Overlwhelmed by the Good Stuff

Overlwhelmed by the Good Stuff

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.

I was so thrilled (still am) to be done law school, that the prospect of working on only my personal projects sounded tremendous! The changing of the year also contributed to my drive.

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?


  1. Lach says:

    Good choice, Emilie. And you’re right—it’s no fun when you turn your passion into chores by focusing on burning down your to do list instead of flowing with the creative energy. When it comes to overwhelm it’s helpful to realise that a lot of your “should”s probably aren’t that critical anyway. If you let a ball drop, it’s usually no big deal. In fact the only thing that ever makes it a big deal is your anxiety over it.

    I use to do lists when I need to focus on the details of something. But to guide my day I like to stand in my now and ask “what’s the best thing that I can do right now?” What’s going to give me the biggest payoff? Which one action is going to move me towards what’s really important in the big picture? Do that one first. Whatever you “have” to do after that, enjoy it in the knowledge that you’re one step closer. :)

    • Emilie says:

      “the only thing that ever makes it a big deal is your anxiety over it.” Very true Lach. It’s interesting how when you stop trying to micromanage everything, things start taking off. Have you noticed that too?

      I’ve started thinking in terms of ‘biggest payoff’ actions too. It helps to think a) what am I working towards and b) which of these things I supposedly ‘need’ to do will bring me closest to that goal. It’s all about staying focused on the big picture and not getting bogged down with the details. We often make things far more complicated than they need to be.

      Thanks for the feedback Lach.

      • Lach says:

        Yes, interesting point about not micromanaging things. I think it has a lot to do with flow. Micromanaging says “I don’t trust this to work out well unless I sort out every little detail”. That’s not good for your energy.

  2. Rob says:

    Nice! I like the self-directed psychological trick! WANT not SHOULD… I’ve never tried it, but definitely will next time I’m in a lull!

    I too feel like sometimes I’m taking on too much, but then a lot of the time realise it’s only too much because I’m spending valuable time *thinking* about how much I have to do… the paradox of increased productivity strikes again.

    Glad you’ve found a way of getting your motivation back though!!

    • Emilie says:

      I know, right? Total paradox. You think that by controlling every minute of your day, you’re accomplishing more, but all you’re really doing is stifling your creativity.

      Gotta keep it fun and light! I think that’s the key to true productivity.

  3. Brian Gerald says:

    Love your suggestion about removing “should” and “need” from our vocabularies! My friend and former roommate Matt (www.matthewbeams.com) suggested that to me years ago. It seemed ridiculous at first: what do you mean I “choose” to go to work? I HAVE to go to work!!!

  4. Brian Gerald says:

    Love your suggestion about removing “should” and “need” from our vocabularies! My friend and former roommate Matt (www.matthewbeams.com) suggested that to me years ago. It seemed ridiculous at first: what do you mean I “choose” to go to work? I HAVE to go to work!!! Well, I could not go and, yes, I might get fired but I can still choose. It also made me realize that–with a little planning so as to not burden other people–I could even *choose* to take a day off just because! Personal agency is a tool with amazing power, don’t ever forget you have it!

    Now that I work for myself, I have even more opportunities to choose. Sometimes the choosing itself becomes a task. And then I remember, this is the life I want… I GET to choose!

    • Emilie says:


      I agree, personal agency makes an enormous difference in how we perceive things. Changing your ‘shoulds’ to ‘wants’ is a big reminder that most of our life circumstances are just that: choices. We have the power to change them and we’re responsible for them as well.

      I find that even asserting myself in my daily life helps boost my confidence and mood. Something as simple as choosing to talk to someone on the bus when I could just as easily have stayed quiet. Little active choices throughout the day add up.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Trever Clark says:

    Throwing out the TDL. That sounds terrifying but exhilarating at the same time. Like working without a net. I’ll let you try it first though. :-)

    • Emilie says:

      haha I know, right? I’ve read about other people doing it and thought they were crazy! I’ve relied on my TDL for so long… but I really think it’s contributing to the overwhelm- making tasks seem more important and more urgent than they actually are.

      Also, like Lach mentioned above, I think an overly complex TDL is sort of like telling yourself that you don’t trust yourself.

      Anyway, we’ll see how it goes. :)

  6. Peter J says:

    I’ve felt the same way about my projects, they’re constantly playing catch up.

    I decided to make the shift to focusing mainly on 1 project per week and then rotating around. I don’t particularly like just working on any projects when i feel like it because it’s easier to neglect the project that requires more and more.

    About the want’s and shoulds. I think everything we do still has to have that element of should in it. I mean i can certainly say that i want to go learn this or that. But if you fail to see the benefits of why you “Should” be doing it, then you’ll never get past the starting place.

    • Trever Clark says:

      I had actually never thought of focusing on one project a week. I think a lot about productivity – I’ve tried focusing on one project a day, switching up every few hours and a few other techniques, but I’m pretty interested in trying out a “weekly” schedule. Will definitely be giving that a go!

    • Emilie says:

      That’s cool Peter. I’m a big fan of project rotation and I think the ideal interval varies from person to person. I’ve experimented with 1 project/day and 1 project every 3 hours. Maybe I’ll try out the weekly thing at some point too.

      Thanks man.

  7. Lisa Kanarek says:

    I love the distinction between should and want. It makes it much easier to focus on what’s important, what can wait and what can get thrown out altogether. Thanks for the reminder that we can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything.

    • Emilie says:

      Right on Lisa. And I agree, it does help us differentiate between the truly important tasks and the less important ones. It’s so easy to blow up silly things on your to-do list into something that feels monumentally important. It’s also a really fast way to kill creativity!

  8. Cara Stein says:

    The problem of being overwhelmed by too much awesome and ruining it for yourself–I’ve done this to myself so many times! For me, the problem is impatience. I want certain outcomes, and I see so many things I could do to get closer to those outcomes, so I want to do them all NOW! I’ve heard the same advice about reframing many times before, but I never made the connection to apply it to this particular problem. Thank you!

    • Emilie says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head there Cara. Impatience! It’s so true. That’s where the anxiety comes from.

      But of course it also helps to remember that the journey is what matters. Often reaching the end point of a goal is a little anti-climactic because you don’t necessary get a rush of fulfillment that you had been running toward. It’s important to enjoy the process too. Sort of goes back to what you wrote in your post about the purpose of life being happiness. I think it really is that simple.

      Thanks for the comment Cara!

  9. I felt the same way for the past couple days. All the stress for a book release had me kicking back thoughts of ( NOOOOOOO!!) I had to strap on my conscious jacket and open myself up to silence. ( that last sentence sounded really cool…but all i did was meditate) You should try it..it works wonder. I did that and i realized i had to relax and ride the wave of my hard work and thousands of hours of determination. I had to change my perception. And my inner dialog..went from i should – relax..i will happen when the time comes..have faith. Solid post emilie. Congrats on finishing Law School..How old are you exactly…( I’m nosey) lol

  10. Tessa Zeng says:

    Ah- this is so good. Exactly the reminder I needed. I’ve been SERIOUSLY feeling that overwhelm lately. The anxiety over not being able to do what I love full-time turned so quickly into wait am I really loving this now that I’m doing it full time?

    No more shoulds. Genuine re-eval. Thank you, Emilie!

    • Emilie says:

      Sweet! I’m glad this spoke to you, Tessa. It still amazes me how this happens. But yeah, the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy your life. You can’t do that if you’re constantly in “catch up state” feeling overwhelmed.

      Thanks for the comment. :)

  11. FayC says:

    You are so right! I had plans to fill my time while I recupe from major surgery, but the day runs away from me and I can’t fit everything in. Then the things I liked to do become chores and tasks, rather than fun things!

    I will change my language which will in turn change my behaviour for the better!

    • Emilie says:

      Nice! I know what you mean about days running away from you. I’m always so shocked by how fast the night comes. It’s frustrating. I always want more hours.

      And then yeah, remembering how awesome your projects are is so so important! And the language we use certainly affects how we feel.

      Thanks for sharing, Fay. I hope your recovery goes smoothly. :)

  12. Ethan says:

    Great post, Emilie! I definitely do the same thing- when I’m overwhelmed by the day job and haven’t given as much time to Cloud Coach as I’d like, I catch myself saying things like “I SHOULD do this or that”. That just adds unneeded stress. Switching to “I want..” is so much more positive and usually is a better motivator for me than “should..”.

    As for the to-do list, have you ever heard of the Pomodoro technique? It’s my favorite todo/productivity strategy. The only one that’s ever stuck for me. Check it out!

  13. Cindy L. says:

    I TOTALLY resonate with this post (which I’m finding to be true of a lot of your recent posts, being a fellow Paleo gal who struggled with food intolerance issues…fellow coach…etc.).

    I quit my career as a software engineer (left Google, of all cushy places!) a little over a month ago to go full-out on my coaching, CrossFit, world-changing career. And I too experienced a period of crash-and-burn when it felt like nothing I was accomplishing was enough, compared to all that I wanted to be accomplishing.

    I found that in addition to reconnecting with the “why” of it all (because I want to!), it also really helped to add a couple structures for myself–specifically:

    a) Acknowledging my accomplishments by keeping a log of what I did finish each day, so I could celebrate and recognize that I *was* making progress.

    b) Creating a schedule for myself–set times when I’d be working vs. not working, and also making sure basic self-care was included. Really important after leaving a full-time job with free scheduled mealtimes.

    Good to know it wasn’t just me. ;)

  14. Justin says:

    I’m really interested in your to-do list findings. I often get overwhelmed with my to-do list, because I have so many things on it, that I don’t know what to do with them. The tid-bits offered in this article have helped me, http://lifehacker.com/270404/how-to-make-your-to+do-list-doable. The main point that’s helped me was only put the items on the list that you ‘can’ do at this moment. It really cuts the list down.

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