It’s been three weeks since my return from Europe. My plan was initially to hit the ground running. I didn’t want to take any time off for fear of falling into the post-exam vortex.
I wanted to move back-burner projects to the front burner and start working on ideas that I had jotted down somewhere deep within my six volumes of moleskine notebooks.
My plan, pure and simple, was to fill my now school-free days with awesomeness. A bit of screenwriting here, some Puttylike there, collaborating with friends, playing music, hanging out in cafes, surrounding myself with freelancers, entrepreneurs and artists. Sigh…
Well I can pretty confidently say that I have arrived.
However, it hasn’t quite been the bliss I imagined. It took a few weeks, some revised expectations and some major overwhelm-control.
The Bad Kind of Overwhelm
We’re all familiar with the bad kind of overwhelm. You know, those days where you have so many unpleasant things you need to do, that you end up getting nothing done at all. Every time you try to focus on one task, you’re hit with a stream of all the other tasks you need to complete.
You become paralyzed. You procrastinate. You have a mini breakdowns. Finally, you either plow ahead in pain or give up altogether.
Overwhelm sucks. There’s no other way to say it. Choosing among a panoply of unpleasant commitments, all of which you must get done? Awful.
And then there’s the Good Kind
As I’ve discovered these last few weeks, it’s not only annoying commitments that can lead to overwhelm. Having many exciting projects on the go can produce the same exact effect. And this is even more tragic because suddenly something you once loved starts feeling like work!
Some might call this a non-problem problem; having too many good things in your life. But being unable to pursue or enjoy any of your passions? How could anything be more serious?!
Overwhelm is inevitable, so we had better learn how to manage it. I’m not going to spend the remainder of this post talking about specific productivity methods like breaking tasks down into small steps, focusing on one thing at a time, and so on. There are already plenty of great resources out there on those topics.
Instead, I’m going to discuss a mindset shift I made recently that helped get me over this hump.
We Get Overwhelmed when the Good Stuff Starts Feeling like Work
As my buddy Lach reminded me recently, mindset makes the difference between happiness and pain. Even the greatest projects in the world can make you unhappy if you start to view them as obligations.
This is precisely what I was doing to myself. In my rush to get started on every great idea and fit them all into my day, I ended up creating an inflexible schedule that left me feeling like I was constantly playing catch-up.
Small achievements felt like failures because there was always something more I could have done that day. I couldn’t appreciate my down-time either because I just kept thinking about the next thing I had to do.
In short, the good stuff began feeling like work. As a result, the overwhelm hit me like a ton of bricks. I would think about everything I had to do, and I’d panic.
Make Your Activities ‘Wants’, not ‘Shoulds’
I began testing a new approach.
Every time I would have a thought like ‘I should finish that post‘ or ‘I have to retweet that article’, I stopped myself and replaced the word should/have with want/choose/like. So it would become: ‘I want to finish that post,’ or ‘I’d like to retweet that article’.
It’s a slight distinction but it made a world of difference. ‘Should’ is the language of obligation. It connotes a lack of freedom, whereas ‘want’ is about desire and choice.
As soon as I began viewing my activities as choices I had made, I was in a much better position to take action. I stopped worrying so much about getting everything done. Simply removing this pressure was enough to lift the overwhelm.
Try it out for yourself
You’d be surprised how often you have ‘should’ thoughts with reference to your passions. At the very least, this exercise will make you more aware of your thoughts. And thoughts are everything! They determine your mood and impact the way you see the world.
Reframing your ‘shoulds’ into ‘wants’ also acts as a reminder that your life has been consciously designed by you. You’ve taken control and are pursuing your passions. And that’s a powerful idea; one you should keep in mind at all times.
My next experiment? Throwing out the to-do list! I have this feeling that it contributes to the overwhelm in the same way. I shall report back on my findings.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all the good things in your life? Were you surprised or even disappointed when your passions began to feel like work? How did you handle it?