Dealing with Overwhelm

At one point or another in your life, you’re going to be overwhelmed.

Overwhelm comes in two flavors -- functional overwhelm (such as when you run a car engine past the red line and it blows up), or emotional overwhelm.

In this case, you have two “levers” to pull to deal with overwhelm.

1) Increase Capacity.

If you’re working on a team, you add resources. If the overwhelm is limited to you, you take care of yourself. Get rested. Take a break. Recharge and increase your personal capacity.

This is counterintuitive because for many of us, when we have a lot to do, our instinct is to suck it up and do more. Stay up late; work the weekends; work on vacation.

Overwhelm typically occurs when you’re doing all those things, and you still can’t get it all done.

In those situations, you’ve massively exceeded your capacity and guess what? It’s time to rest and take a break.

2) Implement a Queue.

If you have the capacity to do two units of work per day, when you get three requests, you say, “No. I can’t do it right now; you can wait in line."

In the United States, our freeway systems in urban areas are known for their massive traffic jams.

Around 5 p.m., when most people get off from work, everyone drives to the freeway to go home. The result is an overwhelmed freeway system.

Over the last few decades, freeway planners have put queues on all the freeway on-ramps. Rather than 50 cars rushing to get on the freeway at the same time, the queuing system only allows one car to enter the freeway roughly every five seconds.

This allows cars to merge safely with the existing pack of vehicles. It allows the cars on the freeway to actually move forward (as opposed to coming to a complete stop to absorb an unmanageable deluge of vehicles trying to enter).

Every system has a capacity and a limit.

The trick is to know what it is, and then to limit the amount of work entering the system.

These two levers allow you to manage a functional overwhelm problem.

When you have too much to do and not enough capacity, something has to give.

When you deal with an emotional overwhelm, the solution is similar, but with some slight differences.

Emotional overwhelm means your emotional capacity to deal with life’s challenges has been exceeded. Maybe your calendar schedule shows you have the time to deal with new headaches, but your attention span, emotional capacity, or attention span capacity can not.

The solution remains the same: increase capacity through rejuvenation, or use a queue.

The tricky part of dealing with emotional overwhelm is the temptation to think, "I could handle this workload last week; why can’t I do it this week?"

With this line of reasoning, it’s tempting to ignore the emotional overwhelm as a mirage or as a false limit that doesn’t really exist.

When your car is about to run out of gas and the "low fuel" warning light comes on, if you ignore it, you will pay the price.

When you feel emotionally overwhelmed, that’s your emotional system’s “low fuel” warning light equivalent. Ignore it and you will also pay the price.

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