Dealing With Overwhelm

Do you ever feel like you have more to do and not enough time? Do you struggle to keep up with your commitments? Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

I don’t think our parents or grandparents ever had this issue of feeling “overwhelmed.” For instance, information was readily available to them through public libraries, but that information didn’t have access to them 24/7. The thing is, because we have information available at our fingertips today, we ourselves have closed this gap of being accessible to it. We are compelled to make more choices today, and more often than not we make poor ones for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is making more decisions.

We are generally led to believe that feeling overwhelmed comes from having too much to do, having endless access to information, and from taking on more commitments than we can do justice to. Not all of this is true, however.

For instance, we say we feel overwhelmed when we have more to do and not enough time, but is that really true? Just because technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few decades doesn’t mean our personal capacity to do the work has scaled proportionally. It cannot. We only have so much time and attention to work with, but we keep fooling ourselves into thinking we can do it all. Alas, we never learn.

The word “overwhelm” used to be just a verb, but now it’s come to be known as a state of being. We say we feel overwhelmed with what we need to do in our lives. We carry this unnecessary mental weight in our heads and stress ourselves out. But we have only ourselves to blame for letting our minds go through this experience time and again.

Here are some reasons why we might have this feeling of overwhelm.

We keep thinking about the same things without deciding what to do about them. As a result, we experience cognitive fatigue, because of which our ability to focus lessens, and the time it takes for us to comprehend increases.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we have things on our mind. The question is what are we going to do about them. It’s counterproductive to keep thinking about something, unless, of course, we like thinking about it. More often than not, this feeling of overwhelm results from indecision, which leads to inaction. This starts from not capturing what has our attention, let alone making quick decisions about it, and much less doing it.

We procrastinate on the real thinking required to move anything forward, but by thinking about something repeatedly without finishing the actual thinking required, we are only psyching ourselves out. Defining what we need to do is the hard part. Of course, we have to make decisions sooner or later. The question is if we are going to do it proactively up front or reactively at the last minute. How we do anything matters.

I wrote earlier:

We use procrastination as a way to deal with things when they become complex, overwhelming, and when there is fear (of failure/success) and anxiety involved.

When we cease to make decisions up front, we use our head constantly for thinking about things without ever doing anything about them. We get stuck in analysis paralysis (the perfection trap) because we are unable to make up our minds about what to work on, so we don’t get started at all. We procrastinate, but we forget it takes more work to put off the thinking required than to think about it and define the next steps.

Overwhelm is often rooted in irrational fears — fear of missing out, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of making mistakes, getting caught in the perfection trap, and so on.

We bite off more than we can chew. We take on more commitments in our lives than we can do justice to. Because of this, we end up doing many things averagely. We overcommit because we irrationally believe we can do it all without thinking about the true costs involved. We stress out when we are unable to keep up with our high expectations. When this goes on long enough, burnout ensues.

We stress ourselves out by making half-assed promises to ourselves and to others because we have neither committed nor have we said no.

There may be times we may have captured our commitments, but we don’t review them enough. We are forever living in this state of anxiety where we are not sure what we are not doing. The thing is, we can only be comfortable about not doing something when we know what we are not doing. Of course, getting to that state isn’t free.

We experience overwhelm when we are constantly jumping from one thing to the next without any deliberate focus. We live in reactionary mode and tire ourselves out. We end up undermining our limited attention this way.

Here are some ways of dealing with this feeling of overwhelm.

When we feel overwhelmed, the first thing to do is find out what has our attention. Then, simply take a piece of paper and write it all down (without judging or overthinking). Don’t worry about what you’re going to do with what you’ve captured just yet. Separate the capturing of inputs from making decisions about them.

Writing my journal first thing in the morning has been a daily practice for me for a number of years, and I almost never miss it. It brings my attention to what’s on my mind, so I can let go of it. It also warms me up, which enables me to do my best work.

Externalize everything, so you can be fully present and engage with what’s in front of you at any given time. Technically, we can only ever be present in the moment, but our thinking about the past or future at any given time removes us from the present experience. Suffice it to say, the present is all we have (and it’s all we need).

Once we externalize what we have on our mind, we review our commitments frequently enough to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

Some people claim they feel overwhelmed by looking at their to-do lists. In actuality, this feeling of overwhelm comes not from looking at our lists, but from not looking at them enough. It’s only when we know what we are not doing that we can truly be comfortable with what we are doing right now.

Contrary to popular belief, overwhelm doesn’t come from too much to do; rather, it comes from not knowing what to do. It’s the gnawing feeling we experience from missing something that might rear its ugly head in the near future when we are least prepared for it.

Realize that we don’t have to do anything right now. We simply need to think about what we need to do (define our work) and then we do it at our discretion — unless, of course, something is scheduled or due. We can’t think and do things at the same time. It just doesn’t work.

Here are some other strategies for dealing with overwhelm.

Let’s be mindful of how we talk to ourselves. When we keep telling ourselves that we are “overwhelmed,” we will be. As one of my previous mentors has said, we need to get organized both physically and mentally, and stop talking about “overwhelm” or “being lost.” It’s not in the doing of something, but in the thinking about it. If we want to change our behavior (feel less overwhelmed), we need to change our thinking about it.

Commit to doing fewer actions well. Never be afraid to sacrifice quantity for the quality of those actions. Ironically, spending time on fewer actions results in time well spent rather than doing many actions averagely and spreading ourselves thin. The latter is what happens when we review our days and can’t remember what we actually did, despite being busy.

Keep yourself focused and accountable by having three outcomes to work on every day. These should be results that you can accomplish without relying on others. Remember, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Make fewer decisions in the first place to reduce decision fatigue. When we have too many demands on our thinking over time, we experience this fatigue, because of which we may be more reactive and less focused.

One way to do that is to create a Now list of what you’re focused on right now. These are your commitments at a given time, so by default you will say no to every other thing you come across, unless something overlaps with your agenda. Remember, we can only say no to something when we know what we have said yes to.

Use a back-burner list for things you might want to do at some point in the near future. These are not meant to be bucket list items that you aspire to do someday but projects you can’t commit to right now because your plate is full.

Avoid letting others add to your sense of overwhelm. Cut out energy suckers from your life. Spend time with those who elevate you and keep you real.

Stop trying to keep up. You are under no obligation to do so. How others spend their time is their prerogative. How you choose to spend yours should have nothing to do with what they are doing.

It’s easy to psych ourselves out by running the same tape in our heads — constantly thinking about the same things without doing anything about them — but this only undermines our attention and takes up valuable space.

Ironically, overwhelm doesn’t come from too much to do; it comes from not knowing what to do. Be realistic as to how much you can do at any given time. Commit to doing fewer things and doing them well. Review your commitments frequently to ensure they are current and complete.

Nothing external to us can truly overwhelm us. We can psych ourselves out, but that’s our choice and it’s within our control.

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