We're all feeling overwhelmed from time to time. This is especially true for entrepreneurs and those who begin to build their businesses, but people get overwhelmed with life just as it is as well.
The problem with feeling overwhelmed is, that it most often blurs the solution to the challenge we're currently facing. It lets people focus on the wrong things at the wrong times.
But why are we feeling overwhelmed? Where is the root of this feeling, that constantly challenges us in our daily routines as entrepreneurs, wantrepreneurs or small business owners?
Let me share my thoughts on this. I'm no expert in psychology or human behaviour, but I think I've got a clear understanding of what makes me personally feel overwhelmed and I'm confident that you can relate to my thoughts.
I found that I'm feeling overwhelmed when I'm confronted with a flood of things I need to take action on, like deciding what to do, doing research for a decision, handling problems or wrapping my mind around a situation I can't change myself.
I'm feeling overwhelmed in those times, when I have more information to process than I'm capable of within a short amount of time.
Feeling overwhelmed happens quite easily. When you're building businesses, you're confronted almost daily with new challenges you need to conquer. Life has it's own rules and throws in controversies, sickness and other challenges from time to time.
We're confronted with countless decisions to make every day, in countless fields. It's happening quite fast that decisions and information waiting to be processed add up and we're forced to batch-process a high number of them. Regardless whether these decisions are based in business, family, hobbies or life in general, information overload makes us feel overwhelmed.
I don't think that the context of the decision makes a reasonable difference. But the consequences do.
We're more likely to act on those decisions with low consequences than on making the bold decisions. We’d rather wait with making important decisions to give ourselves more time for research.
It can be 100 small tasks on your to-do lists or just one major challenge that you have to face, that cause information overload. We're feeling overwhelmed because we're not sure what steps to take next, how to handle the situation and how to avoid making mistakes.
Our mindset says that we're not able to handle our current situation, thus we're feeling overwhelmed. It's fear, worries, doubts and insecurity all coming together. We've lost track on our path.
Most of us know the consequences of feeling overwhelmed. I divided them into three categories:
Let's go through them each at a time to see what feeling overwhelmed actually does to our lives.
This is probably the most common behavioral pattern when we're feeling overwhelmed. We get paralyzed in our situation, not knowing what to do next and thus not able to do anything at all.
We're falling victim to the pure masses of information that we need to process, the number of decisions we have to make and the number of tasks we have to complete.
This paralysis is the purest form of loosing the overview. Regardless what makes us feel overwhelmed, it's an undeniable sign that we're no longer in control of our tasks and our situation. We've switched to reacting instead of responding to our environment, thus we're no longer determining our own destination.
It's easy to start running around like a headless chicken here, some action is at least better than no action, right? Wrong. Think about the headless chicken example. How likely is it, that it's running in the right direction without knowing where it's going? Despite the fact that there might be no right direction for headless chickens after all, you get the idea.
We'll see later in this post how you can take the right action to come out of the state of paralysis.
The second consequence of feeling overwhelmed is feeling negative emotions. This happens to me almost every single time when I'm overwhelmed with my current situation, whatsoever the reason might be.
I start asking myself why I'm not good enough to handle this situation, why it actually had to come to feeling overwhelmed and why I'm not seeing a solution for this problem immediately. The downward spirale keeps on going and I know that I'm not alone with these thoughts.
It's easy to fall into negative thought patterns when you're feeling overwhelmed, but they can have devastating consequences themselves. You shouldn't ever make any important decisions in this state of overwhelm. You're simply not able to fully focus on the decision you have to make.
Actually, you shouldn't pay too much attention to any of these negative thoughts when you're feeling overwhelmed. It's just an automatism of our mindset telling us that something's wrong.
Remember that we're in control of our thoughts. It's hard and takes time to practice, but we can actually decide whether we think positively or negatively. Like Steve McSwain says, "Until what is on the inside
that is, your mind is corrected, the external world, that is, how you perceive and experience the world around you will be a mere reflection of it."
Negative thoughts are just a first reaction to the situation, but they're definitely not the answer to feeling overwhelmed. Instead, see them as a part in the process of handling overwhelming situations.
Even though it's not obvious in the actual situation, you're in control when you're feeling overwhelmed. It's your choice to get lost in overwhelm or to quickly get back to normal.
There are several ways to deal with overwhelming situations. Some of which relieve the first wave of stress like eating, drinking, exercising or meditating, while others actually change the situation and let you make progress. Leo Babauta has put it greatly with "My recommendation: Cut back. Simplify. De-load."
In fact, I've come up with a three step process that I'm using myself whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed. Most often, you'll be told to "implement a management system for tasks and time". While I'm a fan of those systems, I don't think that they're the right way to handle overwhelming situations when you've got heavy time pressure on your shoulders.
Please see the following process as emergency plan to handling overwhelming situations and process the prevention tips after handling the overwhelming situation successfully.
Let me guide you through it, so that you can leverage it for your own good.
1. Step: Work on Your Mindset
The first step to successfully manage an overwhelming situation is to work on your mindset. You have to let go of negative self-talk, of blaming yourself and of complaining. Those thoughts will get you nowhere.
Instead, switch to a positive thinking mode. Take a step back, slow down your thinking and focus only on what's happening right now, which is you getting back into a productive mindset.
Michelly Uy nails it by saying "That’s what one small negative thought can turn into: a huge, speeding ball of ugliness. On the contrary, a small positive thought can have the same effect blossoming into a beautiful outcome."
In order to work efficiently, you have to think positively and you need to be confident, that you can handle the situation. I like to read inspiring quotes, watch inspiring videos or talk to positive people who will get me back on track.
The time to work on your mindset is spent wisely here. It will bring your focus back to what's really important and it will let you do the necessary work faster and with higher quality. Otherwise, just doing something to get started will likely cause you to forget about important tasks and decisions, to make mistakes or to forget about requirements.
In any case, taking a step back and getting back into a positive mindset will not only relieve you from feeling overwhelmed, but it'll also save you tons of work later in the process.
2. Step: Analyze the Situation
What is it that makes you feel overwhelmed? Are there more tasks on your to-do list than you remembered? Is the deadline of the latest project coming closer? Did you receive a message that set the world on fire and you don't know how to handle it? Are you missing your own schedule because of an unexpected event?
You need to get into planning mode and list all tasks that you can think of. Most often your head is full of to-dos when you're feeling overwhelmed - you need to get those on paper, so that your mind can stop worrying about them.
Whatever situation you're in, break it down into actionable chunks that you put on your to-do list. Think about the open tasks you're currently working on, the people that are waiting to hear from you, the people you are waiting to hear from and the tasks that have to be completed on a deadline in the near future.
List all tasks that you need to complete to satisfy project owners, clients and yourself. Make sure that those tasks are all actionable, meaning you list things like "negotiate with the Adam via Skype", "send a proposal to Manufacting Inc. by mail" or "list all resources necessary to tackle the new project with HealthCare Ltd." instead "call the client", "send a proposal" or "get started with the new project".
Gina Trapani and Adam Pash offer some great advice on how to make your to-do list doable, which I highly recommend.
Once you've got an idea of the tasks that have made you feel overwhelmed, you need to prioritize them. As Alan Henry says, "even if everything on your plate is supposed to be equally important, you still need a way to break down which ones you spend your time on, and how you slice up your time." Instead of pouring your head into the sand like an ostrich, read through this advice and prioritize your tasks.
3. Step: Finish What's Most Important
To stop feeling overwhelmed, you have to finish the most important tasks in order to feel a decrease in pressure and overwhelm. That’s why I stated before that you should prioritize your tasks.
Most often there are just a few tasks that seem to be urgent and it’s those tasks that make us feel overwhelmed. When you’ve crossed out those tasks from your to-do list, you’ll feel a huge relief in pressure on your shoulders.
The benefit in finishing those most important tasks is, that clients who are demanding your attention are behaving less aggressive and giving your more time. Those clients often just want to see small results in their projects. You just need to give them the feeling that you’re working on their project only, in order to make them satisfied.
Of course this isn’t the way to handle projects in general, but for it’s a solid way to handle overwhelming situations where it’s all about getting the most urgent things done.
„The task of art today is to bring chaos into order.“ - Theodor Adorno
Let me state this again, I’m not saying that you should handle all your projects just by crossing things off after their urgency. Urgent things are not necessarily the most important things. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to finish the most urgent tasks in order to relieve the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Once you’ve achieved to reduce the pressure on your shoulders, it’s time to implement mechanisms to prevent situations where you’re feeling overwhelmed.
I recognized that I’m feeling overwhelmed when I’m not able to handle the amount of information that needs to be processed or when I need to make more decisions than I’m capable of processing with respect to all consequences.
The way I found doesn’t prevent 100% of situations where I’m feeling overwhelmed. However, those methods I’m going to share with you have helped me to reduce those situations to the barely minimum.
The first method I’ve implemented is a task management routine that helps me to keep track of all my to-dos. I’m following the Getting Things Done principle by David Allen, which is a task-management routine that works for me. Basically I’m collecting every single to-do in an inbox and then I’m deciding how to process it.
This description is very simplifying, but the main point is to free your mind from those tasks. As David Allen says, our mind just isn’t good in handling tasks. So we need to use systems that can handle our to-dos and focus on getting those things done (therefore the name of the system).
Jaime Tardy had a great interview with the founder of GTD, David Allen, in which she says: „But it’s one thing to read a great productivity system, and it’s very different to implement it and sustain those tactics in your everyday life.“
This interview really resonated with me and made me focus on implementing the Getting Things Done methodology. Another book that really helped me is Zen to Done by Leo Babauta, the genius of minimalism who I referenced before.
Task management really is important to remain in control of your to-dos and the information you need to process in order to complete your tasks.
When I get new to-dos, regardless whether it’s responding to a mail, making a call or planning a project, I’m entering them into my GTD system and thus I’m sure that I’ll process them in time. I don’t need to worry about accomplishing my to-dos, because I can trust the system I’ve implemented.
As Nathan Resnik says, „Realize that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, yet to make the most of time you need to consider your use of it. If you think someone is doing more with his or her day, you’re probably not utilizing your time efficiently.“
Time management is vital, because you’ve got just 24 hours each day to complete your tasks. From those 24 hours, you need at least 6 hours of sleep in order to perform at highest level.
Sleep really is important and should never be sacrificed over a longer period.
Another person who’s really great at leveraging his time is Jason Womack. Jason is a speaker, business coach and educator who I spoke to in the summer of last year when he was driving in the car through the US. He’s really leveraging every minute of his day, to serve others and to be of value for as many people as possible.
Time management is critical, because this also applies to your work-life balance or your work-work-balance.
As Jason Lauritsen says, „Work is part of life — no work, no money, and no money, no food or roof to live under or (insert other necessity of survival here). Work and life aren’t separate; they never have been.“
Each person needs a different balance between work and free time, but the more you like your work, the more time you’re willing to spend working.
The important lesson here is, that you need to think about your time management after you’ve successfully managed a situation when you felt overwhelmed. Regardless what principle you apply to your daily routines, make sure to spend your time as efficiently as possible.
The last method that I implemented to avoid feeling situations of feeling overwhelmed was to work on my mindset.
Back in the days, I used to say „Yes“ to new projects, even though I knew that those would cause time problems with existing projects. I thought that somehow I would be available to handle new projects, although I knew that I’d have to cut back other things.
To reference Leo Babauta for a third time, people are too nice to say „No“, even though they should. We’re spending time with things that we shouldn’t. Because we don’t want to affront other people, we agree to do them favors when we really can’t afford them. It’s a habit that I need to work on personally.
After all, feeling overwhelmed comes easy nowadays. Technology speeds up the consuming of contents, communicating with others and creating contents - and challenges every single one of us to keep up with that speed of life.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I learned to take a step back and to slow down every process I’m going through.
I’d love to hear how you’re handling situations when you’re feeling overwhelmed. What methods are you using and how are you pushing through those situations?
Let me know in the comments, I’d love to get a conversation going that helps all readers of this post! After all, that’s why we’re writing blog posts and reading those posts, right? 😉
All the best,