Overwhelm often stops us before we even begin. It’s too big. It’s too hard. It’s too scary...
Often when things seem too big and too scary, we’re looking at the whole picture at once, and that can be incredibly overwhelming. When we break it down though, it becomes more manageable, and if we do just one piece at a time, it becomes completely doable.
Working with people over the years has taught me there are two key kinds of overwhelm – overwhelm with a task that seems huge, and overwhelm at the volume of tasks that need to be done.
Each needs a slightly different strategy to deal with them effectively. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Overwhelm at the volume of tasks needing to be done
Moving cities can be pretty stressful, and this was the case with one of my clients, who was completely overwhelmed with everything she needed to do in order to be able to pack up and move in 6 weeks time
There were literally dozens of things competing for attention in her head, and her head was spinning as she tried to keep track of them all.
We got out the post-it notes, and started to empty these things out of her head. Each item went on to its own post-it note and went on to the whiteboard, until she couldn’t think of anything else
From there her mind was calmer. She could see everything out in front of her so she had no need to try and hold on to it mentally anymore. That meant she could start to plan.
She started rearranging the post-it notes, grouping them into tasks for work, home, friends and family, packing and more, and put them along a timeline to show when each task needed to be done.
This enabled her to focus on the things that were more immediate, figure out what she could delegate to others, and identify what she could safely ignore until they had made their move
It gave her clear plan of action and she left feeling calm and in control once more.
This is a strategy I’ve used with dozens of clients and it’s incredibly effective.
Emptying your head creates calm and enables you to look at what’s happening from a more objective viewpoint.
And putting each item in your mind on its own post-it note is key. Writing it all on a list can be good too, but items on post-it notes can be moved around and rearranged far more easily than a list can be.
This enables a strategy to be formed, key tasks to be identified, things you can’t control to be put aside, and for you to feel calm and in control of the situation once more.
Overwhelm at the size of a task
A few years ago I worked with a hoarder who had just that issue.
After working together for a few weeks to deal with the reasons for accumulating and holding on to things, she was ready to let things go.
She now had the mammoth task of cleaning out rooms so full she couldn’t even get into some of them.
Just thinking about it was enough to cause overwhelm and a sense of despair at having no idea where to even start.
First of all, we decided on four ways for things to leave the house. Things to sell online, things to give away, things to donate, and things to throw out.
Then I asked her to focus in on just one small thing and deal with just that one thing. In fact I made it a rule to not look at more than one thing at once.
She chose a set of mugs that were still in their box and which she had no need for. They were easily accessible and she decided to give them away as a present to a friend who was moving into her own house for the first time.
She then realised her friend might be in need of a number of things at once and started thinking of other things that were also within reach.
All of a sudden the barrier of overwhelm was gone and she was able to focus in on small, individual things she could deal with.
Constant effort of this kind was needed, but consistently focusing on the small thing in front of her and dealing with these things one at a time meant that within a few months she had reclaimed the kitchen, the lounge and a guest bedroom, and was feeling pleased and proud that she could have guests over to stay.
Often life is like this. The task in front of us seems huge. However if we break it down into little pieces and focus on doing one piece at a time, the task becomes much more doable.
Furthermore, getting the first step done gives us much more clarity and motivation around doing the second, and that momentum continues to gather with each step we take.