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All About You: Feeling overwhelmed?

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

“I feel like an ant on a sandwich.” That’s my favorite of many witty adages my grandma loved to use. She said it when she felt overwhelmed by the chores she had to get done.

My favorite saying of hers when I was a child, which she’d tell you if you asked her for something that you weren’t going to get, was, “You have a better chance of growing another head.” I would sometimes ask for something I knew she wouldn’t give me just to hear her say that.

However, the ant idiom is my favorite now because, as an adult, I know what it feels like to be that ant!

The distress that comes from having too much to do is a common pain in our fast-paced world. For some odd reason, getting things done has become a marker for success. Yes, it feels good to check things off your to-do list, but the weight of feeling like you’re deep in a mire of deadlines and assignments can overpower any joy your accomplishments bring.

You can fix that.

I dare not claim to be good at time management, and this article isn’t about that. What I can claim is mastery at calming myself when I start to get upset with my often self-imposed heavy workload. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, life skills, such as learning to better handle an overloaded schedule, must be mindfully practiced to become a natural ability. So what can you do so you don’t feel like an ant on a sandwich?

Only do one thing at a time

Most nights I review my to-do list, forwarding what I didn’t get done and gleefully checking off what I did. The next day, I usually give my list a quick review. That’s it. I purposely don’t look at my list for the rest of the day. Then I only do one thing at a time, and I regularly remind myself that that’s all I can do.

Likewise, you can only do one thing at a time, too, even if the thing you’re doing only takes a few moments. So you need to train yourself not to think about some other task you must get done while you’re doing the present one.

Dive into what you’re doing. Thinking about other things such as the many items on your to-do list (or checking your smartphone when you don’t need to) will only cause anxiety. I use to think about my flight home and other travel details while I was hosting a seminar or giving a talk. I don’t do that anymore. Not only do I do a better job now, I also enjoy my work more.

Put your tasks in three categories

Some deadlines you have little or no control over. Although Melissa, the editor of Safety+Health, is thankfully kind to me about my deadlines, I still must get an article to her by a certain date.

You, too, probably have deadlines for reports, meetings and projects. That’s a “must do” category. They’re tasks that you can’t stop from causing you a bit of pressure. However, they’re unlike the second category of tasks that shouldn’t cause any distress. They’re the self-imposed undertakings. These are the ones that can needlessly clutter our thoughts.

When you think about what you have to do today, tick off the tasks that won’t make a difference in the short term, such as reading a report. That doesn’t mean you won’t do them – it just means they won’t put subconscious pressure on you, and you will feel like you have a lighter load.

The third category? Fun stuff! Make sure you fit them into your schedule every day.

Say these two magic words

“So what?” They’re magical words. I am diligent about my work. And I recommend you give your best effort at everything you do. But many of us safety and health professionals tend to take things too seriously, and that can cause us to feel overwhelmed.

An ant would never be able to take a whole sandwich back to his nest no matter how hard he works at it, but he can enjoy the pieces he does bring home. You can, too.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit


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