A Process for Defeating Overwhelm

The other day I was feeling utterly overwhelmed with everything I needed to do (plus everything I felt like I should do). I spent days of being paralyzed by indecision when trying to decide what to focus on. This was leaving me feeling frustrated, unmotivated, and grumpy.

So, here's what I did:

  • I grabbed a notebook and my iPad with my entire task/project list on it.
  • I walked ten minutes to a café with a nice outdoor seating area.
  • I odered a pot of green tea and a chocolate chip cookie as big as my head.
  • I opened my task/project list and my notebook.
  • I wrote, "What is causing me the most psychological weight right now?" in my notebook and spent a few minutes jotting down the projects that were bothering me the most.
  • After creating that list I needed to get clearer about why these projects were bothering me so much. I realized they represented commitments where I felt like I was behind, projects where I wasn't clear what the next step was, and projects that people seemed to be expecting me to finish but felt unimportant.
  • I wrote these reasons down next to their respective projects as well as what it would take for these projects to feel "under control" again. For a few of these projects just getting clear about what the next step was and putting it on a list was enough to have it lift the weight off my shoulders.
  • Looking at that list further, I then selected the two projects that were causing the most psychological weight and couldn't be resolved by just thinking about the next steps a little more carefully. I jotted the question, "What would I need to accomplish to feel like these two projects were "under control" again?" in my notebook and spent a few minutes brainstorming what "under control" would feel like and what it would require.
  • At this point I was halfway through my pot of tea and the cookie was somehow, inexplicably, only a quarter of the way eaten even though I felt like I had been consistently stuffing my face with baked goodness.
  • Now I felt like I had a target for reducing the overwhelm that had been swamping me. The next question I jotted down in my notebook was, "What do I need to do before I can "enter the cocoon" and drop everything to work on these two psychologically heavy projects?" I looked through my task and project list and realized there were a couple things I needed to finish in order to not have my life fall apart if I wanted to spend a day or two locked away and focused only on these two projects. Getting ahead with my writing at The Workologist (which is why I'm writing this article...) and finalizing some coaching calls that were still in scheduling limbo were the main things that had to get finished.
  • Looking through my notebook I realized I now had a list of the projects that were causing me the most psychological consternation, clear reasons articulated for why each of these projects were bothering me and how to get them to a point of control, the two projects that most needed my attention were clearly identified, and I had figured out the stuff I had to do so my life wouldn't fall apart while working on them.
  • Over the course of about an hour and a half I had ingested my pot of tea (I really had to pee), eaten half of a neverending cookie, created a plan for knocking out two major projects, and felt 98% better about what I needed to do to get my work life back on track. Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?

How do you tackle feelings of overwhelm?

If this sounds like a decent system, here's a template of the process I followed -- maybe it will help you too?

Photo by Katie Weilbacher

Three Ways to Take Control of Information Overload

Imagine that you have a small and dainty tea cup in your hands. You are extremely thirsty and would love to fill your cup with some nice, cool, and refreshing water. Luckily, a nice young man with a fire hose happens to be with you (a convenient situation indeed). He kindly offers to fill your cup with water and you are nearly giddy with excitement. He turns the valve on the nozzle as you hold your tea cup at the ready.

A blast of icy water erupts from the hose and nearly knocks you on your back. Your tea cup flies out of your hands and shatters on the sidewalk. You're still thirsty but now you're also dazed, sore, and wet.

This is how I feel about the Internet.

My RSS feed, my Twitter timeline, Facebook status updates, and a never ceasing flow of email all serve as the high pressure hose to my mind's dainty tea cup. I crave information like my fictional character craved water. However, the sheer volume and velocity of content makes it nearly impossible to actually get anything worthwhile in my tea cup of a mind.

This can't continue much longer. How much sense would it make to get back up, dripping and aching, glue my teacup back together, and tap the man with the hose on the shoulder and ask for more. How many times do we get knocked down by the information wave only to get up and ask for more?

I can't do it anymore and here's how I'm getting control.

  1. Living in an apartment with no Internet or TV: I recently moved to a very small apartment that currently has no Internet connection. I could probably rectify that situation but I've actually discovered that I like it. I live close enough to a public library with free wi-fi that I can still connect if there is something I really need to check.
  2. Reducing my RSS feed count by 80%: Lately I've found myself just skimming articles in my feed reader because I'm overwhelmed by how much there is to read. People work hard creating this content and I'm not giving it the attention it deserves. I'm going to ruthlessly cull the number of sites I follow so that I can actually take the time to digest what I read.
  3. Using Instapaper for anything that looks interesting: Instapaper lets me read content on my terms. Especially with limited access to the Internet, I don't want to be wasting time online reading things that I can easily take with me when I log off.

There is just too much excellent information to absorb out there and I don't think I'm doing anybody justice by trying to catch bits and pieces of it as it goes whirling by. I'd much rather fill my tea cup from a small pitcher of delicious lemonade and enjoy it at my leisure.

Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you face everyday? What are you doing about it?