This will be a follow-up to the previous post on over-investing into a single endeavor and allowing the outcomes of that endeavor to determine our quality of life. If you missed that one here’s a link.
Today I will discuss the other side of the coin. Stretching ourselves too thin by accepting more work or taking on more side projects than we can handle.
This feeling of overwhelm is no stranger to us. With our overly complex and relentlessly busy lives, it’s not difficult to feel like we are drowning under all the pressure.
It can take over our reality and leave us miserable. Unable to de-stress without the nagging “Doing Mode” of our brain constantly chiming in to remind us of all the STUFF we need to somehow get done.
This overwhelm also keeps us up at night when we should be replenishing our reserves for the coming day. There we are lying down in the dark with our eyes closed, begging for the Sandman to take us away while being tortured by the endless thought stream:
- “I didn’t get nearly enough accomplished today, tomorrow is going to have to be long and grueling to make up for it.”
- “DAMN! I forgot I was supposed to schedule that dentist appointment today!… That’s almost a week straight now that I’ve forgotten to do it.”
- “And I probably won’t have time to do it tomorrow now that I’m so far behind.”
- “Ok, I HAVE to wake up an hour early tomorrow to try and get caught up. If I fall asleep RIGHT NOW I’ll get… 4 hours of sleep. Ugh.”
- “Speaking of that falling asleep thing, I don’t even feel tired! I’ve been laying here for over an hour now and It feels like my heart is about to beat out of its chest!”
- “Maybe if I had made time to meditate today like I was supposed to I wouldn’t be feeling so wired.”
- “Add that to the list of failures for the day…”
- “Oh no! The list of new potential prospects! I was supposed to Email that out earlier this evening and completely forgot! Time to start formulating my apology letter to the team. They aren’t going to be happy.”
And on and on and on it goes, until at some point, we finally slip into sleep, probably from sheer brain exhaustion.
Then, a few ineffective hours of rest later, we wake up to our blaring alarm, feeling awful, and our brain picks up the script right where it left off. The beginning of a new day of stress and rushing around until night comes and the cycle repeats itself. Again and again.
If this sounds like you, look no further for the answer to your problems. In this HUGE post, I am going to cover why we put ourselves in this position, some strategies for avoiding this situation in the first place, and how to deal with it once we’re already there.
Buckle in; this is going to be a long one.
We Weren’t Designed for This…
As always, I’d like to start by pondering how our primal ancestors would have handled this problem. After all, that was the environment our body and brains were built for over millions of years of evolution… there have to be some answers there right?
I like putting modern day problems in the light of the “primal perspective” as it often helps to take some of the blame off of ourselves. Many of life’s modern psychological issues are created by our way of living and were never meant to be experienced by us.
I take a little solace in the fact that our brains were not designed to encounter such complex difficulties. It helps me to stop being so hard on myself. (As we all LOVE to do)
Now, this isn’t meant to be used as an excuse or a reason to give up:
- “What’s the point in trying if my brain is literally incapable of doing this?”
The real magic is that we CAN overcome the unforeseen setbacks of modern life, and our ability to do so is what catapulted humanity into such massive progress as a species. Just think of it as overclocking our brains. Although they weren’t designed for this level of input, we push them to the limits. (And because of this, they sometimes experience malfunctions)
Now, as for how our ancestors handled this situation? Well, quite simply, they DIDN’T.
When it comes right down to it, evolution only cares about a handful of priorities:
That’s it. Anything extra is just icing.
Our brains evolved to determine the most efficient way to achieve these needs.
Try to imagine what life would be like if those four things were all we ever had to worry about.
Kind of hard right?
That’s because we have made three of those four things readily available. Most of us don’t need to worry about where we are going to get water and food from, or where we will safely rest for the night.
Without the concern of these necessities, life would be entirely about sex and passing on our genes. (On second thought, maybe a world like this wouldn’t be so bad!)
However, this just isn’t enough for us. We like to work towards something greater. To have a larger goal ahead. Our entire civilization was built off of this single aspect of our minds.
- We built aqueducts, wells, and eventually plumbing so that water was readily available to us.
- We improved our availability of food through agriculture.
- We built more stable and permanent shelters to eliminate the energy expenditure of being nomadic.
- And as for sex? Well… I guess we’re still trying to figure that one out… (Tinder anyone?)
Even these simple commodities that we take for granted took us THOUSANDS of years to develop. They weren’t some giant overwhelming list of tasks that each human born was destined to accomplish.
Most of those primal humans spent each day just worrying about those four necessities of survival. It makes sense that they rarely felt the level of overwhelm we do today.
At least not that frantic “I need to accomplish a million things today or my world is going to fall apart!” type of struggle.
As our basic needs were further and further optimized, our desire for growth grew and grew.
We had to get creative in the ways we added a sense of purpose to our lives. So we diversified into an insane network of skills and masteries to work towards. So many that we could never accomplish them all in a single life.
Instead, we must now CHOOSE from the MILLIONS of different options available to us.
That decision alone is enough to overwhelm our monkey brains and throw us into a feeling of helplessness and despair.
And the choices are only going to get harder and more diverse. This trend of humanity will continue, with the next major advancement most likely coming in the form of robots handling most of the more tedious and laborious jobs. As this happens humans will be pushed to create even more unique areas of growth and accomplishment.
The problem is that each human born today still starts off pretty much the same as every human born in the history of our species. They just want food, water, and shelter. As we grow it’s like we’re just trying to catch up with the last 20,000 years of human development.
Once again, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed and try to follow too many paths of progress at once.
So WHY do we do this to ourselves?
The Pressure of Society
If I were to add a fifth item to the above list of things primal humans were concerned with, it would be their social status.
Humans are very social creatures and a large part of the meaning we draw from life comes from what our immediate peers think of us.
One of the biggest determinants of the view others take of us lies in how much we can accomplish in a given period of time. We want to show superiors that we are strong enough to handle more tasks compared to others at our level while maintaining stability.
This pressures us into accepting more work than we probably should to “prove” our worth. However, doing so often results in us failing at all of the tasks rather than succeeding in the most important ones.
This in turn actually HURTS the view others have of us. Most people only care about results. If those results don’t come in or are poor in quality, people won’t see us as strong or brave simply for trying to take on more than we can handle.
In fact, knowing the limits of oneself shows strength. Being able to say NO to extraneous tasks to focus on the important ones displays our sense of priority and discretion.
The other major factor that pushes us to take on too much work is the awareness we all have of our limited lifespan. We know there are more options available to us than we could ever consume in just one life. Having a fear of choosing the wrong things and wasting your precious time is a very natural and justifiable feeling.
There are two ways we combat this feeling:
- We wait and fall victim to paralysis by analysis until we THINK we’ve found the right choice.
- We try and explore TOO MANY options at once, resulting in overwhelm.
I plan on writing a post all about that first point, but today we’re focusing on the second path.
Consumed by the fear of wasting our time we attempt to explore all of our interests at once to determine which of them is “the best” in the shortest amount of time.
Unfortunately, this results in us not being able to fully enjoy or analyze any of them, as we are constantly playing catch up and thinking about our next task, rather than being fully present with what we are doing right then.
To remain effective in our work we must develop the ability to control how much we put on our plate at one time. Now that we know the main causes that lead to this overwhelm we can begin to make strategic changes in the way we handle our time and commitments.
1. Just Say No
We all need help from others sometimes. (Much more often than we’d like to admit)
We learn throughout life that if we have a question or need help there’s always someone nearby that is willing to lend a hand. However, some people take advantage of the kindness of others.
We’ll call these people “Emergency Makers”
I call them this because these are the people that come to you with an “emergency” that they need immediate help with. They make whatever the task at hand is seem like the end of the world.
Funnily enough, these are also often the people that have taken on too much work themselves and are desperately trying to pass some of it off onto others.
They could probably benefit greatly from reading this post.
We all know someone like this. The person that comes to us in a panic and says “Hey could you give me a hand with these reports? I really need to finish them by lunch but I have so many other responsibilities that need my IMMEDIATE attention.”
Now, these people USUALLY mean well but are so caught up in their own struggles that they fail to view the issue from the other person’s perspective. In these instances, we must stand up for ourselves and defend our valuable time.
It can be hard to say no to someone in need, especially when they make it out to be such a crisis.
The first realization we have to make is that 99% of the time, these situations are not nearly as vital as the Emergency Makers illustrate them to be.
We don’t have to be rude in our refusal, we must simply tell them: “I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot on my plate as well and really don’t have the time to take on anything extra right now.”
If they get upset with you, then that is their problem. You have to stick up for yourself and your time first and foremost. In fact, I think focusing on our own important work will, in the long run, open up more time for us to help others once our tasks are completed.
If the person asking us is our superior, then they will most likely respect our honesty and recognize that we are focusing on quality over quantity, and nurturing a results-driven mindset.
As with most things in life, there is a balance to be achieved here. We don’t want to ALWAYS say no to every request, nor do we want to be the person that ALWAYS says yes and gets taken advantage of for it.
Use common sense. We know which tasks are the most important to be completed. Devote the most time to them, and help out others when you can afford to.
2. Only Take on One New Endeavor at a Time
This is a technique for those who have lots of interests and try to pursue them all at the same time.
Instead of trying out three new projects or hobbies all at once I recommend slowly adding new interests to your regimen. Here are some steps to follow:
- Add one new endeavor into your schedule.
- Try out this new endeavor for a WHOLE MONTH.
- At the end of the month analyze the results.
- If feeling overwhelmed, consider dropping the new project to make room for others.
- If not feeling overwhelmed, consider adding another new endeavor for the next month.
- Rinse and repeat.
Taking our time to feel out how new projects will fit into our schedule in this way allows us to catch ourselves when beginning to feel overwhelmed and adjust BEFORE we feel trapped. It also gives us a sense of control over the events in our lives rather than them controlling us.
So what if we’re already feeling trapped? So weighed down by our tasks that we feel if we stop to analyze we’ll be swept up by the currents.
There is a way out. It may not be easy, but it is necessary if we ever want to regain control of our lives.
Freedom through Elimination
When feeling buried underneath all of our obligations, it can be tough to know where to start when attempting to dig ourselves out.
To do so we must get organized, and lay out all the aspects of our lives in an easy to digest manner, rather than trying to make sense of the nebulous cloud of thoughts and fears plaguing us day and night.
We will do this on paper, using a series of steps and analysis that will become a staple practice in our lives moving forward.
I think this practice is something EVERYONE should do. If taken seriously this one tactic can totally transform our lives and the level of control we have over them.
I’m going to refer to this technique as “Life Chunking” as it lays out all the big areas of our life into “chunks” to help us view and understand them in a more organized manner.
Life Chunking Explained
In the precursor post to this one, I explained the Life Chunking process in greater detail than I will here in the “Intelligently Dividing Resources” section. If you missed that one here’s a link to go check it out.
I’ll lay out the main steps first and then go into a little more detail:
- Write down all your general life categories.
- Under each category list specific projects and endeavors we’re currently undertaking.
- Rank these on scales from 1 to 10 for:
- The potential return on time invested
- Level of energy required to maintain
- Analyze the results of your chunks and rankings for each item using questions like:
- What could I devote more time toward if dropping this?
- Which of these projects is taking up a large amount of energy with minimal potential return?
- Eliminate certain endeavors based on our findings.
- Repeat monthly.
- Apply the 80/20 principle to areas we’re still having trouble with.
When going through this process we may be surprised by how many insignificant tasks we find ourselves giving large amounts of time towards. If you do find these items, congratulations! You already know what to eliminate first and foremost.
It isn’t always obvious though, and sometimes we have to make tough decisions about what to drop. The most important thing though is that we DO eliminate SOMETHING.
It can feel terrible to give up; however, I’ve found that once pulling the trigger I get a HUGE wave of relief. As if I’d been carrying around a cinderblock for miles and suddenly decided to drop it and move on.
If you perform the first five steps above and are still feeling stuck, then you can try digging even deeper into specific or broader areas using an 80/20 analysis.
The Pareto Principle
Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle states that approximately 80% of results come from 20% of the input. Pareto discovered this when realizing 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the residents. It has since been found to apply to MANY different aspects of life and reality, almost to a scary degree.
So how do we use this to help decide what projects to eliminate from our life?
I learned this technique from Tim Ferriss, and this is how he goes about it:
- Pick a specific project or endeavor from our list or even one of the broader life categories.
- Ask ourselves three questions relating to the subject:
- What are the 20% of activities, responsibilities, or people that are producing 80% or more of the results AND positive emotional states that I want?
- What are the 20% of activities, responsibilities, or people that are producing 80% or more of the pain, headache, and negative emotional states that I would prefer not to have?
- What would this subject (project, relationship, or endeavor) look like if it were easy?
- Write out long-form answers for these questions, at least a page or two each, and don’t edit your answers. Much of what comes out will probably be ridiculous but there are also often simple and efficient solutions hidden among the nonsense.
- Work to eliminate the negative 20% and focus on spending more time doing the positive 20%.
- Repeat monthly.
Performing these practices at least once a month is a great way to not only avoid overwhelm but also to get a feel for how many different things we can handle at any one time.
After a few iterations, we will begin to intuitively know whether or not we can take on any additional work without having to check our lists each time.
Even if we practice this regularly, there’s bound to be times when we feel we’re being crushed under the weight of all our problems. That is why I HIGHLY recommend that EVERYONE tries out my number one cure for feeling overwhelmed.
Showing Up to Our Own Life
We spend so much time thinking about the future and ruminating about the past that we forget the most important moment of our lives: the present.
We neither live in the future nor the past. The only moment we have to do something is this one, right now. Although many of us repeatedly miss that moment.
Rather than appreciate what is happening RIGHT NOW we have trained our brains to engage in mental time travel almost constantly. It results in us forgetting about everything we have to be thankful for. The small things like a nice sunny day, birds chirping in the morning, and even the fact that each breath we draw is a gift.
Mindfulness meditation aims to retrain the brain to be more present and accepting towards whatever life throws at us.
Focusing on our breath for even just a few minutes can greatly calm an overactive mind that’s bouncing from one topic to another with no signs of stopping.
It also allows us to, through presence of mind, make the most effective decisions for each passing moment. This eventually leads to a surplus of time at the end of the day, as much of the energy spent towards rumination and decision making is streamlined.
In this same way developing a meditation practice can actually INCREASE the number of tasks we can handle at any one time. Presence of mind + extra time = more room for additional endeavors, projects, or hobbies.
There is one caveat here though, and that is the fact that meditation takes time and practice to yield its fruits, much like any other skill in life. Developing and sticking to a regular practice is the hardest part of beginning meditation, but it gets much easier when a routine is established.
At first, it’s difficult to notice how the meditation is seeping into everyday life. It starts out fairly subtle but becomes more pronounced the longer one practices.
If you’re thinking to yourself: “Meditation! Ugh. I don’t know anything about it! That’s just one more thing to add to the list! (Negative emotional spiral of overwhelm continues)” then I’ve got you covered, as I wrote a post all about how easy and simple it can be to start meditating. If you’re interested, check it out here.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
If you’ve made it this far, congrats! You’re now equipped with a plan to help yourself control the projects in your life and avoid the feeling of everything crashing down at once.
This is my longest post yet, so let me know what you think of it in the comments below!
What insights did you get from performing the Life Chunking and 80/20 Principle practices?
How did you manage to choose which projects to eliminate?
And if you still haven’t read the precursor to this post all about overinvesting into a single endeavor or project you can find it here.
I plan on creating a free printable blueprint for the Life Chunking and 80/20 Principle practices which I will add to this post. So make sure to check back soon for those free resources!
Now go out there and take control of your endeavors.
Be the master of your life, don’t let life master you.
And as always, stay mindful dear readers, and have a wonderful day.