Feeling Overwhelmed?

little girl covering her eyes

What’s the difference between feeling “busy” and “overwhelmed?”

To illustrate the difference, think of your parents. Were they busy? As busy as you are today? How often did they ever use the word “overwhelmed?”

Personally, I don’t remember my parents describing themselves as overwhelmed back in the 1980s and 90s. Perhaps they were at times? I am positive that they were just as busy as I am today (seriously, there were not less hours in each day in 1980-something), but were they overwhelmed?

To answer that question, we have to understand what being overwhelmed is.

What do we mean when we say that we are overwhelmed? A lot of people would describe feeling overwhelmed by pointing to symptoms of busyness: too much to do on their to-do list, not knowing where to start, etc. But, this is busyness. Feelings of overwhelmed, however, deal with attention.

Attention, like time, is a limited resource. Similar to time, it is renewed each morning when we are naturally energetic, but it dissipates throughout the day. Feelings of overwhelm are on the rise because we have we had so many things fighting for our attention resources. Or, to once again use my parents as an example, while I think they were just as “busy” 30 years ago as we are now, they were certainly less distracted. How do I know? They, too, struggle with using their phones when they are around our kids (sorry, mom and dad).

I am writing about this because I often hear “victimhood” in people’s voices when describing their feeling over being overwhelmed. In fact, I hear it in my voice as well at times…

The reality is that the days have not gotten longer. Nor, have the weeks grown to 9 days.  We may be “insanely busy,” we may get too much email, work may be invading home, and home invading work. But none of these things are the problem. The problem is that we poorly allocate our attention resources. No one is forcing us to distract ourselves. No one is forcing us to check email around the clock. No one is forcing us to answer every interruption at work.

This may sound harsh, but we have done this to ourselves.

There is hope, however.

The next time we, or our teams, say that we feel overwhelmed, the response should be to ask:  Where are we placing our focus?  To what (or whom) are we giving our finite amount of attention? We are not victims! In fact, whether we realize it or not, we have control over this.

A thought to consider: What are you stopping so that you can focus on what matters? At work, what can you stop doing so that you can make more progress on your actual to-do list (the prioritized one, not the one containing 84 things of equal importance). Some things simply matter more than others, and those are the things we need to focus on!

(Note: If you can’t decipher what matters, you may need to do something extreme, like fasting from all inputs for a period, so that you can regain clarity. Inputs are not evil, but too many will drown out your thinking, which you will need to prioritize what really matters from what does not.  Remember, too, that things that are urgent are not always important; and things that are important aren’t always urgent—that doesn’t mean they should get ignored!)

The point is that feeling overwhelmed is a solvable problem.

While I can’t speak for you, this realization has helped me realize that technology, to-do lists, and other symptoms are not the problem when I feel overwhelmed.

I am.

(Need a tool to help you manage your attention?  I highly recommend Michael Hyatt’s “Full Focus Planner.”  It will help you focus on your top 3 priorities each day, and each week.  I continue to get positive feedback from those who have adopted it.  Likewise, the planner continues to help me as well).