One of the most common afflictions clients come to me with is a sense of overwhelm -- a feeling that there is too much to do and nowhere near enough time to do it in. To their surprise, I rarely recommend addressing their to-do list directly. Since all our feelings come from thought, and not from our circumstances, I know that overwhelm is actually caused by over-thinking.
Think about this for yourself. Are there times where you feel calm and capable, despite the size of your to-do list? Can you think of a specific time where you felt overwhelmed and realized afterwards that it wasn't the volume of things to do, it was one particular thing you'd blown up all out of proportion in your mind that seemed to be looming large over you?
Trying to handle overwhelm by applying better time management strategies would be like trying to treat an illness by putting more money into your retirement plan, or trying to lose weight by reading more Jane Austen novels. You may be able to find some tenuous link between the two, but the attempted "cure" has nothing to do with the actual cause.
Since the feeling of overwhelm is caused by overwhelming thoughts, the "cure" for overwhelm will always come via new thought. And since we all have an infinite creative potential for new thinking in any moment, a sense of relief, clarity, and calm (not to mention insightful ideas for how best to handle what you are planning to do) can come to you in any moment.
However, that's not to say that a deeper understanding of the thought/feeling connection means you can simply take on more and more to-dos and stay productive. Sometimes, once our minds are clearer and the feelings of overwhelm have passed, it becomes apparent that we've simply bitten off more than we can chew. Some of the structures we've created in our lives to support our workload simply aren't strong enough to handle the amount of work we try to put onto them. After all, even if a suspension bridge has high self-esteem, it will still collapse if we put too much weight on it.
For example, for several years I found it virtually impossible to keep up with my workload and consequently important maintenance activities (like paying bills and even invoicing clients) fell through the cracks. Numerous people suggested I hire a personal assistant, but I was convinced the problem was in my psychology. After all, what kind of lazy, precious, self-indulgent bliss ninny couldn't get through a few dozen emails each day while writing books, coaching clients, developing a radio show and helping raise three kids while maintaining a loving marriage?
I posted a copy of the motivational credo "Don't wish it was easier -- wish you were tougher" above my desk, and did my best to solve the problem by working even harder. I set up complex punishment and reward systems to keep me on track and driving forward, promising myself all kinds of treats when my work was finally done and threatening myself with bankruptcy and self-loathing if I stopped short of the daily target.
Then one morning, I was on my way to the office when a shaft of sunlight caught my face and I stopped to enjoy the warmth. In that tiny moment of quiet, I had an epiphany. With absolute clarity, I realized I couldn't do it anymore. Not because I wasn't tough enough, or disciplined enough, or committed enough, but because there were simply more things on my to-do list than I would ever have time to do.
In other words, when I was no longer overwhelmed, it became immediately apparent that I was overloaded. I went straight to the phone and called an agency to hire my first assistant, and to my surprise, neither went to hell for being lazy nor went broke by taking on the extra expense.
Over time, I stopped taking so much on, finally seeing the elusively obvious fact that doing a few things really, really well would take me a lot further than trying to do everything just to get it done. And when I stopped beating myself up to get myself to move forward, I realized that a life without punishment requires far fewer rewards.
While I still take on more than I can handle from time to time, when my mind slows down, it becomes easy to see whether the problem is in my head or in my life. If it's in my head (i.e. overwhelm), I take a step back and let my thoughts settle. If it's in my life (i.e. overload), I either introduce a new structure designed to support the larger workload or take things off my plate until it's easy to carry.
If you're desperate for me to get to the point and wondering how to apply this distinction in your own life, you're probably a bit overwhelmed right now. When we're caught up in our thinking, everything starts to look like a job, and even letting go of overwhelm seems like another thing to add to the to-do list.
But when your mind is relatively clear and quiet, your own common sense and wisdom will prove a reliable guide as to how much you can usefully take on at any given time. And the best news of all is that clarity and peace of mind is never more than one thought away...
For more by Michael Neill, click here.