Ever gone through a time where no matter what you do your to-do list never shrinks? Where you know that you could keep doing things but you'd have to work 24/7 to even make a dent? Have you had so many demands from others that you just feel like you're dropping every ball?
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Ever feel like just giving up and quitting it all?
No? Is that just me?
The season I’m in right now is the most overloaded and busy I have ever been. There are more demands on my time than I could ever realistically respond to. I don’t talk about my job much on the blog, but right now due to vacancies at my work I’m covering four full time positions.
There are times when I get extremely overwhelmed and feel like I’m drowning.
But you know what? Saying I’m overwhelmed or getting stuck in overwhelm is not helpful to me at all.
It doesn’t help me at work, it doesn’t help me in my business, and it doesn’t help me in my personal goals.
It’s just a story I am telling myself in the moments when I feel like quitting.
Allowing yourself to give in to overwhelm is an easy way out in a sense. It gives you a great reason to just throw your hands in the air and say “enough!”
Heck, I’ve been there. And no one would blame me if I quit. The amount of work I have right now is crazy.
I’m sure you’ve been there too. You have so many demands on your time that it’s hard to keep up. How do you do anything well when everything feels like it needs your attention all at the same time?
It makes sense to feel overwhelmed. But let’s look at why that’s a problem.
What Does It Mean To Be Overwhelmed?
The definition of overwhelmed according to the Google dictionary includes:
- Being buried or drowning beneath a huge mess
- Being completely defeated
- Giving too much of something to someone (beyond their capacity to handle)
All of these things are true in my current situation.
My to do list is “a huge mess.”
People leaving their positions all at the same time is “a huge mess.”
I have way more things on my to do list than I have the capacity to handle.
But if I get stuck in making a case for that, I can’t move forward. If I just tell myself the story that this is a mess and I can’t do all this…well, then I don’t.
Can you relate to these things as you start a business? As you raise your family? As you try to declutter your house?
Large projects easily start feeling like a huge mess because there are so many things to try to learn and do. You have a lot to learn, a lot to pay attention to and eventually without focus it feels like a huge mess.
You may have spent a bunch of money on a bunch of different courses, only to complete none of them. You may have so much information load that it feels like you have no idea where to start or what to do next.
This can certainly lead to the interpretation of “THIS IS A MESS!” and feelings of overwhelm.
What happens then?
When you tell yourself a story that you’re overwhelmed it’s so easy to give into feeling overwhelmed and give up. You tell yourself you can’t do it all so you might as well do none. It freezes you in place and you get nothing done.
It’s like a wave is overtaking you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
You feel completely defeated. When you’re completely defeated, you give up.
This definition makes sense, right?
When you feel like things are just a huge mess and you’re not making progress it feels like too much. You then tell yourself you need to do more things, which leads to you feeling like more of a mess. Then you’re drowning in all these tasks with no idea how to move ahead. So you try new tasks. Eventually you just quit.
But let’s stop a second and think about this. Can we stop ourselves from getting to this point?
Overwhelm is a Choice
Overwhelmed is a story you tell yourself. It’s an interpretation that comes from your own brain. It’s just a thought that leads to a feeling.
When you tell yourself you’re overwhelmed over and over again, that’s your reality. It’s time to change the story you tell yourself.
Let’s stick with the facts instead. The fact is you have a lot of things to do. The fact is you probably cannot do all the things in the limited amount of time that you have.
The problem is if you let these facts lead you to the thought “I’m overwhelmed,” where does that lead you?
It gets you into a freeze response where you do nothing. Nothing will not move you closer to your goals.
When you notice yourself saying “I’m overwhelmed,” tell yourself to stop it.
That story is getting you nowhere.
Allowing yourself to continue with the interpretation of overwhelm moves you on the path toward quitting. If you tell yourself “this is a huge mess I cannot get out of” why would you continue on the path to your goal?
You need to see that remaining overwhelmed is a choice. The way to make a choice to get out of overwhelm is to stop the story you tell yourself. You need to tell yourself a different story. But how?
Change Your Interpretation of Your Circumstances
Your experience is made up of your interpretations of what is happening rather than on what is actually happening.
When you think about this it is sort of mind blowing.
What is overwhelming to you may be something that is not a big deal to someone else. What is overwhelming now may not be overwhelming a few years from now once you get processes in place. It all depends on how you think about things.
Your thoughts about what is happening around you is what is creating the overwhelm.
But how in the heck do you change the way you think about something?
You see, when you think about something over and over again it becomes a belief. You believe things that you hear over and over again. When you believe something it’s your reality.
Our minds make up crap all the time and we say things to ourselves all the time that get in the way of our effectiveness. I love the way Brooke Castillo described how our brains do this in a recent podcast episode. She said:
Isn’t that the truth? We are mean to ourselves all the time and don’t even notice it. The same goes for stories of overwhelm.
We tell ourselves we’re overwhelmed over and over again and these thoughts act as barriers to us.
Because again, if you’re drowning and can’t possibly do things, why try?
So how do we change this?
You have to first notice what you’re telling yourself about your circumstances. Look for things like:
- I can’t
- It’s too much
- I’ll never be able to…
Those types of statements lead to your thoughts and feelings of overwhelm.
When you notice them, you need to take a step back and look at the facts and then make a plan around those facts.
When you find yourself saying “It’s too much” for example, stop and ask “what is too much?” List that stuff out.
I recommend listing it out as fast as possible without allowing yourself to get stuck in any one thing. Some call this a brain dump. You’re just getting everything out of your head and onto paper.
Don’t even hang out with that list. You’re just clearing your brain so your brain doesn’t have to keep reminding you of everything you have to do. It’s all written down, so now you can focus on what matters.
My to do list right now (just for at work) is 4 pages long. It is all written down. I can look at it and say “that’s overwhelming” or I can come up with a plan.
I’m not talking about faking it until you make it or anything silly like that. I’m talking about coming up with a realistic plan involving:
- Picking what is most important and prioritizing those things
- Ignoring everything else for right now. Yes, this means you might have to say no to some things others are asking from you.
Here’s the thing.
Everyone’s list is made up of too many things to do all at once. Sometimes your list is way worse than usual (like mine is right now), but you still will find a way to get through it as long as you are intentional about it and keep yourself out of unhelpful stories about overwhelm.
Sometimes you just have to face it and move through it instead of trying to escape it.
Create a Plan To Get Through The Tasks
You don’t develop a plan to do all the things. You develop a plan to do the things that really matter.
You need to figure out what is most important right now for you to accomplish. What’s on your giant list that you need to do right now.
In the book The One Thing, the authors talk about it this way: what one thing, if I were to do it right now would move the needle further toward my reaching my goals.
This is the best way to think about your large list of things to do. Instead of thinking about all of the things you need to do, think about the one thing you need to do right now that would most likely get you closer to reaching your goals.
How To Figure Out The One Thing To Focus On
When you’re starting or growing an online business, there’s so much to do. The problem is you can’t do it all at once. You need a plan. You need to have a roadmap to follow to figure out what you should do next.
When you’re using a map, what’s the most important thing you’re focused on?
This is the same with your business. What goals do you have for your business and what is the next best thing for you to focus on to get you closer to that goal. On this Food Blogger Pro podcast episode, Jay Papasan (author of The One Thing) says this in regards to the importance of content in blogging:
In this case, the goal or destination is to bring more traffic to the blog. In their discussion Bjork Ostrom and Jay Papasan went on to describe how questions like this guide a person to what tasks to focus on next. Specifically, what is that one thing that a person trying to get traffic to his or her blog should focus on to reach that goal.
So what destination is most important for you to focus on right now for your business?
That’s going to depend on the stage of your business. If you’re just a beginner, you’ll focus on things like:
- Getting clarity on your niche
- Figuring out your ideal customer and the transformation you want to help them make
- Starting your blog or website
- Organizing your website
- Creating content
- Figuring out what kind of content to produce
- Figuring out how to get your content in front of your ideal customers
- Setting Up Social Media Profiles
I’ll stop there.
As you can see, the list is quite long and quickly gets into the realm of too much.
If you try to focus on all of those things at once, guess what you’re going to do?
Instead, pick something.
What do you need to focus on next that would have the most impact on your business? Focus on that as your destination and figure out what you need to do to get closer to that. What is your one thing?
If you want to move further along in your business, you need to hyper focus on that one thing to move forward.
Everything else gets placed on the back burner while you get good at that one thing. It doesn’t mean you ignore everything else. It’s all about prioritizing your time.
Time is a limited resource. Use it wisely.
Tell Yourself Overwhelmed Is Not an Option
If you want to move further in your business, you need to tell yourself that overwhelmed is not an option. Remember that getting stuck in overwhelm is just that, stuck.
Make a commitment to yourself that you’re going to figure things out.
You’re going to come up with a plan to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. Giving up is not an option. Giving up is the one way to guarantee failure.
You’re going to focus on the one task that matters the most.
I find it helpful to look at the consequences.
What happens to my chances of succeeding at my goals if I do this task? What if I don’t? What are the overall consequences?
The easiest way for me to talk about this with you is to discuss my giant to do list at work. I can get stuck in telling myself it isn’t fair, that no one could do all the things I’m tasked with (TRUTH).
Or I can choose to commit to being overwhelmed and giving up as not an option.
I absolutely can’t let being overwhelmed get in my way. The consequences of me not getting things done are too big. I’m only going to give one example right now because this one is very important:
- If I don’t get things done, 10 people will not graduate with their doctorates.
That’s a pretty strong reason to commit to my goals. My goal (destination) is to help these people to complete their internship and receive their doctorate.
Overwhelmed is not an option.
When I tell myself the story of “I’m overwhelmed” I want to quit. Quitting is not an option because 10 people will not graduate with their doctorates. Not ok.
Instead, if I focus on my goal of getting these people through their internship, I can focus my energy on prioritizing the tasks I need to do to achieve that goal. This means looking at the tasks I need to do that are specifically related to the goal of helping the interns graduate, and putting everything else on the back burner to focus on later.
Remember what Jay Papasan said. Focus on the one thing you can do today to make that thing happen.
What Is Your “Why”?
Whether it’s a consequence you’re trying to avoid or whether it‘s a positive you’re trying to achieve, what is the “why” that keeps you going? What do you need to remind yourself when your brain tells you it is time to give up?
If your brain starts telling you to believe it is unachievable, what’s your answer?
This is really important because ultimately your why is going to act as the roadmap for where you need to go and how you are going to get there (without being taken off the path to follow a bunch of tempting signs).
What is your mission? Why did you start your business? What transformation is it you are trying to make in the world?
When you’re really clear on that, you will be in a much better position to commit to doing the things you need to make progress in your business and to focus on the things that matter.
When Focusing On The Things That Matter is Hard
Many of the things that matter the most are also things that are difficult.
Most of the things you need to do to start or grow a business are hard. They take a lot of learning, practicing, hard work, and perseverance. Sometimes you do everything right and it seems to get you nowhere.
When you’re learning new things you feel incompetent. Everything feels hard!
It is so easy to get sidetracked at this point.
Let’s say you are working on creating a bunch of content. You’re posting your heart out, but no one is really reading your stuff. The traffic isn’t coming.
Then you hear that you should be doing some shiny new thing that brought someone else a bunch of traffic. You are then off on a path, straying away from your main goal. They call this shiny object syndrome and it is super common in entrepreneurs.
Everyone wants the magic bullet to make things go faster.
The problem is that going off after shiny objects just slows you down more.
Because now you’re not focused on the thing that moves the needle and actually you’re probably focusing on learning yet another thing!
Remember that the key to banishing overwhelm is to stick to your prioritized tasks. Adding more is going to get in the way of your progress. Adding more is going to lead to that third part of the definition of overwhelm.
When you go off on one of these tangents, you become busy. But busy is not productive.
So when you notice yourself going on one of those paths, ask yourself if it will move you closer to your current business goal or is it a distraction that will take you off your path.
If it is a distraction, move it to your to do list and focus on it later.
Getting Past Overwhelm
By now it’s likely you agree with me that overwhelm is not helpful, but it’s a common feeling. It’s something you’ll have to deal with over and over again as a business owner (maybe I should just say as a person).
Everything in your business is up to you. That feels like a lot. You’ll have to revisit this over and over again.
So while I call this getting past overwhelm, it should really be getting past overwhelm each and every time it comes up.
The steps to get past overwhelm are:
- Recognize overwhelm is a choice
- Change the story you’re telling yourself
- Create a plan of what to focus on in your business by:
- Deciding on your most important goal to move your business forward given the current stage you are in
- Determining the one most important thing you need to focus on to get closer to that goal
- Focus on that one thing. Prioritize it above all other things
- Remind yourself of why this goal is important. Why are you in business and what are the consequences if you don’t complete your goal
- Remind yourself that overwhelm is not an option. Quitting is not an option. Commit to yourself that you will follow through.
- Keep focusing on your main goal even when things are hard, even when other things are fighting for your attention. Avoid distractions.
- Do this over and over and over again. You can choose today to try your hardest not to be overwhelmed…but then you get an email or something and you’re right back in there. All you have to do is start over with this process.
I hope this was helpful to you. It is certainly a great reminder to me as I fight overwhelm in my own job and business. If it was helpful to you, please take a moment and share on your favorite social media channel so that others can also benefit.
Overwhelm is a common problem that gets in the way of people’s goals.
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Marlena is the blogger behind apenandapurpose.com, where she writes about using journaling for self improvement and reaching goals in life and business. Using her experience as a Licensed Psychologist with a Master’s in Business, she teaches people how to break through negative thoughts and fear to do what matters. For more about me read my about page.