How to live (and deal) with overwhelm

In productivity, getting things done by neville

We all get overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed too, even when one of the things I specialise in is to help my subscribers and clients deal with overwhelm.

I’m not immune because life is not a constant. Things change all the time, the demands on our time, energy and emotions change from day to day and even from hour to hour. Events in our businesses and personal lives affect us in ways we don’t always notice, sometimes things seem to come at us faster and faster and before we know it we’re overwhelmed.

So rather than “beating” overwhelm, we have to learn how to live with it and deal with it so we can live our lives without being in a constant state of panic.

There are two main parts to this.

Learning to recognise overwhelm

Overwhelm can breed some nasty emotions. Panic, fear, absent-mindedness, short tempers – all of these are part of the mix. And these in turn can have some nasty effects – our minds are all over the place and we’re less alert when we’re driving, we’re sharp with our colleagues, friends and family and we can’t focus long enough to get anything done.

All of us feel this – me too. At one time in my life (long ago) it was bad enough that I had to go on medication to deal with panic attacks (it’s not just overwhelm that causes this, of course). But for the vast majority of us overwhelm is just part of building a business; there’s so much stuff to do, all at the same time, that we don’t know where to start or what to work on next.

And to deal with this, the first things we have to deal with is our emotions.

I believe (but can’t prove) that we can’t control how we feel, but we can get better at how we react to – and deal with – our emotions.

The first step in dealing with overwhelm is awareness.

When we feel panicked, stressed and unable to focus, it is worth taking a step back and just looking at what we’re feeling. Recognise that we’re panicked and stressed, and accept that this is how we’re feeling.

Just that recognition is a big step. If you can do this, you stop becoming a victim of your emotions and recognise it for what it is – something you’re feeling. And that first step is both difficult and huge and not easy. It takes practice to do it consistently, but with practice it becomes easier and easier to recognise the symptoms, identify them for what they are, and then move on to the next step.

Once you’re able to recognise that you’re feeling the emotions that come with overwhelm, you’re in a better place to start dealing with it.

Learning to deal with overwhelm

In my experience, we get overwhelmed for two main reasons:

  • there’s too much coming at us, all at the same time, to deal with effectively; and
  • we’ve lost sight of what’s important and what we need to focus on now.

There’s no easy fix to deal with too many things coming at us at the same time. But what you can do is take a step back, make a list all the things that need to be dealt with, and then start delegating or focus on the most urgent thing first.

Make a list

You actually need to make a list. On paper or on your computer or tablet, but literally make a list. Just the act of writing down everything that’s coming at you will get it out of your head (and reduce mind chatter), give you a better perspective of what’s really going on and give you a tool to prioritise.

It sounds so easy, but the simple act of making the list is the first step in actually dealing with stuff. Without the list there’s just a jumble of thoughts in your head; getting it on paper will allow you to prioritise, delegate (if you can) and then focus on the next thing you need to deal with.

Once you have all the “stuff” in a list, there are many different techniques for dealing with them. Delegate what you can. Take the things that are quick to deal with and deal with them. Get the most urgent thing done first. Whichever technique you use, with the very first thing you get done you will begin to feel better and your emotions will begin to take a turn for the better. You’re no longer lost, you’re in control and you’re getting stuff done.

Get back your perspective

Too much coming at us at the same time will cause us to lose sight of what’s important and what we need to do next. But sometimes we can lose sight of what’s important – and what we need to do next – because we’ve been heads down and stuck in the detail for too long.

You’ll recognise this when you start your week or day with no clear list of things that need to be done. Or you repeatedly and easily get distracted. Or you look back at the end of the day or the week and you wonder just what the heck you got done. Or all of these – and more.

When this happens, it’s time to take a step back and get perspective. What’s the big picture? Where are the constraints or bottlenecks? What are the highest-value things you could be doing to advance your business?

The best tool I know of to do this is the Tornado Method. This is a framework with 11 elements in three layers; get all 11 elements right and you have a successful business.

To deal with overwhelm, I go back to the Tornado Method top-level worksheet (in the diagram above), determine where my business is not performing as it should, list the top things that need to be done in each element, and then determine in which order they need to be solved to move ahead.

(This may seem like a sales pitch for my own stuff, but seriously it’s not. I couldn’t find a tool to do the job so I built it.)

The point is that you need some kind of framework to give you perspective on what’s working and what not. And sometimes you need to take even one step further back to look at your strategy and your plan for achieving it. The key is getting the perspective you need to determine what’s important, what you need to deal with next and what has to wait until later.

And when you have that perspective, you can decide what to work on next. Overwhelm may still be lurking in the background, but you know what you need to focus on now.

You will get better at living – and dealing – with overwhelm

We all feel overwhelm at some point, and it will probably be with us most of our lives. This is life – an ever-changing kaleidoscope of stuff that need to be done, relationships that evolve and events that shape who and what we are and where the priorities are.

So rather than trying to beat overwhelm, recognise that it is part of life and we have to learn to live with it and how to deal with it. Over time we get better at both; we feel less panicked or stressed when the pressure mounts, and we get better at dealing with it as we get faster at recognising what’s important and where we need to focus.

And you don’t need to do this in a day. All you need to do is get one percent better each day.

I hope this will help you cope with overwhelm better – just a little bit.