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The World Feels Heavy: Reduce Cognitive Load

There are times in our lives when the weight of the world feels too heavy to bear. 

Things seem to be going wrong…

The world’s problems seem so large…

Right now, in the U.S., we’re moving toward one of the most dramatic and volatile and tense elections in our nation’s recent history.

Across the globe, and in our own homes, we’re facing challenges like the ongoing pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, economic and educational disparity, and so many other big, important challenges.

It can all feel….HEAVY. 

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say that I feel overwhelmed at times. The weight of all of these challenges, coupled with the complexity and responsibility of my normal, day-to-day life can feel so tough to bear.

Today, I want to share a little formula I used just the other day, to help myself re-focus and regain a bit of mental balance in this complicated time.

You can’t focus on it all

Let’s begin with the reason WHY all of this feels so heavy: we are incredible human beings who are constrained by their own biology.

Our minds only have so much capacity.

When we simultaneously try to focus on too many things, solve too many problems, make too many decisions, our minds feel cluttered and overwhelmed.

The scientific term for this is ‘mental or cognitive load.’

We experience cognitive load when we exhaust the amount of working memory our minds have available at any given time.

It’s especially likely to happen when we’re already in a time of stress, when we’re tired, when we’re emotional, or when we’re not biologically taking care of ourselves.

We recently did a podcast episode on this very topic and included some tips for combatting cognitive load in your day-to-day life. You might want to check it out. (Episode 0196 | “How to create a more spacious mind”)

2 Questions

Today, I want to offer you the formula I used in the form of 2 questions that can help you move through complex and heavy times. This really helped me the other day, and it might just help you too.

When things start to feel too heavy to bear, I want you to ask yourself 2 questions:

First, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of it truly matters to me? 

Don’t think about what should matter to you or what matters to other people. If you’re being 100% honest with yourself, which of the challenges truly matter to you?

Second, ask yourself, out of everything that’s going on right now, which of these things are inside of my direct control?

Don’t worry about what you wish you could control. Similarly, don’t worry about what you think you could control if you worked hard to convince someone else to change their behavior.

Focus on what is inside of your direct control.

You basically end up with 4 boxes:

Narrow your focus

Because you are an incredible human being who is constrained by biology (working memory, in this case), the biggest thing you can do to lessen the overwhelm you’re feeling is to narrow your focus to the things that:

  • Truly matter to you
  • That you can directly control

If you look at the 4 boxes that result from asking yourself those 2 questions, the bottom 2 boxes are truly wasted energy. If it doesn’t matter to you, regardless of whether it’s under your direct control or not, let’s not waste any more precious energy worrying about it.

Consider this your permission to just let it go.

However, if it’s something that does truly matter to you and is inside of your direct control, here’s where your attention, focus, and effort belongs.

Your limited cognitive and personal effort will go much further if you’re focusing it on the things that fall in that upper-right quadrant.

Acceptance

I’m also going to invite you to ‘let go’ of the things that fall in that upper-left quadrant….but it’s likely to be a challenge.

You see, many of us have that list of things that truly matter to us, but they just aren’t inside of our direct control. 

Outcomes and challenges that are governed by other people’s actions frequently fall into this category.

Sure, we might be able to argue, bargain, and debate with that other person in order to try to influence their behavior, but the ultimate outcome isn’t inside of our direct control.

That’s tough.

In this case, your best bet is to practice acceptance. 

Acceptance means acknowledging the situation for what it is, without trying to fight against it or change it.

It doesn’t mean you agree with it, endorse it, like it, etc. It simply means, you acknowledge it.

On the surface, this seems like the dumbest concept. I know. But, when you unpack it, it really is powerful.

Acceptance is the opposite of avoidance. Acknowledging a situation means staring it right in the eye. Seeing it for what it is. Turning toward it for a moment to face it head-on. 

Psychological research tells us we have better outcomes when we face a situation, rather than avoiding it.

Acceptance also removes our involvement from a situation we can’t control.

Remember that limited amount of capacity each of us has, practicing acceptance helps us save our precious, limited energy for the things we can directly control, rather than wasting it on things we can’t.

Take care of yourself

Do what you can to protect your energy and your capacity. The world needs you, but you can’t solve it all or do it all alone. Self-care, REAL, effective self-care, is needed now more than ever. Self-care [by Design] is designed to help you take care of yourself so that you can be the best, most effective form of YOU, each and every day.

Focus on the areas in that upper-right quadrant. Protect yourself and your capacity by narrowing your focus.

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6 Steps to Combat Overwhelm

We’ve all been there before, feeling stuck and drowning under a sea of to dos and pressures. We feel anxious, stressed, irritable, or even hopeless. Our thoughts are scattered, our bodies are uncomfortable, and we’re not able to take effective action. Here are 6 strategies to help combat overwhelm and stay afloat.

Tips for dealing with overwhelm

1. Get everything down on paper

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our minds often race, bouncing back and forth among all of the things we have to do, the pressures we’re under, the obstacles in our way, and the possible things that could go wrong. A great first step to start to organize the mental clutter and devise a plan for getting on top of everything is to get it all down on paper.  

Take a deep breath and take 5-10 minutes and brain dump onto a sheet of paper. Write down all of the demands, expectations, hurdles, or other factors contributing to your sense of overwhelm. 

2. Pare down and prioritize

Now that you have a list of all of the things on your plate, it’s time to pare down and prioritize. Take a first pass through your list and cross off anything that is a “what if.” What if is a worry, a hypothetical problem to be solved in the future. It doesn’t get addressed now. 

Next, ask yourself the following questions and be honest about the answers. Use those responses to help you cross off additional items and prioritize the remaining ones.

  • Are all of these tasks actually on me to do? 
  • Of those, what do I really have to do?
  • And of those remaining, are these tasks actually important
  • Finally, are these important tasks urgent? Must they be done now?

Take steps to reduce your load, which will reduce your stress and anxiety. Revise your much shortened list so that only urgent, important tasks that absolutely must be done by you remain, and rank those tasks according to how critical they are to the big picture. Instead of feeling stressed about this “to do” list let it instead make you feel organized. 

3. Make a plan

Oftentimes, when we feel overwhelmed, we spend a lot of time with our thoughts swirling around all of the things stressing us out…and very little time actually taking action steps toward addressing those things in a lasting way. So, once you’ve pared down and prioritized, it’s time to make a concrete plan including what you will do and when you will do it. 

Schedule tasks into your day, but be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any given day. It’s important for your mental health to also make time for self-care, rest, eating, moving, connecting, working, play, and sleeping – all of the things that a human being needs to be healthy and happy. If you do not prioritize your self-care, you’ll never stop feeling overwhelmed because you won’t have the energy levels to do what you need to.

4. Break it way down

Sometimes we know what needs to be done and can even outline a plan, but the plan itself feels daunting. Maybe it’s wrapped up in an anxiety-provoking situation, we’re not sure about our abilities to do it, or we’re dreading it because it’s hard or boring. Whatever the reason, a helpful strategy is to break any overwhelming plan down into smaller steps. You’ve likely heard that before, so here’s the kicker. Break it down, then break those steps down even smaller. Keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until the next step seems absolutely doable. 

Here’s an example: I have to create a Powerpoint presentation for a speaking event I’m nervous about. I know the general plan is:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Map out the key points
  3. Create slides

But let’s say that still feels overwhelming, and I find myself spinning out or stalling. Instead, I might break it way down and use the helpful phrase: “All I have to do next is…” On a really granular level, this might look like: “All I have to do next is open my laptop.” “All I have to do next is open a document.” “All I have to do next is brainstorm some possible topics. I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes and just write down any possible ideas.” And so on. 

5. Get started right away

Procrastination is a common response when we’re faced with anything we find anxiety-provoking, hard, or boring. You’ll notice, though, that procrastination isn’t actually an effective strategy for reducing overwhelm and stress. While you get to avoid the task in question for a period, the psychological weight of it remains. Studies show this actually increases your stress. You’re not actually relaxed. In fact, you may even be adding guilt or dread or anxiety to the mix. Moreover, as you procrastinate, other things are pilling up, and your initial overwhelm grows. 

Procrastination is a complex habit, but working on your ability to get started quickly is a great way to start to break it. Any number of strategies might help you get started right away. Try these out and see what works for you. Remember, the first step is often the hardest. You just have to get going.

  1. Set a timer for a really small chunk of time. Tell yourself you only have to work until the timer goes off. Sometimes, that makes getting started seem a little easier. Practice some breathing exercises to get in the right headspace. 
  2. Practice “3, 2, 1, Go!” Anytime you find yourself with any urge to avoid or delay a task, practice a quick count down then take a step. Repeatedly doing this will help you build that mental muscle of diving right in, and that’s a really useful skill to master. 
  3. Make a deal with yourself. You can use rewards or consequences to help boost your motivation. Treat yourself to something you enjoy if you get started quickly or enforce a punishment (e.g., do something you don’t enjoy doing, deny yourself something you like, donate to an organization you despise – just any unpleasant, aversive thing that you like less than getting started on a hard task) for procrastinating. 

6. Be a good coach for yourself

When we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, our minds tend to chatter quite loudly. We have thoughts like “I can’t do this!” “It’s too much!” and those thoughts are like mental ankle weights, weighing us down, requiring more time and energy for each step. Instead, it’s important that we make a point of being good coaches for ourselves. 

While we can’t necessarily stop those heavy, stressful thoughts from coming, we can intentionally use self-talk to bolster and support ourselves. Saying things like “You can do this. You always get through it” won’t take the stressors away but will help you feel more capable of handling them. After all, your track record for getting through hard things is 100%. You absolutely CAN do this.

Get a handle on stress for good 

Having an effective plan for managing stress and overwhelm on an ongoing basis is critical. After all, stress is an unavoidable part of life! In honor of Stress Awareness month, we’ve made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community. In addition, through this link only, you can also get our Self-Care [by Design] Mini-Course for only $10. That’s $19 off the regular price! Research shows your approach to stress management and self-care should be effective and personalized. You are unique and your self-care plan needs to be, too. Give yourself the gift of building psychological strength and transforming your life experience

“Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.”
—Tyler Knott Gregson