I have a recurring stress dream that goes like this:

I’m 21-years-old again and I am working again as a waitress at Applebees. I’m already in the weeds with several tables either waiting for food or wanting me to take their order.

The hostess approaches me:

“Hi, I just sat you a four-top at table 23,” she says, “They all want water…no ice.”

Frantically, I grab a tray and four 16 oz glasses and rush to the drinks station to fill them up.

Mentally, I’m trying to calculate the minutes it will take to fill the glasses, drop them at the table, grab the order from table 21 and then head back to the kitchen to grab the apps for table 22.

I plunge the glass against the water spout and tap my toe impatiently as the water begins dripping out.


As the minutes tick away, my blood pressure begins to rise. I imagine the faces of the dozens of diners who I am disappointing.

I awake in a sweat with the sinking the feeling I’m yet again…behind schedule.

Falling behind is a common theme in my coaching practice. Some clients find they are falling behind in external expectations – such as a work deadlines, parenting responsibilities or board obligations. But more often than not, the feeling of falling behind or falling short is in response to internalized expectations:

“I should have found a new job by now.”

“I should have more business by now.”

“I should have completed this book by now.”

Setting “time-bound” goals is a mainstay of coaching. Deadlines can support motivation, clarify expectations and help us keep on track. But sometimes holding on to deadlines that have come and gone can be really unhealthy for our motivation and well-being.

If you are like me, you might begin to experience unhelpful thoughts:

  • “This is impossible.”
  • “It’s all piling up.”
  • “Everything’s getting in my way.”
  • “I will disappoint everyone.”
  • “I’m terrible at this.”

Or you might find yourself engaging in unhelpful behaviors:

  • Rushing
  • Multitasking
  • Blaming and complaining
  • Avoiding people you are accountable to
  • Numbing out and disappearing

Over time, these thoughts and behaviors can diminish our wellbeing and create a cycle of perpetual underperformance relative to expectations.

Being chronically behind schedule is actually a well-documented source of occupational stress. Decades of research on urban bus drivers, for example, show that they have reported higher rates of physical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse problems than other workers who perform similar tasks.

Why? Bus drivers experience an interplay of three factors that make their jobs exceptionally stressful: regular obstructions in mobility (eg. traffic, poorly parked vehicles), time pressure (eg. bus schedules and inconsistent shifts) and negative customer interactions.

Many bus drivers spend the majority of their shift knowing they are running behind schedule. And this sets up a dangerous situation. Without intervention, being behind schedule actually harms their health and well-being.

So how can we manage running behind schedule in a more humane and healthy way?

The first step is to try to avoid the negative thinking (shame, self-blame and guilt) and harmful behaviors (rushing, multitasking, blame-shifting, scapegoating, avoiding, numbing) that can actually make the situation worse.

Instead build awareness and acceptance when things aren’t going as planned. Because, in order to get help, find solutions and repair damage, we have to at least be willing to accept what is happening. The bus is late. The glasses are empty. The food has not been delivered. This is what’s happening. So it is.

Next is refocus on what’s essential. When things begin to pile up, our focus tends to narrow to what “feels urgent” – instead of what is truly important or necessary. Taking a breath and reminding ourselves to focus on the essential can help eliminate unnecessary steps and turn our attention to the greater good. For the bus drivers, this might come down to focusing on safe delivery of passengers over running precisely on time. For a restaurant server, it might mean touching base with each table to explain delays rather than trying to deliver everything all at once. For a struggling author it might mean clearly outlining a full idea over completing a confusing chapter.

Once the essential has been completed, it is time to step back and reflect. (The term “in the weeds” is such a helpful visual here for how overwhelm can narrow our field of vision.) Building regular reflection into our lives is a valuable way to revisit an experience where we fell behind and identify solutions from a place of calm. Supervisory check-ins, when done well, can be a great space for reflection and problem-solving. So can project debriefs with your work team. In our house, we’ve found that holding regular “agile” family meetings can be a time to explore how well the family is doing at living life fully in a not-too-rushed way.

Lastly, working regularly with a coach can help you to build a practice of presence, essentialism and reflection – so that you can live more of life in the garden and less of life in the weeds.

Learn more about building a career where you can thrive here.

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About the Author: Kate Cockrill

A little about me... I am a social scientist, facilitator, and professional coach. Through my business: Kate Cockrill Coaching, I support mission driven managers and directors with 1:1 career coaching, leadership coaching, team workshops, and retreat design. My clients include leaders in healthcare, education, research and social innovation.

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