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Three Kickass Techniques For Defeating Overwhelm (Repost)
Editors Note: This is the first article I ever wrote for actualizationhub.com back in July 2019. It is a little cringe (crazy how much I and my writing have changed in just three years) but I still think the ideas are pretty solid. Reposting here for newer subscribers who missed it.
If you’re anything like me, you get overwhelmed when there are too many things on your to do list and you don’t feel you have enough time, energy, strength, skill, or work ethic to get them all done.
Usually it’s full of a bunch of small things — like pick up your clothes from the dry cleaner, text your mom, take out the trash, return that package to Amazon — with a few big ones sprinkled in — like figure out how you’re going to negotiate your raise, resolve that tumultuous relationship at work that is stressing you out, or plan what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.
When our list gets out of control and we start to feel overwhelmed, our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and complex problem solving) starts to shut down and our limbic brain (the area responsible for strong emotion and the Fight Or Flight response) starts to take over.
When we feel this way, not only is it uncomfortable, but we’re actually far dumber and less capable of getting things back in control. To tackle our to do list, we need to get the reigns back in the hands of our prefrontal cortex. The following three techniques are my go-to’s for getting this done.
Technique #1: A Comprehensive To Do List
The first technique is so simple yet effective that it is my first line of defense any time I am feeling overwhelmed.
All you have to do is: write down the list of all the things you have to do.
I know, I know, it sounds silly, but don’t knock it until you try it — it truly is a game changer for getting your mind back on track.
This technique is effective because when all our problems are bouncing around in our head, they create compounding feedback loops in on themselves — every time we think of an unsolved problem, even if we’ve already thought about it a dozen times, this spools up the momentum of our anxiety even further. When everything is trapped in your head having fifty problems can feel like having five hundred.
Further, when we feel anxious we become so engrossed in worrying about how we can’t get it all done that we just avoid the problems rather than solve them! The first step to tackling your list is to get it out of your head so you can make enough mental space to actually address whats on it.
Personally, I’ve found that I when I make this list, it’s typically 40–50 items (note that this includes all things I “have” to do, even basic things like “eat dinner” and “shower”) and that just writing them all down drops my stress by 50%.
Once you’ve made it, it’s time to prune. Go through each item and confirm it’s actually worth doing. Planned on cable managing your desk for months now? Or getting some new lights for your room? Or catching up with that old friend? Do you really care to do these things? If you’re not willing to make a plan and schedule some time to do it, then remove it. If it’s actually important, it will pop back up later, and you can decide then if it deserves to be re-added.
Next, do all the easy, quick tasks. If it will only take a few minutes, just do it right now! Our brains have a tendency to worry more about the total quantity of tasks and for how long they’ve lingered, more than it cares about the actual complexity of them. Doing the dishes, taking out the trash, hanging a picture, whatever it may be. Getting these done has the bonus effect of securing many “little wins” that fill our brains with feel good chemicals and result in both motivation and confidence.
Lastly, put stars next to the big, important, and/or energy intensive ones that remain and schedule some time for when you will sit down and work on them (put it on your calendar!).
If you don’t even know where to start with one of them, then use the scheduled time to just explore, think about, or plan — journal, talk with a friend, or even record yourself in a voice memo. Whatever you need to do to get clarity on the problem.
Now that you’ve pruned your list, completed the easy tasks, and schedule the big ones, you’ve hopefully cleared up plenty of space to relax for a bit— or if you’re feeling motivated, to start tackling the first big task!
Technique #2: Fear Setting
The second Technique is called “Fear Setting”, a stoic technique that I first learned about from this Tim Ferris Ted Talk. Fear Setting is a great way to tackle the “big tasks” which are scary or troubling.
Perhaps you are afraid you are going to get fired from your job, or that your significant other is going to break up with you, or you keep ruminating about some difficult conversation you know you need to have with someone but don’t how to prevent it from being a disaster.
Its important to know: your anxious brain doesn’t really care how likely it is that the horrible thing will happen, it only cares about how much impact the horrible thing will have if it does.
Personally I’ve found that extracting 2 steps from Ferris’ process does most of the heavy lifting and allows it to be applied to far more situations. These two are:
Define the worst case scenario
Accept that scenario as true, and come up with ways to mitigate or bear it.
For example, let’s say you make a mistake at your job that upsets your boss or a client. If you’re anything like me, your natural inclination will be to catastrophize all the way to “oh no I screwed up and now I’m going to get fired!”.
Sometimes, challenging this exaggeration will do the trick, but other times it just won’t subside. If you can’t get over the fear then the only way forward is through it. Accept the worst case scenario and start planning. “Okay, I’m going to get fired. What am I going to do about it?”
This subtle change shifts us from a victim of uncontrollable circumstance to an active participant in problem solving.
Once we’ve defined it, let’s consider all the way we can mitigate the horrible thing
Could I reduce the impact of the mistake? Could I make up for it in other areas? Could I be more strategic with my energy to get more done with less effort? Could I talk with my boss or peers about how I can do better? Brainstorm these and write them down.
Next, it’s time to consider what we’d do if the horrible thing did happen. In my example, some of the questions I asked were:
Q: What other jobs are out there that I could do?
A: Oh that job looks kinda cool and exciting. So does that one!
Q: How does unemployment work and what are my options?
A: Oh I can get 60% of my salary for up to 6 months? Sweet!
Q: Well, How does my savings look?
A: There’s a few months of income right there.
Q: What could I sell to keep me afloat for a while?
A: Here’s a few thousand bucks of stuff I don’t need.
Q: How else could I reduce my expenses?
A: Well if I meal prep I could save a few hundred dollars a month there.
In the end, what I found is that I could survive with minimal changes to my expenses for close to a year. And further I thought: If I had a year to work on spooling up Actualization Hub I’d never have to worry about getting fired again, and would be able to spend my time doing something I love!
Before I knew it, I realized that not only would getting fired not only not be horrible but actually possibly a a fun and exciting kick in the butt to start my passion.
Fear set your horrible unsolvable problem and you might just find that the worst case scenario not only isn’t all the bad, but maybe a fun and exciting new adventure.
Technique #3: Reframing Your Capacity To Overcome The Unknown
The last technique is also very simple in theory, but takes years of daily practice to get even remotely good at, and that is to: Speak thoughts of strength, positivity, and courage that reframe your capacity to deal with the unknown.
Remind yourself: “Whatever happens, I will handle it. I will face life as it comes.”
When we feel overwhelmed it is because we see our problems as far greater than we have the capacity or competence to solve. We don’t see ourselves as strong enough, resilient enough, or skilled enough to deal with them.
The truth is that there are hundreds, thousands, probably millions of other people who are fumbling around foolishly in the dark from catastrophe to catastrophe just like we are but are some how feeling confident in themselves. The only difference between us and them is the story we tell ourselves.
Yes, confidence come from experience, but only partly because we develop competence from that experience. It is mostly from learning to feel comfortable in our perpetual incompetence.
With the right shift in perspective, life is no longer an overwhelming monster that we will never defeat, but instead just a bunch of little problems like we have conquered thousands of times before.
If you have to, fake it until you make it. Replace the words of failure, criticism, and negativity with words of success, courage, and positivity. Then once you go out and actually make something, you now have evidence to remind yourself that you can succeed if only you stop berating yourself and start supporting yourself.
Coupled with this is the important habit of periodically looking back and celebrating your wins. Next time you get afraid and overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, recall “Hey remember when you felt this way a few months ago, and you thought it was the end of everything, and then you solved it? Maybe you can do that again!”
Yes, you can. And you will.
That’s all for now. Catch you next time.