So you’re feeling overwhelmed again, eh? Perhaps wishing that you were able to be more productive?
Yeah. Me too.
When I get in that place I like to remind myself that—if I wanted to right now—no one could stop me from:
- Calling the White House and asking to speak to the President.
- Offering poems I have written for sale on the nearest street corner.
- Doing thirty sit-ups.
- Buying an instrument I’d like to learn how to play.
That’s a sample list of what I might come up with to remind myself of my own freedom to take action. A truth I seem to forget is that in any given moment there are an infinite number of actions I could take that would enliven my life.
Here’s the main idea we’re going to explore in this post.
Our ability to be more productive has more to do with how we define and measure our progress than it does with how impressively we establish our goals.
I’ve noticed that there are three requirements that I unconsciously look to fulfill before I act. If those requirements are not being readily fulfilled, then I get stuck. Then getting stuck results in feeling overwhelmed, which certainly does not help me to be more productive.
The three requirements are:
- PERMISSION – I want some external parental/authority figure to give me a green light.
- CERTAINTY – I want to know it’s a right action that is going to pay off as planned.
- SAFETY – I want to be sure I’m not going to get physically or emotionally hurt in the process.
I’m guessing that you’re like me.
The thing is, no matter how stymied, blocked, thwarted or stuck we may feel about reaching for something we want, there is one step that no one on earth can stop us from taking.
The next one.
The secret of how to stop feeling overwhelmed and to be more productive lies in the art of small steps. It takes practice to translate the achievement of a grand vision into bite-sized actions that are so simple and tangible they do not trigger the requirements of permission, certainty and safety.
I know you’ve heard this a million times before, the old saying about how a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It may all seem trite and cliché, but neuroscientifically speaking, that single step toward being more productive is a big one.
Two things happen when we make a real move, even the smallest one, in a productive direction. Both things immediately lessen feeling overwhelmed and immediately enhance feeling more in control of our future.
The first thing that happens is, we make a decision.
Making decisions, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, exercises the prefrontal cortex. Feeling depressed makes us feel like we have no energy; yet depression is fueled by a high energy, overactive limbic system. That activity is a chief cause of feeling overwhelmed.
The second thing that happens when we take a step, even a little one, is that we put our body in motion. And the more motion the better.
Movement improves the firing rate of serotonin neurons. The result is the surge of more serotonin in your system. Full-throttle exercise is like having the city fire department on call for every anxious and depressed thought that crosses your mind. The chances of those worries blazing out of control is very low. But any kind of movement, not just formal exercise, keeps your biochemical campfire burning at just the right level and sets the stage for further productivity.
David Allen of GDT fame is one of the masters of how to be more productive instead of feeling overwhelmed. The “next step” is a chief feature of his “Getting Things Done” productivity system.
Feeling overwhelmed is a sign that we have lost the balance between taking action and contemplating action. Our physical actions of course start with a thought, but there is a big difference between thoughts that direct our action, which leads to our ability to be more productive, and thoughts that paralyze our action, which leads to feeling overwhelmed.
Another way to look at this is to consider the difference between agenda-based thinking and intention-based thinking. Agenda-based thinking is focused on outcomes, while intention-based thinking is focused on process.
If we have an agenda, we’re going to be upset when the exact outcome we’ve defined isn’t reached. This makes it difficult to take that “next step” we talked about earlier, since all of our efforts are accompanied by the fear that it might be the wrong next step, or that we won’t make it to our goal.
If we’re operating with an intention, on the other hand, then we get into an immediate working relationship with the present moment. We fluidly adjust to what it is we can do under the circumstances. We accept that each next step will present us with another opportunity to take a useful next action.
In other words, we have a goal, but we’re open to discovering an even better goal as we begin taking steps forward.
Let’s say I actually do want to speak with the President.
That seems like a pretty audacious goal. If I went out on the street and started declaring to strangers that I was going to speak to the President of the United States, many of them would write me off as mentally unstable.
The problem is, we do the same thing to ourselves when we’re pursuing positive changes in our lives. We focus on the goal and cast doubt on its likelihood.
We measure the distance between where we’re standing and the ultimate destination and get afraid.
The fear triggers a big internal stop sign where we come to a halt—waiting for permission, certainty and safety.
If, however, I went out into the street and started telling people that I was going to send three letters to my most influential friends, asking if any of them knew someone who had access to the President, no one would question my sanity or approach. In fact, they’d probably be interested in what it is I wanted to say to the Commander-in-Chief.
Similarly, if you told a friend you were going to go online to do some research about how a citizen of the United States could get a message to the White House, you’d probably be shown some respect.
Our goal may be to talk to the President, but the first action is “turn on the computer” and type “message the White House” into a search bar. Try it. You might be surprised how easy it is to take a next step toward what seems like a big goal.
If you really want to stop feeling overwhelmed by your own life and all the goals you are entertaining within it, try this simple exercise.
Simplify for Success
First, have a look at your to-do list, whether it’s a mental list or an actual list that you keep.
Identify a current goal that you have and write it down.
Now take out a sheet of paper and place it horizontally on the table in front of you. Put an X on the far-left side of the paper and write “I am here” beneath the X.
On the far-right hand side of the paper, draw another X and write what your big goal is beneath it, as I’ve shown in the yellow diagram below.
Now draw a mid-point line down the center of the sheet. This is your halfway mark. Next, bisect the two halves into quarters with additional vertical lines. If each of these lines represents an action that you need to take that will lead to your big goal, what would they be?
Now, on a new timeline (shown below in gray) perform the same process using the first step of the above visual as your new end goal.
Identify the steps to get to this new end goal, which is really a sub-goal of your whole project.
In this case “create an outline,” which was the first step in the process of completing this article, now becomes my new end goal on the gray timeline below. That new goal has it’s own set of sub-tasks that I’ll identify here.
Repeat the process as many times as you need until the steps you have identified feel completely doable rather than overwhelming. Notice the first step above, “identify key ideas” is now the end goal on the red timeline below.
To summarize: the secret sauce that will allow you to be more productive is to work with goals you care about and then break down the steps to achieving them until those steps no longer trigger overwhelm. Once you’ve identified such steps, take immediate action.
Perhaps you’re feeling silly about the idea of writing down the words “get a pen” or whatever the equivalent small action is that you need to take as a next step toward moving forward. Understand, however, that when you clarify steps, set an intention to move toward them, and then take action, your neural switchboard lights up like a happy Christmas tree. And it doesn’t know or care how “significant” those steps are.
The next thing you know you’re gaining momentum, energy and motivation to keep moving toward your goals while feeling less overwhelmed in the process.
So it’s up to you.
You can get a pen and immediately be more productive, or let the inner, overwhelmed Grinch who stole Christmas short out all the lights on your happiness tree because you’re not already having lunch with the President.
Do you have any insights, critiques or questions? We’re listening…post them in the comments section below!
In the last 5 years, American employers have lost over $150 billion of productivity to depression alone. That is more than the GDP of 28 different States during the same period.Patrick J. Kennedy
Go ahead – practice freedom.