Mental Tricks to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed

by Jan 5, 2016Achieving Balance13 comments

I was reading a list of goals from a client and nearly laughed out loud. I work with a lot of overachievers, but I thought this was perhaps the most ridiculously overambitious list yet.

But I didn’t want to say that directly. I wanted him to figure that out for himself. So I told him to add up how many hours he thought each task would take to accomplish and report back to me.

He estimated it would take him approximately 15 hours a day over the next 90 days to accomplish the goals he’d described. And he was completely unfazed at the prospect. In fact, it would be difficult to describe his emotional state as anything other than eager.

This was an interesting response considering that when I asked him to choose one word to describe his 2015, he replied, “Overwhelmed.”

This is a man who loves his work. He also happens to be exceptionally good at it. When I asked him what he would do with more free time if he had it, he had a hard time coming up with a response. The idea of relaxing on a beach or getting lost in a book wasn’t unappealing, but those activities had a hard time competing with his passion-based business.

That interaction got me to thinking. Is there a meaningful difference between overwhelmed and busy? And is it possible that the trick to stop feeling overwhelmed had nothing to do with how busy you are? 

You don’t have to justify your calendar

Busy bashing has become popular among the media (occasionally myself included–mea culpa). 

The idea is that busyness is at best a failure of prioritization or time management or at worst the mark of someone who is afraid to face themselves in the stillness of rest. It conjures images of professionals who get ahead but miss out on life. Or frenetic moms who sacrifice too much in order to shuttle their over-scheduled kids from one activity to the next.

In my experience, however, feeling overwhelmed is not only different from feeling busy, the two are nearly unrelated.

That is, feeling overwhelmed has very little to do with how many appointments are on your calendar and everything to do with your state of mind. In the now classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains:

“Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times— although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Thus, being busy won’t make you feel overwhelmed if the activities are personally meaningful, largely intrinsically motivated, and within your capability. Seen in this light, a simplified version of the relationship between our mental states and the tasks before us might look like this:

Flow chart

So burnout, or what I would equate to feeling overwhelmed, is really the result of a mismatch between one’s skills and one’s goals. To move from burnout to flow, you either need to increase your skills or reduce the level of difficulty.

But here’s the really important part: your perception of the challenge and your effective skills is what matters most.  And your perception can be influenced by a number of factors, such as:

  • How tired you are
  • Your relative skill level compared to those around you
  • The most recent feedback received on your performance

I know when I’m feeling overwhelmed, my first instinct is to quit some of my commitments. And I feel very justified doing this because we are bombarded with the message that people today are over-committed and unfocused. But what this graph tells you is that it’s equally likely you just need a good night’s sleep or a small win, and your perception of the situation will change literally overnight.

For example, if I get a “no” from several potential coaching clients in a row, I sometimes start to feel overwhelmed. I either doubt my ability as an entrepreneur or look to pare back the number of things I’m working on. But usually all I need is a single yes in order to feel like all is right in my world again.

The lesson for me is that there’s nothing wrong with pursuing challenging goals or being busy. Quite the contrary, for someone like me, those are optimal experiences that I should, and do, look forward to, just like my client. The trick to stop feeling so overwhelmed is to understand how to move back into the flow or relaxation quadrants without feeling like you have to make massive changes in your life.

I’m getting better at it. Last night, after a day of intense work, I offered to clean the dishes for my husband. It’s not an activity I usually enjoy, but it was exactly what I needed: 30 minutes of an easy task for which I have high skill. Afterwards I was rejuvenated enough to go back to work, capping off a busy, but enjoyable 10-hour day.

So the next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, ask whether you have a challenge problem, a skill problem, or a perception problem.

And before you try to answer that question, make sure you’ve had some rest.