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Where to begin in the sea of overwhelm

I think we’re all familiar with the feeling of overwhelm. Many contribute it to having too many things to do, but it can also occur when you have too many emotions, too many opinions, too many decisions to make, or a combination of all the above. It’s ultimately a feeling of having more of something than you can handle. And when that feeling sinks in, it can be hard to see where to begin.

Overwhelm is sneaky. It actually comes out of an effort to live a balanced lifestyle. Most people’s idea of a balanced lifestyle is equal parts of doing what you want to do and doing the things you have to do. That’s why the eight-hour work day was created—eight hours of work, eight hours of not work, and eight hours of rest. But as you know, this isn’t how life works. There will be busy periods at work that require more than eight hours a day. There will be busy periods in your social life when friends want you to travel or you commit to the sand volleyball team every Tuesday. There will be busy periods with family, when your younger sister is graduating and your older brother is getting married and you have to attend all the events associated with their accolades. Overwhelm occurs when all of these responsibilities collide, and all you want to do is escape, perhaps hide and watch The Bachelorette. And, a lot of times you do. Then, when your show is over, you realize allllll the things to do are still there and you’re still drowning in the sea of overwhelm.

Many confuse overwhelm with being stressed-out. They certainly go hand-in-hand but the order in which they occur is important to notice. Feeling stressed-out is a result of feeling overwhelmed. In the example above, the choice to watch The Bachelorette is your attempt at tackling the feeling of being stressed-out, but does not actually tackle the root of the problem—the overwhelm. Many believe that when the feeling of overwhelm arises, one should relax, take a break, maybe schedule a massage… But you know as well as I do, this never solves the problem.

The only thing to solve the problem is to start tackling the things you feel overwhelmed about. Need to get a gift for the graduation party? Great, do it and get it done. Need your dress altered for the wedding? Google a service provider and schedule the alterations appointment. Still have the deadline to meet by the end of Friday? Pump yourself up, and maybe buy your favorite healthy snack to nourish you for a couple of extra long work days. Plan your Bachelorette binge for the Saturday to follow.

When you are swept up in the feelings of being stressed-out, it’s hard to find where to begin in the sea of overwhelm. The only way to know where to begin is to first acknowledge what’s happening. The words, “I feel overwhelmed,” or “I’m stressed-out,” roll off your tongue frequently, but yet you never hear yourself say those words. Those words, however, are the signal to take action (not relax!). Once you realize you’re overwhelmed, follow these steps:

1. Identify the big loomer – when you’re in a state of overwhelm, there’s typically one big looming thing that you are avoiding the most. Sometimes it’s a tough conversation, like firing someone at work, or sometimes it’s testing your own abilities, like making the podcast episode you promised yourself you would make. The big loomers are often really emotional, take a lot of time, or both. It will always take you out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, the big loomer is responsible for your entire feeling of overwhelm, it can be that big. So whatever the big loomer(s) is(are) for you, it must be tackled first. To start to tackle the big loomer, identify if it is one big thing that needs completed (like having the firing conversation), or if it will take multiple steps (like starting a podcast). If it will take multiple steps, consider starting with the component that feels most difficult. If that’s making a podcast strategy, then set aside time to work on the strategy. If it’s having a jingle made, find a musician to create a jingle for you. Chip away at the list until your first episode is complete. Once you’ve accomplished it once, your overwhelm will diminish.

2. Make a list of all the other things – most often, our overwhelm is a result of one or two big loomers, and then a plethora of tiny tasks that take significantly less time. This can include things like:

  • making an appointment to have the oil changed in your car (so you can drive to the wedding)
  • ordering the wedding gift
  • booking your hotel
  • buying your plane ticket
  • putting up an away message in your work email
  • doing a quick clean of your home

Once you have your list made out, prioritize it by most important to least important. Having your oil changed has to do with your safety, so it’s pretty important. Whereas, if cleaning your home doesn’t get completed, your life isn’t on the line. Perhaps you set that chore aside and instead, tackle some of the other items on your list.

3. Let go of all the rest – I don’t know about you, but when I start going through my list of to-dos, I start adding to the list. These are usually things I’d like to do but don’t have to do, but now feels like the best time to do them —Why not?! I’m on a roll now! Suddenly, cleaning the  hairbrush seems of the utmost importance before I can pack it in my bag. Or going to dinner with my friends has to happen since I won’t be available for them the next three days and I certainly don’t want to disappoint. At these moments, take a real close look at what you can let go of, and let it go! Take the space that you need to initiate progress on your list. Your state of mind is more important right now.

4. Reward yourself – having the weight of overwhelm lifted is often a big enough reward, however, if you just tackled something that you feel proud of, reward yourself! This is always a great idea, especially when it’s a personal endeavor. If you completed that first podcast episode, celebrate by going for a long hike away from technology or enjoying a pedicure with the girls. Do something that feels special and celebratory for noticing it was time to take action. And you actually took action while stepping out of your comfort zone! 

The more quickly you identify when you’re in a state of overwhelm, the more quickly you can take the steps to dissolve the feeling. Oppositely, the longer you stay overwhelmed, the more you feel stressed-out, fatigued, unproductive, and can barely see your hand in front of your face. No one wants to live like that, although it’s tempting at the moment. Instead, choose to stay committed to taking action when you need to the most and notice how powerful you feel by not giving in to the feelings of being stressed-out or overwhelmed.

If you want to learn more, be sure to register here for our Beyond the Mat Chat: Gain Clarity in a Drove of Decisions.

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