There’s no getting around it: overwhelm hurts! You feel like you’re drowning in a sea of pressing tasks. Your confidence and self-esteem are nowhere to be found. You’re tired, and on edge, and you don’t even know where to start.
If that’s you, b-r-e-a-t-h-e! Help is on the way!
First of all, know that you’re not alone. Overwhelm is one of the most common complaints I hear from my coaching clients these days. And it’s not just these high-achievers. Some days it seems that everybody I talk with—friends, neighbors, family members, people at the gym—is griping that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for all they have to get done.
Second, maybe because the complaints about overwhelm are so universal, dozens and dozens of fixes are available. I’ll share the best of them with you in soon. But before we look at ways to handle the effects of feeling overwhelmed, let’s dig into its cause.
At its core, overwhelm is a perception that we’ve lost control, that we’re being swept along by a rush of events and demands and they’re threatening to totally engulf us.
That’s why it makes us feel so anxious. We’re afraid of losing our very identities to a cascade of external events.
Ironically, the people who are most prone to it are people with generally high levels of confidence in their ability to perform. They thrive on achievement and love to be active. They get satisfaction from being helpful to others, to serving and supporting their employers, family members and communities. They take pride in their abilities to get things done. And then one day, things just get out of hand. The list of commitments and obligations suddenly looms as large as Mt. Everest.
But regardless of how it happens or to whom, overwhelm is rarely due to the number or complexity of tasks in and of itself. It’s the way we’re viewing them.
Looking at the Mountain
I can tell right away when somebody is in a state of overwhelm. Not only are they agitated, but they quickly launch into reciting huge lists of everything they have to get done.
I call this syndrome “Looking at the Mountain” because they’ve piled their list of tasks into one big towering heap so high that it threatens to eclipse the sun. And they think they’re supposed to reach the summit by four o’clock this afternoon–or by Friday, at the latest.
Now to be honest with you, for a few people, the overwhelm is pretend. The person with Pretend Overwhelm might be listing everything she has to do in order to motivate herself to get going, or, in a subtle way, to remind herself how extraordinary she is to dare such a daunting agenda. Her agitation is more excitement than fear, and more often than not, she’s come to me only to get her bearings before she sets off to tackle her tasks. If you’re in that category, take a breath, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!
But for most, the mountain looks very real—and frightening.
Seeing the Path
But remember: overwhelm is a perception. It’s only a thought, an idea that we hold in our minds. Like all thoughts, it triggers emotions to match itself. Then the emotions trigger more thoughts.
“I have to climb this big mountain,” you say to yourself. Your body feels pressure and anxiety, and your brain, interpreting and justifying your feelings, says, “Oh! You should be scared! Just look how high it is! You’ll never make it. You’re going to fall, you loser,” and it triggers more emotions.
The trick is to interrupt the thought-emotion cycle. First, you need to take a few deep, slow breaths and consciously direct your body to relax. Then present it with different thoughts.
You may, for instance, remind yourself that you have climbed many mountains before, and some of them were much taller than this one. If you can deeply relax and vividly recall a past success, all the better.
Then, instead of looking at the entire mountain, bring your attention to the single steps you’ll be taking to get to the top, choose the first one you’ll take, and keep your focus on just that one that you’ll take right now.
While a lot of motivators and time-management gurus will tell you to do the hardest or biggest things first, when you’re in overwhelm, that’s often not the best advice. Take a few small steps first; do a couple of the easy things. That will get you in motion and help you create some momentum. Plus it will help you regain your sense of control.
So begin by taking time to physically relax, to breathe, to release the tension from your body. Then pick a couple easy tasks and get them done.
Fixes for Overwhelm
The best way both to prevent and to overcome overwhelm is to find a system for organizing your tasks and identifying your priorities that fits your personal style and works for you.
There’s no one-size-fits-all system that works for everybody. It takes a little bit of trial and error to evolve one that’s right for you. But the key is to DO the trial part. Choose a method and give it a fair shot. See if you can stick with it for a couple weeks. Keep the parts that work for you.
Christine Kane offers some good suggestions in her article 5 Practical Secrets to Peaceful Productivity. And Kathy Baker’s method for getting focused on your priorities is solid, too.
If you’re in overwhelm right now, consider their methods emergency first aid and apply them immediately.
If your need isn’t urgent, but one that you encounter more often than you like, start designing a task and priority management method right now. You’ll find a list of 106 truly excellent suggestions from achievers of every stripe in a wonderful article from Stephanie LH Calahan at Calahan Solutions. I guarantee you’ll find several that appeal to your personal style.
In the meantime, just breathe and pick one simple thing to do. It’s not really a mountain, and all the control you could possibly need is already in your hands.
And remember, your friends deal with overload, too. Do them a kindness, and pass this article along. Just click one of the sharing buttons below.