For Trainers Who Feel Overwhelmed

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How did it come to this?

Somehow I was playing a leadership role in 12 different projects.

This included committees, coalitions, and our own bi-annual training.

I was also saying yes to every training request that came our way.

But here’s the thing, when my colleagues encouraged me to say no more often, I took it as a mark of pride.

Like it was some sort of compliment!

Productivity became my new mantra and I downloaded a project management app called Asana to keep everything organized.

But –surprise!– efficiency didn’t solve my stress.

The problem must be capacity, I thought.

We hired another talented educator.

This person brought new skills and a whole new network of relationships.

I basically continued the same as before, taking every opportunity that came our way.

Now I was repeating the “slow down” refrain, even while modeling something completely different.

This led to frustration, miscommunication, and, eventually, burnout.

How Are You Doing?

Maybe some of this resonates.

At some point, the projects began to pile up.

A workshop here, a coalition meeting there, take a lead role at the next action and do your volunteer work on the side (or is it part of work? It all sort of blends together, doesn’t it?).

Next thing you know you are too busy for all the other stuff that you’d like to be doing–writing, proactive outreach, strategy, basically anything that is important but never urgent.

And also COVID and transitioning all your programs to online and staff leaving and family life…

Sooner or later, the stress starts to eat away.

The Other Side of Burnout

It took a long time, quitting a job I was usually quite happy in, and challenging many of my own perceptions about work, but I finally feel like my head is above water (most of the time).

I feel happier, more balanced, and –somehow– more productive than I’ve ever been.

Weirdly, it didn’t require any of the things I thought it would–lowering expectations, saying no all the time, or selling out to the man.

And it’s happened while experiencing one of the greatest life transitions possible–becoming a parent for the first time–during a global pandemic.

I’ll share some of what it has taken for me to get there.

Some of it might apply to you, some might not.

But I hope it helps because the work you do is critical to building a better world.

Doing More By Doing Less

Let me tell you what it’s been like for me more recently

Last year I had no more than 2 projects that I was responsible for at any given time, which even included some pro bono work.

(To clarify, that’s a lot fewer than 12.)

I’ve paced myself, allowing time to play with my infant son, do chores, go on walks, write a blog and monthly newsletter (sign up here for free resources!), and take care of my wife during a difficult pregnancy.

And all of this while sustaining a reliable workload and revenue exclusively through partnership contracts with social change organizations.

If you are suspicious, I can’t blame you.

I probably would have been, too.

That would have been impossible working with the same assumptions I had before.

But I now believe it is totally possible to do work that is aligned with your values, have a huge impact, and keep your work sustainable.

Don’t Confuse Busy With Progress

The first thing that has changed for me is that I am using a very different measure to define my success.

Before I took being busy as a sign of progress—as long as requests were coming in and I could “handle” the stress, it meant that I had a purpose and was doing good in the world.

Why not have a meeting at the airport with my co-facilitators just before our flight?

Why not leave in the middle of a march through downtown Minneapolis to be on a call about coalition work in Massachusetts?

These were signs of my dedication to the cause–or at least that’s what I told myself.

Interestingly, it wasn’t self-care and the risk of burnout that convinced me I needed to find another way, it was a deep dissatisfaction with the results I was able to achieve.

This feeling led me to focus on impact, not being busy, as a measure of my usefulness.

More Time Doesn’t Mean More Results

For most of us, this requires a significant shift in thinking.

Capitalism has many of us convinced that our progress towards social change depends on the number of hours we spend trying to solve a problem.

That’s why we have so many social change leaders expecting email responses at all hours of the day or spending hours in meetings or at the office and getting frustrated when others don’t do the same.

But just because we are working more doesn’t mean we are doing more–let me explain.

Imagine announcing to supporters not about how you formed a new coalition or how many leaders took action for the first time, but that your team clocked a collective 3,000 hours on their work email.

How inspired would they be to recruit more supporters to your cause?

The goal is to have the best possible impact in the least amount of time.

This doesn’t mean sloppy work or taking shortcuts.

It means improving the quality and focus of activities that will produce the transformation you want to see.

Leadership development then is not only the right thing to do, it is actually the only effective way to deliver big results.

Even if you double your hours in a week, your impact is minimal relative to supporting a team of 10 organizers or volunteers take consistent and effective action.

This principle helped me move from 12 projects to 2 and I think I’ve become much more effective as a result.

Not Slowing Down, Focusing Up

A focus on outcomes, rather than time, is not about slowing down or lowering expectations, it’s about focusing on doing the right activities better.

When you free up time it’s not only good for you, it’s also good for the work.

While I am walking or doing laundry or holding my son during his nap, I am also problem-solving, consciously or unconsciously, about how to do best by those I work with.

The next time I sit down at my computer, it might take me 30 minutes to write a detailed facilitator’s agenda for a two-day retreat (true story).

This runs contrary to the conventions of the 40-hour workweek that bosses expect and we replicate (or, worse yet, try to outdo with 50, 60, or 80 hour weeks!)

While it may earn us brownie points from our colleagues, it doesn’t lead to more results.

Don’t believe me?

Look into the research on office work that shows that we only have about 3 hours of productive time during the day.

(If you know of a comparable report on organizing, please share in the comments!)

The rest of that time is far better used on reproductive labor and rest, which permits our subconscious creative mind to create solutions to the problems we may not see if we are always in meetings or answering email.

Organizing With Boundaries

Yeah, that’s a great Riahl, but I have people that I’m accountable to.

Great point.

And though it may not feel like it, that’s actually a good thing.

We can accomplish so much more together than we can on our own.

That’s why it’s essential to clarify expectations in our organizing relationships.

And that begins by tuning into your own wants and needs

I’ve led trainings that went 12-14 hours a day and I’ve led weeklong events that were so strenuous I became physically ill afterward.

Over time I became resentful of co-planners, partners, co-workers and clients, until I realized there was a common denominator: me.

Looking back, I could have decided to take a day off or shorten the agenda or say goodbye to one training contract or project.

The clearer I am about what I need in my organizing relationships (including contractual ones!) the better work I produce.

That is a lot easier said than done, and I don’t have it all figured out, but let me tell you how it works for me in practice so far.

Yes Means Yes

Before I thought that I would need to say no constantly in order to have a more reasonable workload, thereby letting people down.

Nowadays, I don’t say no very often, but I do get plenty of requests and there are plenty of projects that I don’t do.

How does that work?

Let me show you.

The most common request I get goes something like this,

“Hey Riahl, would you come and facilitate a training on x?”

Before my response would be, “where, when and with who?”

Now my response is, “Thanks for thinking of me! When could we meet so I can hear more about what is going on?”

If they agree to meet, I can pose questions, like:

  • What are the circumstances that call for this project?
  • What change would ideally result from this effort? and;
  • How would you recognize this change if it occured?

So far, prospective partners seem to appreciate the opportunity to reflect more deeply on solutions.

After that, the conversation can go a few different ways.

I might ask who else will be essential to the success of this project and get their perspective.

Or I might go ahead and ask for permission to send a proposal.

The reason that I insist on sending a proposal is to be as clear as possible from the beginning about the desired outcomes and the approach we will use to try to produce those outcomes–in short, our wants and needs.

Notice I say “we”, because no meaningful solution can be done alone–even by a master trainer like you!

After they receive the proposal, which includes a few options for how we might proceed, they may decide that it is not what they are looking for.

I try my hardest not to take it personally.

Other proposals sit in my draft folder after I conclude that what they need is beyond what I can provide.

Instead of sending a proposal, I say that I can’t provide what you are looking for at this point in time and ask if there are other resources or connections that might be helpful.

So far the projects that have moved forward are much more satisfying and, I think, more effective as well.

See Your Own Value

I think many of us who do social change work for a living keep doing more just to prove that we are worthy of our compensation.

That leads us to take on whatever “needs” to be done (which is, of course, endless) just to prove to coworkers, members, and volunteers that what we do has value.

But so much of our work as trainers and facilitators is about encouraging people to see their value and the value of their labor –doesn’t the same apply to us?

Seeing the value of our own work helps us as we guide others to see the value of theirs.

That’s why so much of this blog is about encouraging you to see your unique value as a trainer!

How This Applies To You

I know I’m not the only trainer who has struggled with seeing my value, trying to take everything on, and feeling overwhelmed.

While the past few years have had many challenges, there are many challenges that my family and I have not experienced.

So, let us know in the comments, how do you deal with overwhelm in your training work?

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Riahl O’Malley and Indira Garmendia, co-founders