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Dealing with Overwhelm

The New Year is upon us, and with it, a new opportunity to do interesting things, and a time to perhaps take stock and think about what's important. That would be lovely, except right now I'm totally overwhelmed with stuff to do. You might be to, so here's how I deal with it. First, let me take you back a few years….

When I was about 11 years old, I had to do a project on the Second World War at school. I chose British fighter planes. I had three weeks to prepare before I had to hand in my project and give a short talk to the class about it.
The day before the assignment was due, my tutor Mr Rawson found me in tears. I had put off even starting the project until the day before, and had absolutely no idea how to start or what to do. On finding out why I was crying, he pointed out that I’d had three weeks to figure it out or get some help, then showed me a couple of books in the library, and told me what to do. I had found the task too overwhelming to even start it.

I bashed something together, and gave the talk, and handed it in. I got an ok grade, but nobody was impressed.
As you can see from that story, my natural reaction to overwhelm is procrastination.

Overwhelm is a horrible feeling, like drowning in nit-pickery. So many little things, so many big things, all clamouring to be done, and only one me to do it all. Aaaaaaarghhhh! Run away and hide!

I get this feeling often. Right now, I have this list up on the wall by my desk. Lots and lots of different projects, and several continuous processes, all at various stages to be monitored, managed, and done.
The absolute worst bit is the final stages of publishing a book or a course. There are just a gadgillion little steps, and no clear playbook to follow to walk through them all. Again, aaaaaarghhhh!

The little poster on the left of my to-do list has the covers of all my published books and decks of cards (not the courses, they didn’t fit). Clearly, I can actually get stuff done, despite the overwhelm. So here’s how I do it, in the hopes you might find it useful.

1) Slow down. When it’s all piling up, and the to-do list is infinitely long and tedious and tricky and hard, the tendency is to rush. So I slow right down. I literally move in slow motion.

2) Self-talk. “Oh shit I have x y and z to do and only an hour!! Aaaargh!” (Again). This compresses time like no other technique. But I want to extend time, so I slow down, and say something to myself like “a whole luxurious hour. And really, not so much to do! Maybe I’ll take a nap in 30 minutes…”. This changes my perception of the time I have, and dramatically increases the amount I can get done in that time.

3) Do one small thing. The hardest thing, when faced with the badgillion bloody bits of bother, is to find the thread that will unravel the whole thing and make it easy. So I don’t look for it. I don’t spend any time thinking about which bit to do, I just pick one small thing and do that. Then the next, then the next, and so on. And nine times out of ten, it turns out that the first small thing is the magic thread that unravels the whole mess. The only real discipline involved is in not paying attention to the other things, big or small.

4) Productive procrastination. Sometimes I’m just not ready to handle the overwhelming stuff. So I find ways of procrastinating that are actually productive. Such as “I’m not ready to write The Medieval Longsword”. So I’ll build a writing desk.” (You can see it here: Productive Procrastination scroll down to find it). Or, I’ll empty my email inbox. Or I’ll do some training. Or I’ll write this blog post…

5) Break for breathing. Overwhelm is very stressful, and I find that I can break the cortisol spiral by going outside and doing breathing exercises, or push-ups, or kettlebells, or swinging a sword. It all helps. Five minutes or so of exercise gets everything back under control, and makes the process of slowing down and getting on with things easier.

Now that I have productively procrastinated, I’ll get back to the thing that was overwhelming me…

See you later!

If you liked this post, you might also like these others:

Project Management

Following my own advice

What should you spend your time on? My rules for prioritising what to do.


I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for these useful thoughts, Guy, as I’m currently resonating with all this too! 🙂

    I find Tim Ferriss’ ideas on The Power of Negative Visualisation very useful in such situations also:

    (‘Discipline equals Freedom’ – are you also following the Jocko podcast? – entertaining and very useful stuff!)

    Cheers, and Happy New Year!


    1. You’re welcome! Glad you liked them. I’m pretty familiar with TF’s negative visualisations- I use them when needed. Jocko is a blast! I’ve only heard him on TF’s podcast though, I really should check out his own.

  2. Hi Guy, great post as always. As it’s albeit tenuously tied to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, here’s my 0.02 on that:


    January 1st as New year? Let’s face it, it makes absolutely no sense at all except, perhaps, in the mind of a Papal clerk or famous Roman general. Sure, the sun is at perihelion around this time; but if you have a proper, Continental winter, the fact that the days are lengthening from December 20th on is scant comfort when the frost is deep and the moles are resorting to dynamite and machine tools in the front garden.

    Chaucer didn’t begin The Canterbury Tales with the immortal line ‘Whan that Avril with his Shoures soghte’ for nothing. In the UK we didn;t even adopt the Gregorian Calendar till 1778(?) and the tax year still runs from the first week in April (knew you’d all enjoy that one).

    So, what am I getting at? Is it another invitation to procrastinate? No, I really don’t think so. The evidence, anecdotal as it is, is this:

    For the first time I can recall, at age 48, my New Year’s Resolutions have stuck – because I made them around Easter time, at a time of genuine renewal and flowering in the world around. 4 times a week at the gym? Still doing it. Solo practice with the sword (work doesn’t make it easy to make group sessions – I have to improvise sadly)? Still doing it. Etc, etc, etc.

    At the risk of messing up your calendars for 2017 – give it a go, folks, if planning your entire lifestyle change from under a goosefeather duvet seems too big of an ask.

    Happy New One, all

    Alex W
    Deepest, Darkest Slavonica

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