Well-being for choir leaders - strategies for coping when the workload seems overwhelming!

I'll be honest - writing this article is a struggle today. I wasn't going to say that; I don't like to whinge. After all, I have a great job that gives me a huge amount of satisfaction and fulfilment. But today I'm not feeling satisfield or fulfilled. I'm feeling overwhelmed with all the things I have to do. Tonight I have a rehearsal for which I don't feel prepared. Tomorrow I have a concert for which I don't feel prepared. On Saturday, I'm giving a workshop for which I don't feel prepared. And on Sunday I have another concert for which I don't feel prepared. So I could have started this article on well-being for choir leaders with something chirpy, but that wouldn't have been honest because today I'm the opposite of chirpy (unchirpy?).

So despite the fact that I feel I'm paddling frantically against the tide and getting nowhere, what can I do, right now, to feel less overwhelmed and be more effective in leading my choir rehearsals, performances and workshops? Here's my take on it; I'd love to hear yours.

Realise it's not actually so bad

When I have that feeling that the sky's falling in, I try to let my rational mind talk, gently but firmly, to the more emotional part of me that thinks everything's awful. Is it really? Is my interpretation of the situation accurate? When I look at things with a more intellectual eye, I usually realise that they're not so bad. For example, I am genuinely under-prepared for my rehearsal tonight, but I'm not leading the choir all evening - I'm just conducting one song (that Christine's singing a solo in and therefore can't conduct as well) and singing another song (which I know well but of which I haven't actively learned the lyrics). So the amount of preparation I need to do to get myself ready for that is actually quite small. The nebulous concept of the task ("Aaaargh! Rehearsal tonight!") is much more daunting than the rational assessment ("Rehearsal tonight - brush up on conducting notes for one song, learn lyrics for another").

Making a proper assessment of the work to be done can help us to realise that what we thought was overwhelming is in fact eminently do-able.

Confront the worst case scenario

When we feel overwhelmed by work, what we're really feeling is fear. But what are we actually afraid of? Sometimes it's not easy to identify what we really fear, so I use the "and then what?" approach. Think about what will happen immediately if you don't do what you think you should do. Then ask yourself "and then what?". For example, let's say I have a deadline of the end of the day to send a proposal to a potential client who might hire me to run a workshop. I don't get the proposal done by the end of the day. And then what? I have to email the client and tell them that the proposal will be late. And then what? The client will either be fine about it or not. And then what? The client might not hire me. And then what? I don't get that work. And then what? Nothing - I just carry on as I am.

So I hope you can see from that example that the worst case scenario I identified wasn't so terrifying after all. My sister (another choral conductor) and I have a standing joke that the ultimate worst case scenario of any conductor in any situation is "people might not like me". I think there's some truth in that!

Pick one thing

When there are half a dozen tasks begging for your time, it's easy to end up doing none of them. It's amazing how, despite having all sorts of looming deadlines, I find myself reading news sites or downloading an app that I absolutely MUST have this minute. We call this displacement activity: we have no idea which of several things to do, so we do something completely different. The only solution to it is to pick one thing and do that. Even if you only do the chosen activity for a short time, it can get your head back into the game. If you're getting distracted and finding it impossible to knuckle down, try turning off your email and phone and setting a timer for ten minutes. Just do one activity for ten minutes, uninterrupted. You'll probably find you're a lot calmer at the end of the ten minutes and much better able to assess what to do next.

Notice the achievements

A lot of the time, my "to do" list is so long that I simply never get to the end of it; I just roll stuff on to the next day, and the next, and the next. When that happens, it can end up feeling as though no progress has been made at all, when in fact I've got a lot done. Ideally, of course, I shouldn't put so much on the list that it hasn't got a hope of being accomplished. What can I say - I'm an optimist! I start out each day with unrealistic expectations of what I can achieve. The point is that unless I spent the day doing absolutely nothing, which never happens, I have achieved something. Even if I haven't managed to complete a task, I've moved it further towards completion. Taking a moment to notice what we've done during the day can help us to realise that progress is being made.

Go for a walk

Sometimes, when everything's crowding in, there's only one thing for it. I have to get out of the house and walk. I'm lucky enough to have the beach within a few hundred yards, but even if I just zip round the streets near my house, it's usually enough to clear my head, put things into perspective and get me re-focused on my work. In fact, now that I've put all these thoughts into written form, I think it's time to breathe a bit of sea air. See you next time.
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