Sometimes, when my work calendar looks full, I feel overwhelmed.
But I’m not overwhelmed by the sessions booked in; I’m overwhelmed by my thoughts about what’s to come.
Have you ever had so much on that you don’t know where to start? You feel as if you’re buried beneath something and worn out before you even begin whatever you need to do.
Are you overwhelmed?
Maybe you’re overloaded?
You might think these are the same, but this isn’t so.
Why does it matter?
It matters because when you recognise the difference, it’ll make a difference in how you feel and act.
It’s true that you might feel overwhelmed if you’re overloaded, but overwhelm is an emotional state that refers to your thoughts about the amount of work you must do.
Whereas overloaded is a cognitive state and refers to the physical work you must do.
Are you overloaded?
When ex-FBI Profiler John Douglas told his superior that he had too many cases to deal with, at one point, he was overseeing 1000 violent crime cases every year, and he needed help; his boss told him that no one gets help until they crack.
And John Douglas cracked. He contracted viral encephalitis and was in a coma for a week. He came out of the coma paralysed and underwent five months of rehabilitation.
Douglas had been overloaded.
In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer said,
“Working hours in the United States are particularly long and irregular, a situation that has gotten worse over time.”
With 81% of respondents checking email on the weekend, 55% logging in after 11 p.m., and 59% looking at email while on vacation.
If you don’t see that you’re overloaded, you’re heading for trouble. If you have a boss like Douglas who pushes you to do more, you might use your workload as a stick to beat yourself.
You might imagine that it’s a defect on your part that you can’t get through the tasks, that you’re being lazy or not focused enough.
You can set up systems and reward yourself with a five-minute break every hour or read books on productivity, but nothing makes a dent in your to-do list.
This is a good time to pause and ask yourself if your feeling is coming from your head or the mountain of work. If you’ve been blaming yourself, telling yourself that you’ve not been in the right mental state to get through the stack, it’s time to admit that you’re not overwhelmed but overloaded.
Ironically, the more you have on your mind, the less you get done.
It is like paralysis; you think you should be doing so much that you don’t know where to start, and your thinking shoots off in different directions.
The more frantic your thinking, the more frantic you feel.
It’s like trying to open too many windows on your computer and getting the spinning ball of doom.
The computer gets overloaded and might shut down or slow down. But there isn’t anything wrong with the computer. When it resets, it starts to work properly. It stops being overloaded.
How to stop being overloaded
Set boundaries. Having office hours is important whether you work for someone else or yourself. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep your nose down for longer periods but make these times the exceptions rather than the rule.
At my first office job, the company’s co-owner would walk through the office floor half an hour after the working day had finished, and there became an unofficial race to see who could stay at work the longest to prove their worth to him.
But the opposite happened.
The owner noted the people working late and told their office manager they needed to work harder during the day or had been given too much work.
Extra hours aren’t a badge of worth.
Get help. If you work for yourself and need admin help, hire someone. If you tell yourself you can’t afford it, tally up the cost to your health.
If you work for someone, propose getting help a few hours a week.
What can you outsource if you’re working full-time at home and work? Can you get a cleaner? Buy food subscription boxes to save on shopping time.
Practice saying no. I understand that this is tough when you’re saying no to your boss, but if you don’t, your workload will increase because the more you do, the more you’ll be expected to do.
And if you work for yourself, say no to social media distractions or scrolling through youtube.
You can’t function properly when you’re overloaded. When you live responding and reacting to your environment, you’re knocking the body out of balance, and then that imbalance becomes the new balance and overwhelm becomes ‘normal’.
Are you overwhelmed?
Overwhelm comes from a state of mind; it’s a feeling of pressure that looks like it is coming from outside you, from your circumstances.
But you can’t feel your circumstances, can you?
Think about it; it’s impossible. How can you feel the traffic jam, the argument, the to-do list? You’re feeling your thinking about the circumstances.
When you feel overwhelmed and don’t recognise where the feeling is coming from, it’s understandable that you attach the feeling to a circumstance like the amount of work you have to do.
It makes sense at the moment, but when you see the link between thought and feeling, it suddenly doesn’t make any sense, as there is no direct link between them.
How can there be a link between something that is happening on the outside and something that is happening on the inside?
If I saw an injured bird and felt sad, how would my feeling be coming from the bird? There isn’t a chemical link coming from the bird that affects my hormones. All of my feeling, 100%, come from my thoughts about the bird or any situation, and my feeling can only last as long as the thought lasts.
You aren’t ever overwhelmed by how much you have to do or anything happening outside you.
You are only overwhelmed by your thoughts about how much you must do. No one is ever overwhelmed by the task they’re involved in unless they start thinking about not finishing in time or doing the job badly.
How to stop feeling overwhelmed
Focus on the task you’re doing. Remember, you aren’t overwhelmed by what you’re doing now but by thinking about the hundred jobs you still have to do.
If you’re working on one task while thinking about the next, completing it will take you twice as long.
In this very second, you only need to do whatever is in front of you.
Become conscious of what is going on in your head. This can’t happen if you’re living unconsciously, and the only way to live consciously is to notice the feeling that you’re in.
Re-write your to-do list. If you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, remind yourself who wrote it.
Neither overwhelm, nor overload feel comfortable, and both can feel out of control. But they’re not.
The cure for overload is managing your work, and the cure for overwhelm is noticing a new thought.
But whatever you do, don’t add noticing a new thought to your to-do list.