Recently, I had what felt like a minor landslide of overwhelm hit my life. As a life and career coach, I work with clients daily, and I run a podcasting bootcamp class. I recently left my corporate job and rebalanced my son’s time in preschool so he’s home two days a week with me and I work the other three. It was going great … until …. The water main broke at his school and they closed for two weeks. What felt “doable,” quickly careened into the territory of “too much.” To juggle work and calls that first week, there was a lot of TV being watched at our house. On Wednesday we went to a pinball Museum for half a day. By Friday I was pretty frazzled and feeling like I was doing a whole lot, but not doing anything well. I got so distracted by my son playing with a balloon while in his car seat that I managed scrape my car against our fence while backing out of the driveway on our way to the store.
Overwhelm. It’s that feeling that things are not as you’d like for them to be and that life is out of control. A feeling of anxiety around the amount of things that need to be done, and if you’re like me, anxiety about the things that are not done. In my own life, and in the lives of my clients, overwhelm seems to be a symptom that comes up when there changes, or new things in play in someone’s life. You start a new job, have a baby, take up a new training class, or a new hobby, and what once felt somewhat balanced is now on the precipice being completely out of control.
I’m sure that you have a similar story in your life, somewhere. The moment you realize that you’ve been running to hard and feel that really uncomfortable anxiousness, or that kind of screechy, over caffeinated, can’t focus on any one thing for too long feeling? And then something happens when you’re going too fast, trying to balance it all?
That moment Is a wakeup call. Overwhelm hits (really quite literally and figuratively for me in this example) and we need to slow down, and pay attention to what is going on.
What is overwhelm trying to tell us?
1. Slow down
Overwhelm is a gentle reminder from your mind and body to slow down. If I’d slowed down in my own example above, it’s likely that I would have paid more attention, focused where I needed to focus, and not scraped my car on the fence. Or, perhaps I would have stopped altogether and paid attention to the things in an order that made more sense and led to a better outcome. Any way it goes, mentally and physically slowing down would have definitely helped my situation.
The irony of being overwhelmed is that it feels like if we just keep moving faster, we’ll get more done, but that’s not usually the truth. Society has become fascinated with multi-tasking and going faster, but the facts show that humans are not good at multi-tasking (each thing actually takes more time instead of less), and that rushing to complete things adds more errors.
By slowing down, I’ve found that I actually get more done. It creates space for me to make conscious decisions about what needs to happen next, about what the priorities are in my day, and to do things well.
As overwhelm hits, slow down. Access the wisdom of your heart and gut or intuition. An interesting fact? Your brain is not the only organ in your body taking in data throughout the day. You actually listen with your heart and your gut or intuition and these organs “think” four times slower than your brain, so slowing down lets you assimilate all of that information before acting.
2. Look inside, instead of outside, of yourself for what you need.
Maybe you’re a list maker. I certainly am, and I can let my lists rule my day. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, and having one of those “wake up call moments,” treat it as an invitation to stop, breathe, and ask yourself, “What do I really need in this moment? What is the next thing that absolutely needs to be done?”
If you have a list that you’re working from, stop and do a reality check with it. Does everything on there really need to be completed? The answer that comes back might surprise you, or it might be the simple act of checking in, and slowing down, that helps you get to the true next task.
As you start to look at all of the things on your list, question if each thing is needed? What can be removed? What can wait for later?
3. Focus on you and what you can control
Often times, when overwhelm hits, it’s accompanied by things we can’t control. My son’s school closing is an example. I can’t control that a water main broke outside the building, and it’s good to recognize that as much as I don’t want that to have happened, it’s now something that I have to work with. Putting a lot of time or energy into trying to change it or fight it won’t impact the outcome. I like what Randy Pausch said in “The Last Lecture” -
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
So, once you’ve slowed down and started to look at the situation, note what you can control, and what you can’t. How can you make the most of the pieces you can control? Is there a way to work around the situation? Is there a new way of seeing what’s going on?
A great tool for this is to draw two circles on a piece of paper, one small one in the middle, and a larger one around the outside. In that smaller center circle, write all the things you can control about your current situation. Around the outside, write the things you can’t control. Then start working with what you can control.
4. Take care of yourself
When life gets overwhelming, another survival trait that comes up for many of my clients is that they stop taking care of themselves in basic ways. When we’re busy, it’s easy to push ourselves to sleep less, to forget to eat meals, to neglect the things that would actually make us feel good. So an exercise that I encourage clients to try, after slowing down, is to write out the five to ten things that they really, truly need each day. This varies for each person, but some examples are “go for a walk,” “wash my hair,” “call a friend.” These seem so simple, but, when we get busy and skip them, things feel less easeful. It’s great to have a list to refer back to so when things start to feel overwhelming, you know what to do to get back on track.
Paula Jenkins is a life coach and podcast host focused on transforming lives. Her purpose and her work all dance with the transformative nature of joy, even when we are faced with hard times and difficult questions. She invites you to stop by her website and sign up for her free course, Finding Balance.