A gentle guide to manage overwhelm
Learning to manage overwhelm may be one of the most important skills you’ll have to learn today. With everything that’s available to you and all the many hats you have to wear, knowing how to sort through information and useful knowledge from useless knowledge while also being able to organize what’s on your plate, is essential for you to create a life where you’re thriving and in control. Sorry to paint a harsh picture and I speak from experience, but when we’re in that state of feeling overwhelmed, life takes control of us and not the other way around.
You may have noticed that we are overwhelmed in epidemic proportions today. Whether you’re busy at work, starting a business on the side or want more joy in your life, this gentle guide to manage overwhelm will help you be in the driving seat of your life.
What is overwhelm?
Overwhelm is the feeling you get when your thoughts and expectations are out of control. When you think you have to do everything, and all at once. Often this feeling immobilizes us and make us feel helpless. The results of feeling overwhelmed are feeling stuck, giving up, and in some cases overwhelm lead to apathy.
Perfectionism is a major cause of overwhelm. Perfectionism is a fear that is rooted in having unrealistic expectations of yourself and fear of what you think other people think of you. Striving for perfection leaves no room for joy. Even when things are going well, you can’t enjoy it because you think you should be better or do better. A typical perfectionist belief is that even as a beginner our work has to be as good as someone who has been doing it for a long time.
Related: Move past perfectionism
As a creativity coach and life coach with a side job and 3 kids, I wear many hats and have plenty to do. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed. Omg, do I?! I’m also a recovering perfectionist so this guide to manage overwhelm is tried and tested by me. I use parts of the guide every day, and it works for me. I still get overwhelmed, life doesn’t stop happeneing because I have some tools, but at least I know how to handle my overwhelm now. I hope it’ll do that for you too.
A gentle guide to manage overwhelm
Breathe and land in the moment
Sometimes the simplest solution is easy and right in front of us. Start by breathing deeply 5 times. Get mindful and notice your body for a few seconds. This will focus your thoughts for a split second on your breathing and that split second can be enough to remind yourself that you’re ok. There’s no panic happening, you’re ok.
Notice how taking 5 breaths at the same time doesn’t work, but breathing deeply one time after another feels good.
Focus on the moment
Just like you can only take one breath at a time, train yourself to focus on the task at hand. Where are you sitting? Look at what you’re doing, feel your body in the chair, your feet on the ground. What is the one thing you’re doing right now?
When you focus on this moment, you practice mindfulness, the antidote to overwhelm. You may find you can manage just a few seconds at a time, and that’s great. It’s a start and you’ll be able to strengthen your focus muscle with practice.
Make a list
Write everything down on a piece of paper, a calendar, diary or whatever you use. Often things seem worse when they are tangled up in our thoughts.
Write all your ideas, jobs, projects, and thoughts down on paper. Make a list of everything that needs to get done. See if there is something you can cross off. Let some of it go if you can. Prioritize the jobs so the most important jobs are at the top of your list. That way, you’ll know where to start.
This step is important to manage overwhelm because your brain will accept your decision to focus on the number one task on your list.
For added positive energy, try and put “I get to” in front of each task and see if you can feel an energy shift from “I have to work on this” and to “I get to do this, lucky me.”
I don’t mean to sound rude but taking your creative work and your life too seriously is also a significant part of feeling overwhelmed. If you tend to get all serious about your creative work, maybe try and ask yourself this question:
“How can I make this more fun?”
Creativity thrives on playfulness and asking small questions.
Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy yourself. When you notice yourself being uptight, have a list ready of things to do to lighten up. Anything from watching a funny video on YouTube to dancing around the room will work. This makes the stress in your brain relax (your amygdala) and you get access to front cortex (thinking brain and creativity). If you read this and think being silly is not for you, you definitely need it. :-)
One effective way to manage overwhelm is to learn the kaizen philosophy of using small steps for continuous improvement. Kaizen is synonym for taking small steps, asking small questions to activate the brain, celebrating with small rewards and solving small problems.
Often when we break down the steps that is on our list, we don’t break them down small enough.
A kaizen step is so tiny that you think it’s silly. When you think your step is so small it’s a bit ridiculous, that’s when you know it’s kaizen.
An example of a kaizen step could be:
You have to write a blog post. The first of your kaizen small steps could be simply to switch on your computer. The next could be to open a document.
Kaizen works because breaking steps down so tiny they become easy your amygdala in your midbrain relaxes and you get access to front cortex, the thinking brain. The amygdala is where your fear is in the brain and when you are in a state of overwhelm, your brains senses danger and the amygdala wake up. But by using steps that are so tiny, your amygdala stays “asleep”, you can bypass it and get to the part of your brain where thought and creativity is.
If you’re thinking switching on your computer won’t get the blog post done, you’re right. But what makes small steps so effective is that they make it easier for you to get started. Remember how being in a state of overwhelm can keep you stuck? Once you get started, most of the time you’ll keep going. You may not write the post in one go, but you’ll get started and this builds momentum.
Learn more about kaizen here
Practicing self-kindness might be the most important creative tool you have. Become aware of your self-talk. You don’t get a better life by criticizing yourself. The default of your brain is to go to the negative thoughts but with a little training you can begin to treat yourself with the same kindness and friendliness you would a good friend.
As with kaizen, using self-kindness to manage overwhelm is a gentle way to respect yourself and you creativity.
Self-kindness, patience, acceptance and willingness are all gentle ways to approach yourself and your work and instead of adding to feelings of being overwhelmed, they open you up to inspiration and lightness.
Lower your expectations
Thinking you have to do everything perfectly or to an incredibly high standard is a major cause for feeling overwhelmed, as written in the introduction. If you want to do the best work known to man, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. But if on the other hand, you go for “good enough” you might not feel a huge pressure.
This doesn’t mean your work won’t be great, it simply lowers the expectations you have to yourself. As the saying goes “done is better than perfect”.
There is nothing wrong with healthy striving to do the best you can and be the best you can be. That’s great. That’s different from striving for perfection from fear of what other people might think of you.
Managing overwhelm can also be about allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed for a little while. There will be times when it all seems a bit much and that’s ok. It’s normal. The creative process has ups and downs and its own cycles. Sometimes you have a clear vision for where you’re going and other times that vision gets blurred.
Places where you can look at lowering your expectations can be:
How much you can achieve in a day. There are days when you don’t get much done. That’s ok and part of the journey.
The quality of your craft (writing, painting, designing etc.) Perfection is unrealistic and you still learn a little every time you create.
Write a “shitty first draft” as Anne Lamott calls the first version of what she writes. Create with the intention of creating bad work. It’s wonderfully freeing.
Allow yourself to be a beginner. Everyone you see that is successful now was once a beginner too.
A final tip to this gentle guide to manage overwhelm is to create structure in your life.
Once you have your list of jobs to do and you have broken them down into small kaizen steps, it’s time to plot them into a system of structure that works for you.
Most creatives I know have resistance to structure. Many of us creatives are rebels and don’t like following a strict system of structure. So that’s not what I’m suggesting here.
Only you know how you work best. And if you haven’t found that out yet, don’t worry, you will. But I truly recommend you keep trying to find a system of structure that works for you. I don’t know anyone who are intentional about learning and growing that don’t use a system of structure. That’s why you see many successful business owners selling calendars. They have found a system of getting work done that works for them, and they want to help others so the same.
A simple way to start creating structure for your life and work is to break different jobs into days or weeks even.
If weeks don’t work for you, you can break your tasks into days. This is how I personally work at the moment. I have put my jobs into my diary and that way I know every day when I go to bed what I’ll be working on the next day. That’s all I have to focus on that day, and I relax in the knowledge that I’ll be doing something else to move my business forward tomorrow.
You can try and set a timer too. Work for 15 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Or some other interval.
For you to manage overwhelm and not get stuck or freeze, it’s important you use a system that works for you.
As a final thought to this gentle guide to manage overwhelm I’ll say that sometimes the best thing you can do in the moment is to walk away. Take a break or go for a walk. Taking a complete brain and body break is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself. As you know, life and work are marathons, your creativity is never going to leave you and you’re on your own journey.
Feeling overwhelmed is almost the norm these days so having this gentle guide to manage overwhelm will help you navigate your situation.
I hope you’ll take the importance of self-kindness with you from this guide on your journey.
Can you get rid of overwhelm completely? Probably not. But you can minimize it and learn how to manage overwhelming situations with the tips in this guide.
If you want to learn more about Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching, check out this page