit of self-compassion can go a long way!
- Stay in the moment – focus on the present.
When life is crazy, it can be tough to stay in the moment. We often get caught up worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. But the best way to manage stress is to be present and stay mindful. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pause and reflect for a few moments throughout the day. At work, this might mean setting aside a few minutes each day to reflect on the progress you’ve made and the goals you’re working towards.
While on the airplane home, I grabbed my laptop, opened a OneNote workbook, and started making lists. This allowed me to see my priorities and deadlines and identify what was reasonable for me to do. I could also see where I could reach out to others to help me out.
As my hours with Dad became longer and longer each day, as I recognized that his days were numbered, I focused on one day at a time. I didn’t worry about deadlines that weren’t today. It was a “here and now” focus that kept me centered. When my mom died, I realized there was no reason to worry about the weeks ahead and what could happen, but instead focus on today only.
- Schedule some “me” time
I’m a bath girl. I think while I’m in the bathtub, so when my evenings allowed for it, I settled into the tub to cry, think, and sort out the chaos in my mind. I didn’t listen to podcasts or music while driving back and forth to the hospital or his home (where he died). I listened to my own self-talk. Sure, I turned on the radio too occasionally, but generally, I took that time to think.
When things get stressful, it’s all too easy to forget about self-care. But taking a few moments for yourself – even in the midst of chaos – can make a world of difference. Make time for activities that bring you joy and help you relax. From yoga and meditation to reading a good book, give yourself permission to switch off and recharge. At work, this could mean taking a few minutes of silence each day or scheduling a lunchtime walk. You could also look into stress-relieving practices like breathing exercises, which have been proven to reduce anxiety and help you stay focused at work. Even just stepping away from the screen for a few minutes can make all the difference.
- Keep your physical health in check.
It’s no secret that physical health directly impacts our ability to cope with stress. When we feel run down or exhausted, our brains just don’t work as well. This is why getting enough sleep, eating well, and staying active is so important. At work, this might mean developing a healthy routine that works for you. Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night and that you’re eating nutritious meals. You should also take regular breaks throughout the day to move your body and get some fresh air. Exercise also helps boost endorphins, which can help improve your mood and overall well-being.
- Don’t forget to communicate
It can be tempting to shut down and go it alone when life gets overwhelming. But if you’re feeling stressed or struggling to cope, it’s important to talk to trusted friends and family or seek help from a mental health professional.
I reached out to a couple of really trusted girlfriends just so that I could get a break, feel the support, and vent all my emotions. They wanted to support me; I needed the support, and shutting myself down is not helpful.
It’s also a good idea to communicate openly with your employer and colleagues about your workload to ensure you’re getting the support you need. At work, ensure you’re keeping your boss and colleagues in the loop about what’s happening in your life if that is appropriate. If you need to adjust your schedule, don’t hesitate to speak up and ask. They can’t help if they don’t know.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that dealing with a chaotic personal life while still working will always be a work in progress. Stress is inevitable – but with the right tools and strategies, you can find your footing, even in the most chaotic times. The key is being mindful, practicing self-compassion, and staying focused on the present. With a little effort, you can manage your time and energy – so you can stay productive and maintain a healthy balance.