"Be faithful in small things,
because it is in them your strength lies"
- Mother Teresa
I hear two major complaints from my coaching clients: either they can't figure out what they want to do next; or, they’re stretched so thin even the big projects are slipping through the cracks. Both of these situations are a symptom of what’s commonly called overwhelm.
Overwhelm occurs both when we are bombarded by so much stimulus that we have a sensation similar to drowning, and when there is a definite lack of stimulus. One definition of "overwhelm" is: to surge over and submerge; to engulf. In both cases, our bodies physically go into a fight or flight response. We fear being surged over, or engulfed – in once case by a fear of failure (can't get it all done), and in the other a fear that comes from a lack of purpose. We take shallower breaths, our pulse quickens, and our muscles tense. We end up putting less nutrient-rich blood to our brains, and more to our muscles.
The result is we can't think straight. It reminds me of a very stretchy hammock I had once. I wanted to put it between two trees, but they were so far apart that laying in the hammock was more like trying to take a nap on top of a fence than on a nice, cushy cot. Sure, things fell through the cracks – ME!
Those who are overwhelmed trying to figure out "what’s next", or which direction to go have too many options that are possibilities and not enough about which they feel passionate. Hence, there is too much to take in, and eventually they shut down and do pretty much nothing, or do just what they need to do without any drive or passion.
However, most people today are in the second group – they simply have too much to do and far too little time in which to do it. The boss says, "just because a third of your department was laid off is no excuse for not getting your work done." And, "by the way, you’ll have to take up the slack for your ex co-workers as well." There simply isn't enough time in the day (or night) to get everything accomplished, and this sense of overwhelm affects everything – every part of your life. It impacts your relationships, health, and your ability to do an effective job at those tasks you DO get to.
All is not lost. Having more to do than hours in the day is for the most part a fact of living in today’s information-rich age. Everything is vibrating at a higher rate, and we're all asked to keep up. It's the environment we live in, and it's not about to change any time soon.
Be forewarned. This article is NOT about relaxation or stress reduction techniques! You’ve probably read hundreds of messages about relaxation, or stress reduction techniques. While I'll admit they are quite helpful, what's the likelihood you'll actually take the time to do them when you've got 15 deadlines approaching? Close to NIL, right?
I'm a strong advocate of meditation and relaxation techniques. In my experience, those who meditate daily are far more productive than those who don't. My clients who use meditation to create a stillness in their minds work with far greater clarity than those who don't. I meditate daily myself. But I’m also quite aware that these are the first to go when the going gets rough.
The real question is – how can you reduce the stretch, eliminate the overwhelm, get the blood flowing to your brain again, and get back on track to getting the most important things accomplished, without relying on meditation and deep breathing?
The following five tips and tools help to relax the mind and body, still the emotions, and get you focused in the right direction, even when things are still falling through the cracks!
1. Accept the inevitability of the times. Some things will slip through the cracks, possibly every day depending on the nature of your work. It's just how it is. Michael Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots in his career and lost almost 300 games, and at 40 is still breaking NBA (Basketball) records. He's not as quick, or mobile as he once was, but he still gets the job done. If you're under increasing pressure to get more done in less time, accept that you might be better served by doing things a little differently. Times change, and so should you with them if you want to keep overwhelm at bay. Realize that you might not be able to do it all, then focus on the things that are most important.
2. Feed the good dog. This phrase comes from a story I frequently use: A native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: "Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time." When asked which dog wins he reflected for a moment and replied, "The one I feed the most." Translated into the everyday Western civilization working world, this means:
Focus your attention on those things which give you the most positive results.
It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised by how many people focus on tasks, activities, beliefs, and attitudes that produce negative results. Any time the focus is on who or what's wrong, instead of the positive outcome you’re seeking, you're feeding the bad dog. Reviewing what isn’t working (the problem) is useful only as far as it's used to further clarify the result you want. Beyond that, a focus on problems just cultivates bad energy and increases overwhelm. Feeding the good dog means always putting a focus on what's working, even when some things are "not quite right yet". You will always have some things in that "not quite right yet" category. Rather than focus on them, put your attention on the results you’re wanting to create and the best actions will become readily available.
3. Cultivate a Positive Mental Attitude. Sometimes things simply don’t go your way. I've had a lot of people tell me to go away in no uncertain terms. "Don’t bother me… I'm busy." I've had periods of huge client turnover, followed by a series of rejections. Other times, I've got so much going on that when people tell me they're going on vacation I have to ask them to clarify the word "vacation". Through it all, the one thing I keep coming back to is working on maintaining a positive mental attitude.
This concepts bears additional explanation. The idea isn’t that you deny the occurrence of certain events. They happened, and there’s not much you can do to change the fact. You can change how you think about the event, and the actions you take as a result of a more positive attitude. Easy to say, more difficult to do.
There's a simple trick I use to shift my attitude about something. Ask "what just happened?" to understand the facts of the situation. Once you do this, inquire as to the meaning you’ve attached to the event. If you're feeling any negative emotions about the event, there's most definitely some meaning you’ve attached to it. Usually this is something like, "I'm so stupid" or "I'm afraid I'll look really bad". It's a negative self-judgment that is either directed inward ("I'm stupid"), or directed outward ("You're a bunch of losers"). These thoughts are simply ideas that you're attaching to the facts of a certain event, and will decrease your chances of creating a more positive result.
Once you recognize the thought or belief you've attached to the event, it's easier to make a different choice in the present moment. Remember where you’re going (your goal), and find 2-3 simple steps you can take right now that will get you back on track. Taking even one of those steps will improve your attitude and open up more possible solutions to whatever dilemma you currently face.
4. Review your vision, mission, or goal statement. You can't see the forest for the trees. I didn't understand that statement until I was standing in the midst of an old growth forest. All I saw were several huge trees. What forest? Whenever one of my clients seems stuck in the overwhelm of too many trees, it’s apparent they've forgotten why they entered the forest in the first place.
If you don't have a very clear statement of purpose, a vision, mission, or goal statement, you're very likely to end up feeling overwhelmed when too much activity flows your way. Even with these statements, you'll get lost amongst the trees from time to time. One of the quickest ways out is to re-read your vision.
What are you doing, and why are you doing it? Unless there is a strong emotional motivation for doing something, you'll have a difficult time keeping overwhelm at bay. Have you ever seen someone working 18 hours a day and never feeling overwhelmed or burnt out? It’s rare, but the few people I've known who can do that for a period of time (nobody can do it forever), can do so because they have a very powerful, emotionally-charged, passionate vision. They know exactly where they’re going, and more importantly WHY they’re going there.
5. Take baby steps. Just do it. But, do it slowly and easily. One of the biggest challenges people today face is the gap between their vision or goal and where they are today. More than anything else, I help my clients figure out the baby steps they'll take to close that gap. Not leaps, and not giant steps. Those are for super heroes who usually end up in trouble. Us normal folk generally do much better taking small, easy, doable steps that create and maintain forward momentum.
I've had clients complain because their forward progress seemed too easy. Somehow there’s the expectation that is has to be a struggle. Take away the struggle, and they don’t know what to do. One of MY greatest challenges as a coach is keeping people on this easy, effortless track of small steps. They're so accustomed to the struggle that they’ll do things to re-create struggle in other areas. We’re such a fascinating species.
In summary, overwhelm is not something you have to live with. It is a state of mind, not a fact of life. You can choose thoughts and actions that remove the feeling of overwhelm. As a result, you'll get more accomplished in the same amount of time with less energy expended.
Sid Smith is Coach, Trainer and Speaker from Portland, Oregon, who stops business professionals from swimming upstream. His specialty is Energy Management, and he helps individuals or teams to "get it done, and have fun". Learn how to work at peak performance with mental toughness, emotional resilience, and physical readiness. Oh, and maybe wear a silly hat just for good measure.