Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by your life? You are not alone. As each of us is equipped with a cell phone, research now shows that most professionals feel connected to work 72 hours a week. Forty eight percent of Americans report that their stress levels are up and that the number one source of their stress is pressure of a 24/7 world. Add to that the distraction of a constant barrage of emails, over-burdened schedules, data overload from every direction and you have a recipe for overwhelm.
We all have so much coming at us that it can sometimes seem paralyzing. And, does it sometimes seem like the faster and harder you work, the faster and harder it comes at you? Overwhelm sets in when you feel your life is out of control. Sometimes slowing down, taking a deep breath and resetting your start point is all that is needed to dissipate the feeling of being overwhelmed and it is these small measures that create a better life.
As we have all found, you can work beyond your personal limits, not take days off, and not get enough sleep for so long before you find this mode of operation is actually counterproductive. It’s impossible to do your best work when you have a fuzzy focus due to being sleep-deprived, stressed and overworked. And besides that and perhaps more importantly, life on the burnout track is no fun. Life is to enjoy. My personal motto is “Never do anything to the point of drudgery.” That said, here are some instant cures for those times you are feeling overwhelmed:
1.) Practice Mindfulness
Who knows where our culture’s love affair with busyness started, but I like to remind myself frequently that a busy life does not equate to a happy life. We all feel we have to be ‘productive’ all the time, and our happiness ends up taking a backseat to our slavery to productivity. Creating a practice of mindfulness not only helps you groom a mindset of inner peace, it also makes you more focused to concentrate on the important things at hand. First let’s talk about how to do it and then we’ll get to the why.
A Mindfulness Exercise
When you feel your mind racing with so much that you feel overwhelmed, stop everything, and start to focus on your breathing. Notice how your chest feels as it rises and falls or how the air feels as it comes in and out of your nostrils. You can even count your breaths for a couple minutes. Mindfulness shifts your focus from the worry-worry, stress-stress circuit of your brain to the more peaceful, feeling-sensing circuit. My practice is to either focus on my breath or some other sensation. For instance, I will pick up my coffee cup and spend a moment focused on the lovely warmness it transfers to my palms. Or, I will put my palms flat on my glass work surface and notice the coolness of the table for a few moments.
Why Mindfulness Works
I know this may sound way too simple to do anything at all, but actually it can make a huge difference in creating a better life and here is why. The worry-worry, stress-stress circuit is inversely related to your peaceful, feeling-sensing circuit. When one is up (active) the other is down. The worry circuit (that’s my official name for it and I’m sticking to it) consists of the right amygdala, which scans for negative threats to your happiness, safety or security, and it is connected to your right prefrontal cortex. When a threat is found the circuit works diligently to dredge up similar negative experiences from the past in order to try to work out solutions. So it goes back and forth from past to future, projecting, stressing and worrying out all the possible solutions to the perceived threat. But, really much of what it stresses about is not life threatening at all – for instance, “Should I stop by the grocery store on the way home to get more toilet paper just in case that big snow storm hits this weekend.”
The reason mindfulness practices are so important is that research has found that people that have more left prefrontal cortex activity have more inner peace, have more authentic happiness and are more focused. Every time you pull your mind away from the stress circuit and focus on your breath or how another part of your body feels you are training your brain to live more on the peace, happiness and focus side. You can actually train your brain for more left prefrontal cortex activity – a very good thing for your life. See, the left prefrontal cortex is connected with the somatosensory part of the brain, which is in charge of keeping in touch with how the body feels. So, every time you take a sensory/mindfulness break, you are training your brain to live more on the peace, happiness and focused side of the brain.
2.) Take a few minutes to Prioritize
A management professor at Columbia University Business School, Sheena Iyengar did a study in which she offered one group of people samples of six different jams that they could purchase while she offered a different group 24 jams from which to choose. One would think that the group with more options would be more likely to purchase. However, the result was quite opposite. Those in the six-jam group were actually ten times more likely to buy a jar of jam.
Overwhelm is characterized by having data or option overload. Sometimes having too many options hurdling our way can paralyze us and keep us from doing anything at all. So, next time you are feeling overwhelm, after you have taken a quick mindfulness-sensory pause, make a list of all the things you want to get done, big and small. This alone will quite the feeling of overwhelm because you are taking back control versus remaining in the out-of-control feeling that characterizes feelings of overwhelm. But, here’s what I like to do next. First, I quickly do the three or four things that will be quickest and easiest to slash off the list. This gives me a great feeling of control and accomplishment, even if they were trivial. Then I look at the list and rank what I feel are the top four, in order of importance and I devote a block of time to the number one rated item on the list. Try it and let me know what you think of this prioritization strategy for taming overwhelment.
This practice can also work well for quelling feelings of financial overwhelm. Write down your credit card balances and decide on a strategy for knocking them out one by one. Whether it is the ones with the smallest balances first or the ones with the biggest interest rates first, just decide on the pecking order, pay the minimums on everything else and double down on the targeted debts, one at a time – in the order you set.
3.) Limit Social Media Check-ins
A recent study showed that people now check their cell phones almost 150 times a day. This causes distraction, stress, and, of course, a reduction in productivity. Additionally, research shows that today’s professionals only focus for 7 minutes at a time, after which they click on to something new or check Facebook. Another recent report says smartphone users check Facebook’s website an average of 13.8 times a day, and spend a total of half an hour each day on the social network on their phones. Facebook, emails and social networks eat up an enormous amount of our time and then we wonder why we feel so time challenged, right?!
Social media is tempting because we are wired, as humans, for social connection. Here’s some strategies I employ. I check my emails first thing in the morning, right before lunch and mid-afternoon only. When I feel tempted to check into social media outlets, I ask myself, is it because “I’m procrastinating,” “I’m looking for affirmation in the way of ‘likes’ on my latest posts,’ or ‘Am I rewarding myself with a social media break after finishing a work task?” If the answer is a reward break, I indulge myself in checking out the goings on over at Twitter and Facebook and thoroughly enjoy my visit.
4.) Simplify & Organize
Neuroscientists at Yale have found that feeling overwhelmed is actually shrinking our brains. Stress shrinks the hippocampus, which is important to memory and learning. So, we have yet another reason to employ these five cures often. This fourth strategy is about stepping back to simplify or organize. Again this is about taking back control. Have you ever noticed that just stopping to put the scattered papers on your desk back into the right folders help you feel more on top of it? It can be a task that small or you can look at your overall schedule and say “Hey, do I really need all this activity?” There may be some things you do weekly out of habit that were once fun but are now tedious, boring or just pure drudgery. Cut it loose if it no longer serves you. A simple life is a peaceful life.
Author Brigid Schulte, an award-winning journalist for the Washington Post has written a book called Overwhelmed. She is a mother of two, and one of the topics she addresses is mothers that are drawn to increasingly super intensive parenting standards, as well as mothers seeking to pull away from them. At the end of the day, one must stand back and look at the rigorousness of the schedule and routines and ask “Are we getting our quality time together?” Togetherness in the form of relaxation or downtime feels like such a luxury. But, isn’t it the bomb?! Just ‘be’ together!! Simplify, simplify, simplify.
5.) Schedule in a Renewal Break Every 90 Minutes
In a recent poll conducted by the Huffington Post, among the 1000 or so respondents in the first week, more than 60 percent responded that they take 20 minutes or less for lunch, and 25 percent never leave their desk at all. They also reported that two-thirds fail to take at least some of their allotted vacation time and 25 percent leave at least a week’s worth of vacation unused every year.
Tony Schwartz, author and the Huffington Post journalist who reported the above statistics, finished his last book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working in just six months. He says all his other books took at least a year. He did this by employing a revitalization strategy of taking a break every 90 minutes. In his book, he details the research done by Nathan Kleitman, a famous sleep researcher, who found that humans have something he named the “basic rest-activity cycle” — the 90 minute periods at night during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep. He later also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. Schwartz’s strategy also sites a famous 1993 study by performance researcher Anders Ericsson that found that the best young violinists all practiced in a similar way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one.
Schwartz drafted his book in record time using this strategy. He says, “I wrote without interruptions for three 90-minute periods, and took a break between each one. I had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third.”
By limiting your work cycles to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal, you are able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time.
Share These Techniques with Your Kids
Feeling overwhelmed is not just a problem for working adults. “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” an annual survey of more than 150,000 students from around the country, recently reported that the number of freshman who reported feeling stressed or overwhelmed has increased. According to the research, 9.5% of freshman reported that they frequently felt depressed within the past year. This statistic was up 6.1% over the same period five years prior. The percentage that felt overwhelmed by school work and/or extracurricular activities rose to 34.6% from 27.1%. So, please pass along this article or the techniques to your high school and college aged kids (or any friend you feel could benefit). Blessings!