Is Overwhelm Holding You Back? This Approach Will Help You Beat It
Why do I feel so overwhelmed?
Last week, I wrote about fear, how I sit with it, and the effect that it has on many of us.
This week I was going to switch gears and write about something a bit more tactical, about what it means to scale a business — not in the Silicon Valley sense of “Get a gajillion users” but in the sense of “Run your business more effectively with less involvement and stress.”
But, as I dug into that, I realized that many of the barriers to scale come back to one thing:
So many of the business owners who connect with me for coaching struggle with feeling overwhelmed. There’s probably an element of selection bias in that. But I think there’s also an element of universality.
I struggle with feeling overwhelmed, too.
For me, it often comes late in the day. I usually wake up excited to dive into work. I’ll work on what I need to, and I’ll get things done, have calls, move projects forward, and connect with my team.
But, if I don’t get everything done (which is basically everyday!), I often will start to feel anxious and overwhelmed.
For me, I think there are a couple of underlying reasons.
I’m a very “left brain” guy. My analytical ability and my capability to tease things apart is one of my superpowers, but the left brain also keeps track of all the unfinished things. In moments of overwhelm, it’s hard for me to zoom out and rest in the work I’ve accomplished that day. My survival instinct parses the world apart, looking for the threats and focusing on what’s not done.
There’s also a component of self-imposed upper limiting behavior here (in other words, I get in my own way because I have a hidden commitment that is holding me back). I’m a big fan of the work of Gay Hendricks (The Big Leap, among many other titles) for his perspective on how we can move beyond our limits. Even as I move toward achieving my goals through the work that I love, I hold myself back.
One thing I’ve learned is that overwhelm isn’t something that I can outthink. Working with it skillfully involves working with three different aspects: mind, hands, and heart.
Mind is the aspect that we’re perhaps most familiar with. Strategies like writing tasks down to get them out of our working memory is a prerequisite (the cornerstone of systems like David Allen’s Getting Things Done). SMART goals can help us organize our work (see this great Khan Academy video made for elementary school kids for some helpful tips). And my team and I use quarterly Objectives and Key Results (website, book) to focus on what’s important.
There’s another aspect of organizing the mind that helps, too: limiting work in progress (WIP). An excess of WIP means that people are constantly switching between tasks. Instead of starting three tasks and spreading them out over three weeks, start one and bring it to completion before you move on to the next. My team and I have been chatting about limiting WIP this week; it’s a version of the laundry basket problem that I’ve written about before.
Hand is the doing. Ironically, the most effective way to avoid overwhelm is by not doing something.
What are you able to let go of and still get things done? This involves setting up systems and hiring great people. It requires empowering your team by setting goals, allowing mistakes, and avoiding micromanaging. It also involves developing a clear strategy (whether you’re the CEO of a multimillion dollar firm or a new graduate who’s just starting out), so you internalize the cost of saying yes and recognize what to say no to.
Finally, the heart. By heart, I mean not only feelings but the fundamental complex core of the matter. For me and many people I work with, overwhelm is a felt experience. It shows up in the body. To work with it, we need to meet it in the body.
We need to feel what’s happening, tune into our sensations. This is hard work, particularly for those of us who have built our success on the practice of deep, analytical thinking. In the past few years, I’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing feelings as they arise — but it’s still difficult to stay with them.
But, like sitting with fear, it’s a skill we can develop. Different things work for different people.
When I run without the distraction of a podcast, audiobook, or music, I’m more likely to remember to settle into my body. Even a relaxing shower helps.
Or I can consciously shift my perspective, bringing my visual attention to the whole scene around me instead of building my awareness from the specific features around me. My theory is that this technique shifts me to the right hemisphere of my brain, which is much less bothered by my to-do list because it holds the broader arc of my work.
Finally, I also work with a coach, who uses curiosity to help me stay with my sensations, and with a skilled massage therapist, who engages my body and holds space for my feelings to move me out of my thinking mind. This kind of work can be transformative.
How do you work with your overwhelm?