Do you get overwhelmed with the challenges of life? When life gets too stressful do you shut down and bail out? Today I want to talk about why we let things overwhelm us and what can we do to stay on track.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Life is challenging. Some times we feel overwhelmed at the situations we have in life. When this happens we may shut down and retreat. We may give up on things that are important to us that are not even directly tied to the situation that may be causing stress in our lives. This can include areas such as work, relationships, or hobbies.
Many people might see this and think that the "obvious" solution is that this is a failure of planning, as in, you might have unrealistic timelines or expectations of how much you can actually get done. When you fail to meet those expectations, you get frustrated and burned out.
But before we look at tactics, let's think a little deeper, shall we?
First, I want you to know that you are not alone. Anyone involved in a creative endeavor runs into this issue. And by creative endeavor I mean creating anything, and that also includes creating a better life. We have great intentions, high aspirations, and plenty of talent, and yet, we get sidetracked, spiral out, and shut down.
I know that I have a pretty familiar pattern: I make plans when I’m in a good headspace. I feel excited and am looking forward to working on my goals. Then something stressful hits in my life, and pretty soon I find myself retreating and backing off from a lot of things in life.
I’ve done this several times with my podcast. Things in my personal life would be falling apart, then I would shut down the podcast. Sometimes, I would try working on another project, only to find that I even then I still would feel overwhelmed and just give up.
The worst part about this pattern is that I would feel like a failure on multiple fronts. I would feel like a failure because of the issue in my personal life, then I would feel like a failure because I wasn’t working on my podcast or music or learning 3D programming.
So why do we do this? Why do allow stress from one part in our life deep six other things in our lives?
I think the first thing we need to come to terms with is that sometimes, we’re looking for a way out. When I feel overwhelmed and let myself burnout, it is often because, deep down, at some level, it's what I really want. I want to give up. Sometimes, life is hard and letting outside events overwhelm me is an easy way to blame an outside event for failing to achieve what I set out to do.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “I would never do that! I really want to succeed, but there was just too much other shit going on."
Let me let in you on something: Everyone has too much other shit going on. Kid's plays and soccer games. Partners and friends who need your time and attention. And there are the basics such as, you know, keeping up with work. That's not to mention taking time for ourselves such as exercise, hobbies, and rest.
Simple put, life is busy.
Plenty of people have done amazing things while still managing all this extra shit. If you really want to accomplish your goal, then you wouldn't let anything stop you.
Let me put it this way. If one of your projects was something you needed to complete because if you didn't you would die, do you think you would let those outside things overwhelm you?
I don't think so.
I think you'd finish it come hell or highwater and push all those external things to the side.
If there is something that you truly want to do in life, then any external excuse for quitting, is just that – an excuse.
Ultimately, I find that I sometimes let myself just get overwhelmed because it's easier than pushing through, and I can point to a "reason" why it wasn't my fault that I failed. But if I'm honest with myself, I know, deep down, I'm quitting because I just don't want to do the hard work. It's hard to admit to something like this, especially when you know you are quite capable, but owning up to it is the first step in taking responsibility for your choices. You have the right to choose to not do something. You don’t need a reason outside of yourself.
Now, not everything we feel burned out on is due to self-sabotage. Sometimes we really do want to reach some goal but we’re pushing ourselves too hard and we end up ignoring other aspects of our lives. Stoicism is about equanimity, it’s about finding balance so that we can work efficiently and effectively. So let’s dig into some ways that you can help find that balance, and avoid burning out.
Facing Up to Your Emotions
I think the biggest piece of the puzzle that can cause us to feel overwhelmed is that we may be in situations that are emotionally challenging and we don’t want to face them. When something in our lives is emotionally draining, we will often try to ignore it. But in doing so, the emotion doesn’t go away. It stays in our system unresolved. We carry it around like shackles on our ankles, and we’re the ones that put them on. We might be able to function in our daily lives, but we are not bringing all our resources to bear. We are not operating at our best.
This can become too much of a burden and rather than face up to and deal with these challenging emotions, we find ways to distract ourselves. The list of distractions includes alcohol, drugs, work, television, video games or any other number of things that allow us to push these uncomfortable emotions to the side. I noticed that when I took a break from my podcast over a year ago, rather than working on learning graphics programming in my spare time, which was my plan, I ended up just playing video games. I had no motivation to anything else. I didn’t write. I didn’t read any books. I didn’t hang out with friends.
Once I started facing up to some of the emotionally challenging situations in my life, I was better able to handle the pressure of other commitments, such as working on my podcast. I was more social. I started working out again. My life wasn’t perfect by any means, but it certainly felt more manageable.
I think that many of our issues with mental health are directly related to out physical health. If we’re exhausted, in pain, or in poor health, it affects our state of mind, causing us to have a negative outlook on life. I think that there is an underestimation of how much our physical state affects our mental state. We like to think that we can just change our thinking and we can ignore our physical state. But remember, we experience the world in our bodies, so to pretend that they aren’t linked is rather foolish.
If you find yourself feeling burned out, make sure that you are taking care of the physical things. Pushing ourselves too hard, eating poorly, not sleeping enough affects our mental outlook whether we like it or not.
For example, in my own life, I struggle with insomnia. This makes it hard to think clearly, and often makes things feel much darker or harder than they really are. I can be grumpy and irritable without really being aware of it. Doing my best to take care of myself by doing everything I can to improve my sleep by eating healthy, exercising, and following a regular sleep schedule has helped quite a bit. I also do my best to be aware of my mood by writing in my journal and meditating.
Narrow Your Focus
In our world of productivity hacks and hustle culture, we can feel overwhelmed because we try to take on too many things. We may feel guilty when we take time to relax and recharge because it’s not considered productive. Much of this comes from comparing ourselves to others. We look at how others “hustle” and think that is the reason for their success. But as any good athlete will tell you, resting is just as important as training. Doing one without the other will guarantee failure. Finding the balance of working hard and resting is what puts you in the ideal state.
When we’re spread too thin and pulled in too many directions, we end up not doing anything very well. By reducing what we’re working on to just a few things at any given period of time, we can make more progress on the goals that we have. This doesn’t mean that we need to drop everything else, but it can mean that we schedule things to a later date. There is nothing that says we have to accomplish everything all at once. And to be honest, just hustling all the time sucks the joy and pleasure out of life.
"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it."
One area that we can focus on which will help reduce our stress is managing our time. This is something that I’m still working on, and I should probably do a full episode so that I can explore ways to manage my time better. But for now, I have a very basic schedule to my day of when I start and end work. I also schedule in self care activities like exercise and meditation. I make sure that I take at least 30 minutes for lunch, since I work from home and it’s pretty easy to just get busy and push through some code I’m working on.
Since I struggle with insomnia, I’ve been making sure that I have some wind down time before bed. This means that an hour before bed I will doing something relaxing that is not cognitively taxing. This could be watching something fun on Netflix, reading some nice fiction, or sitting in the hot tub. As I’m getting ready for bed, I’ll put on some chill jazz piano, to help my mind wind down.
Creating a basic outline to your day can help you manage your life a little better. The less you have to keep in your head, the more likely you’ll be able to follow your schedule. Also, if you put everything on a calendar, it’s easier to see if you are simply overloaded and trying to take on too many things.
"It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it that determines the quality of your life. You have within you the power to choose your thoughts and opinions, and you can choose to respond to any situation with patience, courage, and understanding."
Often when we’re feeling overwhelmed it’s because we are stuck in a place of worry and confusion. Probably the most useful tool that I’ve worked on implementing in my life is something I talked about in episode 247 – There are no Problems, Only Choices. This is the idea that rather than focusing on a problem and all the worries attached to it, you focus on what choices you have available, and figure out which one most align with your goals, your values, and your principles.
Focusing on what choices you can make is beneficial for a number of reasons. Since you are focusing on choices, you spend less time needlessly worrying about the problem. It also puts you in a better place to take action. When you take action, you are making progress. When you make even just a little progress, it makes the next set of choices easier. You create momentum which can help carry you through the difficult parts of a situation.
We may get stuck in worrying what choice is the “right one”, or we may have too many choices. If you find that you have having a hard time making a choice, figure out what your principles and values are and use that as your guide. Is there a choice that aligns with them? If not, are there any choices that tick most of the boxes, but still support your most important principles? Is there choice that can, at the very least, get you started?
There are a lot of things in the world that can derail us from achieving the things we want, though usually the biggest hinderance is ourselves. However, there are foundational things that we can to do that make us more resilient when we run into resistance and help us avoid burnout. When we focus on taking care of our physical health, managing our time, and put our energy towards making better choices and find that balance that we need. When we find that balance, it helps us keep moving forward, rest and recover, and enjoy the journey.
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