How to stop drowning in overwhelm in 2019

Finish this sentence for me:

“When I’m not feeling stressed out and overwhelmed I have more time for …”

Was your answer some variation of the following?

  • My family
  • Hobbies/creativity
  • Myself

If it was, I’m not surprised. I ran a survey on overwhelm in 2015 as part of the research for my second book and of the 1700 respondents, 95% of them came back with an answer that fit into one or more of the categories above.

The vast majority of respondents knew that when they weren’t stressed and overwhelmed they had more time for family, hobbies and self-care yet 52% of them admitted they were overwhelmed more often than not.

It seems ‘busy’ isn’t the new normal any more, overwhelm is.

And this is a problem because the major way this overwhelm manifested for survey respondents was this: irritability and compromised mental health.

I know these feelings well because they were the story of my life for the better part of 10 years.

But not anymore.

What did I do to get on top of the problem? Today I have six ideas to offer; all of which can be actioned immediately and all of which I know work because they all played a huge part in getting me off the overwhelm train.

If you too would like to step off the overwhelm train in 2019, why not resolve to give them a try in the new year.

1. Stop cherry-picking

We’ve all heard the adage ‘Don’t compare someone’s highlight reel with your everyday life’. Well, here’s a hot tip: don’t take the highlight reel from several people and mentally combine them into a single person who ‘has it all’ like I did.

Yes, I really did use to cherry-pick the best parts of everyone’s lives on Facebook or Instagram, put them together to create an awesome life absolutely no-one is living, and then aspire to that life.

Crazy, right? And now that you can see how crazy it is, you’ll be happy to know that overcoming it was as simple as catching myself doing it, and then reminding myself that person Does. Not. Exist!  

2. Understand other people’s goals are not your goals

Ever found yourself going for a promotion, training for a marathon or going heavily into debt to finance a McMansion in the next suburb ‘up’ … and then getting there to find out your sense of satisfaction did not outweigh the cost of getting there?

Then you’ve probably fallen in the trap of mistaking someone else’s goals for your own. I find this often happens when we feel our goals are not ‘big’ enough (especially when compared to those of our peers).

If that’s the case for you, I cannot recommend this David Brooks NYT article enough.

3. Get your priorities in order

In times of extreme overwhelm it feels like the easiest thing to do is let other people make decisions about how we spend our time (by responding quickest to those jumping up and down the loudest).

You know what happens next right? You feel really reactive because you’re lurching from one person’s ‘crisis’ to another. And the more reactive you get, the more overwhelmed you feel and the more inclined you are to outsource your decision making to the squeakiest wheels.

Whenever I find myself in this place I find the fastest cure is to step back, make a list of all the things that are clamouring for my time and attention, rank them from highest priority to lowest, and then lop off enough items at the bottom to make a difference.

4. Get comfortable with disappointing others

A few years ago my guiding word for the year was ‘No’. (After battling extreme overwhelm for my entire adult life, I’d finally decided it was time to stop pleasing people and make friends with FODO (Fear of Disappointing Others).)

What I was most scared about? People feeling let down by me when I said ‘No’ to them.

What actually happened?

Well, people felt let down by me when I said ‘No’ to them. And then … they got over it. Who knew!

5. Understand sunk cost fallacy

We’ve all had something: a friendship, a business, a volunteer activity that we knew full well was exacerbating our overwhelm. But we just couldn’t let that thing go. Why? Because we’d invested a lot of time into it and couldn’t bear the thought of ‘losing out’ on our investment by walking away from it.

What we need to understand is that while we may be losing significant ‘sunk costs’ by walking away from something, continuing to pursue it may end up costing us a lot more. I’m not saying just throw in the towel when the going gets tough. But if your gut is telling you loud and clear that it’s time to move on, give yourself permission to listen.

6. Learn six simple words

I mentioned my ‘Year of Saying No’ above. Here’s what got me through that year. Instead of saying ‘No’ to people, I started responding to every request with ‘Let me get back to you’. These six words are champions for a few reasons:

  • They work in every situation whether it’s your child asking for an ice-cream cone or a client asking for a crazy turnaround on a job.
  • They don’t lock you into a specific time-frame. You can get back to your child in 30 seconds and you can get back to your client tomorrow.
  • It removes the knee-jerk ‘Yes’ and allows us to be a lot more considered about what we say yes to.

So there you go. These are all lessons I’ve learned the hard way but hopefully you don’t have to. If there’s one thing that came out of the overwhelm research I conducted it’s this: overwhelm is holding us back from being the people we aspire to be.

So it’s time to push back. Because overwhelm being the new normal? That’s not a standard any of us should be getting on board with.

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