OMG, I feel so overwhelmed!!
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard those words from friends and clients.
It’s that feeling of pressure, the feeling that things are closing in on us, that we can’t complete everything we ‘have’ to do, that things around us are getting out of control. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it at one time or another.
…the feeling of ‘overwhelm’ is often unrelated to the reality of having a lot to do.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but there are plenty of times (right now for example) when I have a lot to do and somehow I manage to tackle one thing after another, crossing them off as I complete them. I feel busy, but I feel productive. I feel positive, not panicked.
What’s the Difference?
Whether I have a lot to do is a function of how many of my ideas I’ve decided to take forward; — whether they’ve made it from my imagination onto paper. It doesn’t always seem as if I have control over this, but I do.
An idea is only an idea until I decide to do something about it and, more and more, I wait until something really grabs me before I commit to action. If I don’t, if I act on too many of my ideas, then ‘having a lot to do’ very quickly turns into overload. It’s a function of the tasks I want to complete divided by the time available.
However, any feeling of ‘overwhelm’ is coming from my experience in the moment.
I might, or might not, have a lot to do, I might be under deadline, I might be in a habitual thought pattern about not completing everything I want to do, I might be having a ‘moment’ when I’ve allowed my thoughts to get the better of me.
Whatever is happening, my best response is to take a breath and allow it to pass.
I know, with 100% certainty, that the feeling of overwhelm is unrelated to what I have on my list of things to do.
We were on holiday recently and most of the day I felt pretty relaxed. We weren’t rushing to do a lot, the day started slowly, and flowed without much planning. We might see friends, go to the beach, and most days my husband talked about checking his emails or completing some small task — he talked, mind you, he didn’t always do.
Oh well, I can do that tomorrow,
was his usual reaction when going to the beach became more important than writing to a colleague or arranging an outing.
When he set his expectations in the morning, I think he genuinely wanted it to happen. I’d already let go of any such notion, so I just smiled when his idea got postponed to another day.
Hardly ever, though, even when the (admittedly half-baked) plans for trips or activities didn’t materialise, did we experience overwhelm.
I hear you exclaim,
that’s because you were on holiday!
Yes, that’s true, but to me it looks the same as when we’re home. There are many things I add things to my to-do list that could feel urgent:
- Book the dog in for his vaccination.
- Write ten pages of my book.
- Read that ‘important’ report from a colleague.
- Do a Facebook live.
Really, the world will not end if I don’t get everything done the day I first think it.
So, am I saying we should be less ambitious with what we want to do? Plan better, perhaps?
Maybe. Not necessarily though.
Some days I have a long list of things I want to do; others I focus on one single activity. I don’t schedule time and I don’t have a fixed way to plan.
What I do know for sure is that the way that I feel about what I’m doing, especially if it’s a feeling of pressure, isn’t created, and can’t be solved, by how well (or badly) I plan. There is no relationship whatsoever between what I do, and how I judge myself for the doing or not doing.
Reality Versus Weather
By separating the feeling from the reality, it becomes much obvious that feeling is fickle. So fickle in fact, that we never know what will show up, when it’s going to arrive and how long it will last.
Like the weather.
Our holiday was in northern Spain where the weather is fickle, very fickle. The promise of a sunny day can be replaced by drizzle and cloud with zero warning. And it can clear just as quickly.
That feeling of overwhelm is like a change in the weather. We can feel like superman one day and a jibbering wreck the next. And we still have the same intention about what we want to do.
The experience we’re having is as fickle as the Cantabrian weather. Just as quickly as the cloud comes over, so it will pass. It isn’t telling us anything relevant about the state of our to-do list or what action to take next. There’s certainly no reason to escalate the feeling into panic.
As we see this more clearly, it becomes easier to ignore those aberrant feelings and move our focus back to what we want to do; to tune in to what’s important in the big picture of life.
The to-do list will still be there and you can choose to take it one task at a time, or you can re-assess your priorities. It’s your list after all!
It Might Be Normal, But…
It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed from time to time but you don’t have to get caught up in believing the feeling is telling you anything relevant about the world around you.
Being able to tell the difference, and knowing when you’re listening to wisdom versus listening to a passing rain shower is the key to creating more impact in your work and in your life.
Email me if you see the difference — or if you don’t — that’s also a great place to start a conversation.
About the author
Cathy Presland is a leadership coach and strategist. She works with people who are making a positive impact with the work they do. Find out more at https://cathypresland.com