Conquer Overwhelm With a Few Simple Brain Hacks

by Annie

in creative working, ruthless productivity

Image of Overwhelmed Girl Trying to Manage Several Telephones

Overwhelmed? Take a deep breath and then retrain your brain with some simple hacks.

Feel like you’re drowning in Stuff, with a capital-S? Can’t find the time to get back to your passion — y’know, that stuff you really like to do?

My friend, overwhelm is a creativity and productivity killer.

I know — believe me I know — what overwhelm feels like, and what a huge, seemingly insurmountable obstacle it presents to getting your business on track, meeting deadlines, creating the marketing habit … and simply to feeling like a functional human being.

How can you erase that drowning feeling and get back to running Fabulous You, Inc.? Well, as with most obstacles to being more productive and to getting in the creative flow, that awesome-feeling state where things just work for you, overwhelm is definitely manageable — but you have to play a few tricks on your monkey-brain first.

Monkey-brain: The Excitable Conductor of Your Train of Thought

Monkey-brain, by the way, is not an insult!  Monkey-brain is what I call that part of your brain that’s in perennial CheckList Mode.

You know — when you’re trying to get something accomplished and all you keep hearing in your head is “But what about that other task you’re completely ignoring in order to do this thing? And the five things your kid needs from you? And the other thing your client asked for? And the billing? And the laundry? And the grocery shopping and the … ”

That’s your monkey-brain talking to you. Monkey-brain is useful for certain tasks, but you can’t let it rule your decisions and actions, ’cause all it knows is there’s a schedule, for Pete’s sake, and you’re not on it.

Telling monkey-brain to shut up is completely ineffective. It’s like the Energizer(tm) bunny. It’s just going to keep going and going. What you can do, however, is realize what it’s really trying to tell you, and then soothe it with a few easy simple hacks.

When Monkey-brain Starts Talking Really Fast, Listen

Your first task is to recognize when those excited, nervous, jumpy little voices start yelling at you that you’re not doing it right (or fast enough, or the right thing).

It might not be as easy as it sounds, by the way. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in meeting deadlines that we’re not really aware of the mental chatter going on in the background.

So how can you tell when it’s time to be quiet and calm the little monkey-conductor down? By paying attention to some physical and emotional cues:

  • Your heart-rate may increase.
  • You may start to feel like you’re out of breath — almost like you’ve been running or exercising.
  • You may feel like you’re about to jump out of your skin — one client said to me “It’s like the cells in my body are sort of vibrating at a much higher frequency.”
  • Emotionally, you may start to feel guilty. That’s coming from the vague sense that you’re not doing what you ought to be doing, the way you ought to do it.

So, your first task in grabbing control of that overwhelm and making it work for you is to sit down and listen to monkey-brain. What it’s really trying to tell you is that you’re in danger of losing track of your obligations. And if you want to get it to calm down so you can actually do something about it, you have to convince monkey-brain that you’re in control of things — that you’re not gonna lose it.

Step One: Calm the Monkey-Brain Down By Listening Up

First, get control of your body’s physical response to the stress caused by the mind-chatter.

I find it most helpful to find a seated position somewhere away from the place I was working when the overwhelm hit, then simply try to focus on my breathing. This isn’t as deep a focus as you’d get when meditating, for example, but simply an awareness of the breath coming in and going out.

Don’t try to change your rate of respiration — don’t try to do anything, actually, but simply sit there and be cognizant of your breathing.

The mind-chatter will no doubt continue as you pay attention to your breath. Gently, without trying to change or control the chatter, bring your attention to what it’s saying to you.

Sometimes, I actually become aware of a coherent train of thought — actual words, that is, a narrative of what’s bothering me at that moment. More often, though, it’s simply a sense of building pressure, without a clear message. If that’s the case, you can still listen to the message that’s underneath the pressure with a little bit of gentle prodding. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What’s on the back burner that needs to move to the front?
  • What task or project am I avoiding like the plague?
  • What’s keeping me from putting my full attention on what I really want to do?
  • What do I need to pay attention to?

You’ll probably find that the essential underlying problem is one of two things: either —

  1. You have too much on your plate and your monkey-brain is afraid you won’t be able to get it all done, or
  2. There’s one task in particular that scares the bejeebers out of you.

Figure out which it is — and it could be both, certainly — and then (and this is gonna make you feel strange but trust me, it works) say it out loud.

“I’m afraid of that editing project because it’s so big and there’s a lot of lingo in it and I’m afraid I won’t do a good job and the client will be upset with me and ….”

“I’m afraid that this project hasn’t been properly defined and I don’t really know where to begin.”

“I’m afraid that I can’t get that manuscript finished in time to enter the contest because there’s so much research I still have to do and I haven’t even begun to revise it yet and …”

Note the commonality: fear.  Yes, overwhelm at its heart is usually about fear of one sort or another.

Step Two: Act on the Message

If overwhelm is about fear, then conquering overwhelm is about soothing and reassuring the part of you that is afraid.

Conquering Overwhelm About a Single Project or Task

If the problem is centered on a single task or project that’s causing you stress, then the next step is to figure out why it scares you. It’s most likely one of three things: it’s ill-defined, you’re ill-prepared, or you’ve underestimated the time necessary to get it done.

  • If the task is ill-defined: Who can narrow the scope appropriately? You? A client? A third party? A resource? Figure that out and then ask for clarification.
  • If you’re ill-prepared: Make a list of what you don’t know. It sounds impossible, but it isn’t. Simply jot down your questions, or brief phrases that describe areas of research you need to do or materials you need to identify and acquire, etc.
  • If you’ve underestimated the time necessary to get it done: This one’s trickier. First, you have to figure out if it’s physically possible under any set of circumstances to accomplish the task (i.e., with assistance, by deleting other things from your task list, etc.). If so, do it. If not, you’ll have to either ask for an extension of the deadline, or decline the job. Either way, do that immediately — delay is not your friend.

Conquering Overwhelm About Too Many Projects or Tasks

If the feelings of being overwhelmed are trying to communicate fear that you’ve over-extended yourself — that you simply have too many things on the tasks list — your approach to calming that fear is simpler:

Write it all down somewhere you can save it
and return to it easily and quickly.

See, what your overwhelmed monkey-brain is trying to tell you here is that it needs some help. It can’t possibly remember all these things you’ve committed to doing or providing.

That part of your brain that deals with short-term memory just isn’t designed for long-term retention of long lists of things. It’s good for short strings of data like telephone numbers or simple instructions or dates.

For long lists of detailed tasks, project descriptions, and deadlines? Nah. You need something tangible for that.

And that means one of two things: paper or computer. It doesn’t really matter which you choose. Just make sure it’s something you can access easily and quickly, and it’s editable.

My choice is an application from Circus Ponies called Notebook. It allows me to create multiple lists in a single “Notebook” and attach check-boxes to each item that I can click when I’ve completed a particular task.

That feeling of checking off that box is entirely satisfactory to monkey-brain, by the way. Clicking boxes works for me. Your version might be drawing a line through it with a different color pen on a piece of paper. Whatever works for you is perfectly acceptable.

So make the list. Don’t edit it as you go. Simply write down every single thing that’s simmering in the mental pot. Don’t try to group or organize the list. Monkey-brain really needs you to just get it all out as quickly as possible. You can organize it later. For now, just get it down.

Bonus Step #3: When Overwhelm Has Killed Your Sense of Power

Once you’ve got that list done, and you still find yourself a little paralyzed — helpless to get anything actually going — there’s a pretty simple way to get yourself back in the swing:

  • Find the easiest, simplest thing on that list.
  • Do it.
  • Mark it done.
  • Take a minute to feel efficient.
  • If necessary, lather, rinse and repeat as often as it takes.

Your sense of paralysis isn’t coming from a real inability to perform. It’s coming — again — from fear. Fear of failure or success … it doesn’t really matter. But you can’t just tell yourself to feel better. Monkey-brain doesn’t work that way. You have to show it that it’s wrong. That’s why tackling easy things and marking them done is so effective at quieting those fears of powerlessness: it quite literally shows you how powerful you really are.

Bonus Step #4: Something Cool to Give You Options In Managing Your Overwhelm

And in a fabulous display of synchronicity, as I was preparing this post for publication I found this post from the amazing Jenny Shih, the “Ideas” lady, which I wholeheartedly recommend. There’s even a cool little “Managing Overwhelm” checklist you can download from Jenny’s post at that link, too.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

paigan June 5, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Thank you for this post! My “To Do” list is a hundred items long, tasks as simple as “write an email” and as difficult as “Learn Microsoft Office 2007” (I haven’t made it to Office 2010 yet!). Maybe your tips will help me actually start to tame that list…..I hope!
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Annie June 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Creative folks are especially helped, I’ve found, with getting things out of their head and onto paper or digital format. It frees up much-needed brain space for creative work. Then, once it’s down on paper/computer screen, you can tweak it, ask yourself whether it’s really what you want/need to be doing, chunk it into categories, etc. And that’s where the real magic happens, I’ve found. Questioning our commitments brings up some really interesting internal issues!


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