Dealing With Overwhelm – Step by Step

At times in our lives were are faced with a heap of tasks that seems insurmountable. It’s one big amorphous blob of potential misery with not enough hours in the day to tackle it. Invariably this seemingly unmanageable blob of perceived misery is usually made up of smaller blobs of stuff that are reasonably manageable that we’d prefer not to do. Overwhelm is a form of cognitive overload. There’s just too much information to take in. We simply can’t process the enormity of the task and so we don’t bother. We just sit there and look at it. We become transfixed by it. We can’t possibly start anything else with the blob staring us in the face. And so, the blog gets bigger. We protest that we don’t have enough time to do everything and at the same time we don’t do anything at all.

The cognitive overload (overwhelm) distorts our perception of time. The problem is that we don’t have objective data to counter our subjective response. Here’s an idea, from my coaching practice, to help break the viscous circle. The aim is to find accurate timings for tasks and instil confidence that your abilities to complete tasks.

  1. Break the big blob up into smaller tasks. It’s not going to make them any more appealing but it each one will seem more manageable.
  2. Pick one task, preferably a smallish one that you think you may be able to accomplish relatively quickly.
  3. Do the task and time yourself.
  4. Make note of the timing in a note pad, that you will keep. This becomes the objective evidence that you can look at when you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Repeat the process with other sub-tasks.

What you will find is that the smaller tasks are often completed much quicker than you’d expected. You will also have objective data to call upon next time you are faced with the task.

As a psychology lecturer, it has not been unusual for me to be faced with a pile of more than 100 or 200 student essays to mark (grade). I simply split them up into batches of five, and then tackle those. I put the big pile out of sight and just focus on five at a time. I make a note of how long it takes me to do each batch of five. What usually surprises me is that the essays don’t usually take as long to mark as I first expected. You can apply the same principle to mundane things such as the ironing. Look at the labels in the clothes and create three piles based on the dots on the label. Three dots need a hot iron. Tackle those first, switch the iron setting down to two dots then have a little break to allow the iron to cool. Then tackle the two dots and final the one dot clothes. Make sure you make a note of the timings. Ideally do it a few times until you get your average timings.

What this “break-it-up and time-it approach” does is it creates smaller more manageable tasks and it provided objective data.

I now know that after an elaborate dinner party where I’ve used used just about every utensil in the place, it only takes about half an hour to wash them. When I first look at the pile it looks as though it’s going to take a three times that. Now that I have the data, my perceptions have changed and my feeling of overwhelm has reduced. Conduct your own personal experiments to see how it works for you.

Based on material from: Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It

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