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This post is Overwhelm 101: save this page! Any time you hit a wall, reach for these instructions to get moving again.
Ok, so it happens to the best of us. You’ve taken too much on, and then there are a few extra curve balls in the mix. As a result you miss a good night’s sleep, someone gets ill, and suddenly you’re in the shits and can’t think straight.
You’re likely to find yourself teetering over this threshold more easily than most people if any of the following applies to you:
suffering from emotional exhaustion
a Highly-Sensitive Person
you identify as neurodivergent
You may be familiar with how this feels. But did you realise overwhelm actually has two components?
Overwhelm is practical: it's caused by the sheer volume and nature of what you have on your plate.
But it is also physiological. Overwhelm changes your biochemistry, how you are functioning at a body level.
Stress releases adrenaline and cortisol, getting you ready for action. This is great for dealing with short-term, short bursts of activity (like staying alive in the face of danger)
BUT this injection of stress is not so good long-term. In fact it’s existing in this stress state long-term that makes burnout happen.
The day-to-day problems we face in 21st Century life are complex and require a good level of sophistication to deal with them. This Fight/Flight state is not only hard on your body, it scrambles your ability to tackle this complexity. It is designed for simple survival reflexes and is more or less useless for supporting you to find good quality long term solutions.
Adrenaline is designed for the simple actions of run and fight
Once adrenaline is activated your brain is capable of executing a simple plan like RUN! or FIGHT! But it won't be able to work out what you should be doing in the face of the usual level of day-to-day complexity.
That means for work, unless you already have a crystal-clear game plan, once you’re in a state of stress you’ll be much less good at planning and problem solving.
Adrenaline can induce a horrible “rabbit in the headlights” feeling when your body wants to take action but you’re frozen because you can’t work out what action to take.
And of course this only serves to make the situation worse, because the whole reason you’re stressed in the first place is because you’ve got so much to do!
Try this different strategy to get you moving again so you have somewhere to direct all that adrenaline
Use this when you’ve got a disaster to clear up in the kitchen; a project that’s late; or a big goal that feels too enormous to start.
I use this technique when I’m physically exhausted and can’t think straight, or in a state of panic because I’ve been going for too long and can’t switch off. It doesn’t happen so much these days, but we’re all human, and we’re all prone to this every once in a while.
Tick things off as you work through the list. You get a wonderful little dopamine hit (your brain's primary reward chemical) which will lift your mood a little and encourage you to keep going.
Here’s what to do when you are so stressed you can’t think or act:
Stop what you’re doing and take a break.
You have probably been ignoring your body: take a walk, a bath, a nap. Eat, drink water, call your best friend for a cry or laugh.
Then, and only then:
Get a PIECE OF PAPER and a PEN. Don’t do this on your computer. You need to get back into your body and writing by hand will help you do this.
1. What am I trying to achieve RIGHT NOW?
2. List all the steps involved in achieving this.
Get very specific and detailed.
Break it down into more (smaller) steps
Put the steps in the right order:
What comes first? What’s next?
3. For step one on your list:
List all the steps needed to achieve that step.
Be specific and detailed
More, smaller steps is better.
Put the steps in order
4. Complete the first step on your list
Now complete the second
Now do the third thing
Keep going till you find yourself getting into flow. Keep going!
So it might go: “I am trying to get xx amount of money in before the end of the year”
The steps might be:
Call in that loan to Terry
Follow up warm client leads
Get facebook ads happening
Chase the funding
Then you might reorder them:
Follow up warm client leads (because it will have the most immediate rewards)
Chase the funding (because it has a deadline)
Get facebook ads happening
Call in that loan to Terry
Then you take the first thing on your list, and you break that down into all the smaller tasks involved.
Step 1: Follow up warm client leads
Write a list of all the people I’ve talked to who might be interested
Make sure I’ve got everyone’s email address or phone number
Email everyone individually.
Tick each person off when I’ve emailed them
Block out the first hour of the day to do this
Pro Tip 1: The more stressed, overwhelmed or resistant you are to doing a job, the more it will help to break it down into micro steps. I have literally done this before now, including steps like “open journal” and “pour glass of water”.
Pro Tip 2: Do the hardest tasks first thing. Hard is subjective - you might have a particular block around it, even though it’s not intellectually taxing, that means you’re going to need a lot of willpower to get it done. You’ve got more of that first thing, so use it!
I personally LOVE this tool. I use it again and again every time things get a bit much with juggling parenting, work and daily living. I’d really enjoy hearing how it turns your overwhelm around - and any AHAs you have in the process. I WILL reply to your comments below… hit me up!