Today is the first of a four-part series on overwhelm. With the holidays coming and the end of the year in our sights, this is the season for feeling completely overloaded. So, I thought I would share some insights and strategies to help you make it through peacefully ad gracefully.
We all know the feeling when we’ve got way too much on our plates. Racing thoughts. Frantic energy. Nonstop motion. Maniacal fixation on getting it all done. I’d been there many times until I learned the secret to avoiding overwhelm.
Overwhelm happens when we have more than we can handle. It’s too many obligations, appointments or errands. It’s a to-do list that’s impossibly long. It’s too many people wanting more from you than you have to give. It’s not enough hours in the day. It’s too many projects on the go. It’s messes and unfinished projects around the house. It’s not enough sleep because you thought it would be a better idea to try to just get more done.
It’s skipping meals, workouts, date nights, tuck-ins and self-care all to continue to bow down to the god of completion. It’s feeling buried and there isn’t a shovel big enough to dig you out.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, it’s because we don’t really understand true capacity.
Our capacity is the size of our container; it’s how much we can actually hold, yield, perform and withstand. Like a balloon, it will only take on so much air until it pops.
To begin to calculate our true capacity, we start with how many hours we have in our day after we’ve fully met our basic needs for survival: sleep, food and exercise. We must also factor in all the people we care for and about. If you’ve got young kids, for example, that will affect your capacity.
It’s also our mental state, which can shift with seasons and cycles. Perhaps your capacity expands in the summer when the days are longer and contracts after daylight savings time when it starts getting dark at 4pm. That’s definitely true for me.
Capacity is also measured by our individual temperament for adaptability and resilience, the parts of our psyche that determine how much we each can handle at any given time.
Put simply, our capacity is how much we can realistically take on, physically, psychologically and emotionally, before our wheels fall off the track. When the wheels fall off the track, we’ve hit overwhelm. We’re over capacity. The dam has spilled over or busted open. We no longer feel peacefully productive and on purpose. We’re now crazed, stretched too thin, agitated and potentially explosive.
So, here’s the secret to avoiding overwhelm. First, assess what 100 percent capacity looks like for you. What’s the most you can do, give, and push while still keeping the train on the tracks?
Now cut 30 percent.
Take an inventory of everything you have on your plate, and find 30 percent of it to completely eliminate by means of deferring, delegating or dumping it altogether.
Here are examples of what I’ve cut from my life:
- Having my kids signed up for more than one after-school activity each week
- Any social engagements or errands on Sunday
- Going into grocery stores (my local store lets you order online and only charges $5 for the pick-up)
- Teaching workshops (at the moment)
- Joining women’s or mastermind groups (I’m already committed to two)
For you, it could be opting out of hosting a holiday gathering or gift exchange. Maybe taking a pause on a volunteer position. What can you delegate, renegotiate, pause or defer to a later time? In part two, I’ll go into a lot more depth about how to cut.
The secret to avoiding overwhelm is to consistently operate in the zone of 70 percent capacity. Not 100 percent, and definitely not 130 percent, which is what we often do when we’re not paying attention. I call being at 70 percent capacity the Peacefully Productive Zone.
Here’s what happens when you stop living in a constant state of over-capacity and you enter the Peacefully Productive Zone:
- You have the mental wherewithal to be more creative and innovative, to solve. problems with more wisdom and resourcefulness.
- You have a clearer vision for the days, months and year ahead.
- You experience a sense of ease and lightness to your day.
- You show up for the people in your life with patience, curiosity and loving-kindness.
- You’re able to handle the unexpected with steadiness, agility and grace.
- You enjoy your life more.
Do you really need to be doing everything you’re doing? Start to bring awareness to all the balls you have in the air and get curious about why they’re there. Who says you must do them? What are all the things you “should” do versus all the things that really matter or all the things you wish you could be doing.
Who’s actually in charge of your life? Maybe there are a lot of have tos. Maybe most of your life is filled with obligations that seem impossible to escape. Are you willing to simply look curiously to see where there might actually be room to maneuver? Start with a scalpel, cutting a few tiny tasks, and then gradually build to a hatchet.
In order to become someone who consistently operates at 70 percent capacity, some skills need to be developed. I’ll be diving into these in the next three parts of this four-part series. I’ll be sharing specific tactics and systems you can use to stay in the Peacefully Productive Zone.
But, besides developing some skills, you’ll also need to develop some thicker skin. Cutting 30 percent from your to-do list is likely going to ruffle some feathers. You might disappoint some people. You might need to have some difficult conversations. You might start saying “no.” All of these will be uncomfortable. Be willing to travel through the discomfort in order to get to the other side. On the other side is the life that you want and deserve to have. It has order and calm, joy, space and rest.
On the other side of our over-capacity lives is a life where we’re thriving. For me, that’s the feeling that I’m doing good work in the world, meeting my commitments, tending to my basic needs, and leaving space for rest, presence and the inevitable curve ball. It’s being Peacefully Productive and it’s the zone where we all are at our best.
Stay tuned for Part Two: How to Do Less
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI (COACH, HOST OF 60 MINDFUL MINUTES)
Kristen Manieri is a coach who works with teams to increase both productivity and wellbeing. She also helps individuals navigate transition with clarity and confidence. Her areas of focus are: stress reduction, energy management, mindset, resilience, habit formation, rest rituals, and self-care. As the host of the weekly 60 Mindful Minutes podcast, an Apple top 100 social science podcast, Kristen has interviewed over 200 authors about what it means to live a more conscious, connected, intentional and joyful life. She is the author of Better Daily Mindfulness Habits: Simple Changes with Lifelong Impact. Learn more at kristenmanieri.com/work-with-me.