The best advice we give is usually the advice we most need to listen to. This is the case for me when it comes to getting overwhelmed. I’m far too good at saying yes. My to do list usually contains at least 5 miracles to perform before breakfast. And every time I eliminate a task that isn’t important or essential, I have a tendency to think of two things I should do in its place.
Recently I’ve been making a much more concerted effort to stop this cycle of wild optimism followed by overwhelm. It’s so easy to overestimate what we can do in a short period but the converse is also true: we can underestimate the amount of change we can accomplish in a longer time. Getting the flow right is the trick.
1. ‘No’ is a helpful word
I recently had a tiny number of publishing slots for a group of talented writers who’d worked hard over a year of intensive mentoring. There were many fewer slots than authors.
I’ve faced this before and in some years I’ve taken on more work than was sane because saying no was too difficult. Saying yes exempted me from hard decisions. It also insulated me from the possibility of facing others’ disappointment or even outright conflict.
This year I came away without increasing the number of books on the forward list. I did this even though I managed to take on the work of three more mentoring students than I’d planned. I achieved this feat by only allowing myself to take on an extra commitment if I could uncommit to something else in the timetable.
This still required me to say no, but I gave myself room to choose where was best to say it.
We don’t have to become negative and ungiving, but we do have to make choices if we want to be free of the downward cycle of overwhelm. Saying yes to things that aren’t essential or that drain you will sap your energy. Saying yes to things that leave you lukewarm or because you want to appease others, is a recipe for self-negation.
If you want to avoid overwhelm, learn to say no sometimes.
2. Take time to think
Even if you don’t end up saying no to some things, it’s good to take time to consider before giving a yes. I’ve realised over the years that some people are adept at putting me on the spot, knowing they can get a yes that way.
I’ve learned to say I’ll respond by email rather than agreeing to phone calls. Not everyone who wants to call is trying to manipulate or bully, but email gives me space to think.
It’s not only demands on your time that are good to think about. When you are facing a long to-do list or have deadlines competing for your attention, you need time to think.
The reactive thing to do when we are facing demands to do five things at once is to jump in. Sometimes I’ve found myself going between two or three tasks at the same time, all suffering as a result. Breathe. Think. Prioritise. Do one thing.
3. Forget multi-tasking
There are lots of things we can do at once. We can walk and have a conversation. We can cook and listen to music. If one of the things we are doing is automatic and simple to us, we can likely combine them together.
Daydreaming while washing up or challenging yourself to exercise are great ways to give the brain a hit of dopamine without frazzle, but the idea that we can do two (or more) complex activities at once is a myth.
What happens instead is that the brain switches between the two activities. And the constant switching has consequences. We use up glucose causing feelings of exhaustion or even disorientation. We store information in the wrong place, making our short term memory weaker. We produce more stress hormones.
Multi-tasking and overwhelm belong together. Don’t do it.
4. Use time blocks
Instead of a simple to-do list, I now load all my tasks for the week into a time table. They get slots depending on how essential they are. Writing, editing and mentoring get big chunks of time when I’m fresh and awake. Routine admin, tweeting and maintenance tasks get less time and at less productive times of the day.
If I give myself three hours for email, I’ll use it. If I have an hour to update the accounts, answer emails and do five small admin tasks, I’ll get it done in the deadline. These kind of tasks will expand to fill whole days if we allow them.
Batching activities that are similar together and giving your most focussed times to the important tasks will go a long way in preventing overwhelm.
5. Break tasks down
Having said that you can batch less essential things so that they absorb less time and energy, the opposite can be true of bigger tasks. If you have a major quest to achieve or a passion project, it’s likely to be complex and not something you’ll do in one sitting.
The novel I want to write this year is getting done in chapters between planning sessions. I’m not going to spill out a whole book in one go. And when it’s done there will be editing and several other stages.
When you break big visions into tiny steps they are much less overwhelming.
6. Challenge your perspective
None of us have an objective sense of self, but when we get overwhelmed, our perspective is likely to be at its most inaccurate. Feeling overwhelmed often comes with a slew of self-accusations:
- I’m useless
- I never get anything right
- I can’t manage even …
You know the kind of negative thinking that keeps us wallowing.
Whenever you find yourself thinking like this, ask yourself what is inaccurate in your mindset. Make yourself think of five things you’ve acheived —
- five big achievements from your whole life
- five everyday but essential things you’ve achieved today (no matter how small they seem)
- five times you’ve been generous
- five times you’ve finished something
Don’t let anyone berate you, not even yourself. If something has gone wrong, face it, but don’t feel that taking yourself apart will help. Start again. And start by thinking about what you can do, not what you can’t.
7. Be kind to yourself
There are days when we are so overwhelmed that the energy eludes us. There are days when all we want to do is curl up in bed and pretend the world doesn’t exist. On those days time blocks might feel a step too far. Doing anything can feel impossible.
On those days it can be useful to do something that has nothing to do with twenty tasks calling to you and leaving you too dizzy to function.
- Go for a walk.
- Pour a long bubble bath
- Read your most ‘comfort-book’ book
- Be kind to yourself
I can hear the argument coming back: But that won’t get anything on my list done. I’ll be even further behind and more overwhelmed.
But the truth is often the opposite. By giving yourself pause you can return with fresh thinking and more energy and positivity. We often solve a problem by not thinking of it for a while. Give yourself a break.
8. Enlist help
People with an ‘I’ll do it myself’ attitude are most prone to getting overwhelmed. A few years ago when I found myself living alone in a tiny rural village with no shops, I had to ask my neighbours for help. The alternative would have been to let my business collapse because I couldn’t get to the post office with boxes of books. The responses were unfailingly generous.
Cinnamon Press is able to keep going because many people volunteer to help. They donate skills or time or funds.
When you feel overwhelm creeping up, ask for help. Other people can give practical help, offer insights you might not have had, tell you that the thing you are worrying about isn’t nearly as important as you imagined.
We are going to suffer overwhelm from time to time, but it doesn’t have to win. You can defend yourself.
- Say no sometimes
- Take time to think
- Use time blocks
- Forget multi-tasking
- Break tasks down
- Challenge your perspective
- Be kind to yourself to break the cycle
- Enlist help
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