From a reader -
Just a thought - You probably get several requests for advice, inputs etc. Do you not get overwhelmed?
Indeed, my email/people contacting me volume has gone up massively a lot. Like, a whole lot.
Do I get overwhelmed? Well, I reckon there's two things people usually call "overwhelmed" -
1. A short term overwhelmed feeling, like when you've got to do 6 hours of things, but you've got a flight in 3 hours.
2. A long term, persistent, totally out of control feeling.
I get the first one at times, sure. The second one, no.
I think short term overwhelm is natural, and comes to everyone who is expansive. Inevitably, if you work on lots of stuff, you're going to have a day when you get 5x or 10x your normal volume of work, contact, etc. Even if these are all magnificent opportunities, it can weigh heavily on you.
I know lots of people who work hard, and I see all of them occasionally sigh or shake their head when they have an abnormally crazily high volume of short term things to do. I think that's normal and nothing to feel bad about (though I'll talk about how to deal with it in a minute).
The second kind of overwhelm - feeling long term out of control - that one's nasty. That's the one that breaks people.
I've been there before, I think most people who are expansive don't recognize their limits at first and overdo things.
Interestingly, I think long term out of control overwhelm is really straightforward to deal with. That doesn't mean it's easy to deal with, but I think it's very straightforward.
The answer is fundamentals.
Good, solid fundamental habits are the way to keep long term overwhelm at bay.
Me, I spend time tracking my time, so I notice pretty quickly if I go a few days without exercising, or without relaxing, or without socializing. I pay attention to what I'm eating, and eat pretty well. Also, I pay attention to how much I'm sleeping and when. That mix is pretty good for avoiding the out of control feeling.
Other fundamental habits - keeping a clean and orderly workspace, single-tasking and batching similar work, keeping a single to-do-list/inbox and making sure everything goes on there, touching work once instead of multiple times, having a positive and cooperative relationship with the people you see most often in your life... I think those are the keys to staying in control of your life, especially if you're doing a lot of stuff.
Additionally, I just scaled my internet time back to three hours a day. So much more time has opened up to me. Actually, the first few days were weird and empty while I was adjusting. But it's been very good since then. I'll write an update on this when I have more concrete observations. But for now, the freetime that's opened up from killing off internet surfing time has given me lots of opportunities to work with people, connect, and otherwise do cool expansive productive things.
Okay, so long term overwhelm is fought off with fundamentals and everyone experiences short term overwhelm. Y'know, where you think, "Oh my God, I've got so much to do, can I possibly do this?"
Or worse yet, your mind starts to rebel and says, "I can't do this, I don't want to do this, I refuse to do this."
That's an ugly feeling, and I think everyone expansive gets it from time to time. How do you deal with that?
This is something that took me a while to figure out. As simple as it sounds, I try to remind myself that I don't have to do anything.
Y'know, I don't have to do a damn thing if I don't want to. You don't have to, either.
Lots of contacts? Well, I could select-all/archive or select-all/delete my whole inbox. I could drop any business deal I don't want to do. I could cancel any appointment.
Nobody has to do a damn thing.
Paradoxically, once you recognize that - you're in control - the overwhelm seems to fade, and it's possible to choose what to do next.
So I say, "I don't need to do any of this... okay, so... what do I want to do?"
And y'know, most of the time I want to do the work that's available. It's really cool and flattering that people seek my counsel, want to collaborate on things, that I have opportunities to work with smart and cool and ambitious people. Looking at my time tracking, I spend 10 hours doing solid work yesterday, and the remainder of my time was playing Scrabble and talking politics with a smart English guy I met and his American girlfriend.
That's a pretty good life. I put in 10 hours of real work - not like, "sitting around pretending to work", but actually constant motion. Again looking at my tracking, I went through about 90 emails yesterday. At one point, I wanted to go to sleep and had about 10 more things that needed a short term reply. I was getting the overwhelm feeling.
Then I said, "I don't have to do this. I could say screw it and let all this drop. It's my choice."
I pause, nod. I'm in control here.
"Okay, so, I could just go to sleep. Would I rather sleep or answer these people?"
And I got down to business. It was a magnificent day.
I think the feeling that you have to do something is poisonous. My mind starts to rebel when it feels like I've got a huge pile of "have-to-do" stuff lying around.
But when I say, hold on a second, I don't have to do anything... then it becomes a choice. Is this a place I want to be spend my time? And the answer is usually yes.
Sometimes it's not, and my mind isn't with whatever work, and I take a day off or work on something unrelated. That's okay too. But mostly, just acknowledging that I don't have to do any of the work is all it takes for overwhelm to go away. It's like, okay, I can do this, or not. Do I want to? And 99% of the time, I do want to do it, and I do it.
Short recap -
To fight long term overwhelm, establish good fundamental habits of nutrition, sleep, adequate relaxation, socializing, etc. Pay attention to where your time and life is going.
To fight short term overwhelm, recognize you don't have to do a damn thing. You can choose to, or choose not to. Acknowledging that freedom and agency is huge for me, as soon as I do it overwhelm fades away, and I can get back into my work with a pleasant attitude.
Your strategies and experiences in the comments?
I realize this is two years old, and I'm reading it because it was a "Read this next" suggestion. Hopefully others will follow the same trail here.
I agree that a capable person will experience the first but not the second kind of ovewhelming pressure. There is a sad sort of person who is the opposite. They do not feel the short-term pressure, only the chronic sense of being out of control. Similarly to how it's hard to wiggle one ear without wiggling both of them at first, it's hard for that person to begin to feel the healthy short-term pressure of a packed schedule without also inflaming the out of control feeling. It's like trying to build a river channel with the water running straight through it. I would say it takes a full habit-forming cycle before the short-term overwhelming feeling becomes dominant, and the chronic overwhelming feeling fades away as the short term is always followed up with good prioritization and accomplishment.
"Okay guys, are we sorted out? I've got a few more things I've got to do this evening."
There's nods all-around. We just got our new office set up, and our first fulfillment staff just came in to sign the employment contract.
I pack up my computer and walk out from the glass-doored meeting room into the main room and head to the coat rack. I put on my winter coat, button it, and put on my ushanka Russian-style hat.
Then I remember - good, Tony's here.
Ah, you there, my Type-A friend. I'm glad you came today. Come in. What would you like? We've got coffees, teas, or clear still water perhaps? No juices at the moment, I'm afraid, I'm not having carbohydrates and it'd be fiddling with the devil to buy juice and then attempt not to drink it. The coffee is good, though, yes?
One moment. I'd like to light the fireplace. Maybe it's technically Spring, but this "Spring" in West Germany is chilly and cold and damp and grey, right down into the bones. But pardon me, I'm near veering into complaint, which is the exact opposite of the place I want to go. I'd much rather pull up by the warm fire's glow with non-carbohydrate beverage-of-choice and muse a little about philosophy and psychology with you -- and maybe it'll even be productive for us?
Ah, the warmth is nice.