6 Steps to shift from overwhelmed to overdrive

how to overcome overwhlem and turn it into efficient, productive overdrive

Part 1: Written on January 17, 2019, mid-way through Beth’s mental health leave from work.

What happens when your day doesn’t go as planned?

Today did not start the way I would have liked it to.  Well, I suppose, it actually started last night. I didn’t get to bed as early as I would like, and it took me a while to fall asleep. I woke around midnight to a persistent cough, drank some water propped my pillows and again took a while to fall asleep.

At 3 am, small footsteps approached my door followed by a gentle yearning call for “Daddy?” Since my husband was at his overnight job I responded to my son, “Daddy is not here. How can I help you?” After meeting his request of turning on the hallway light and then shutting the door to his room (I am still completely baffled by this combination), I went back to bed, and you guessed it, once again took a while to fall asleep. What felt like moments later my alarm went off and as has been the case in recent months, I hit the snooze and questioned how I would possibly get the energy or motivation to venture from my bed.

After about 4 hits of the snooze button, it occurred to me that I have obligations to people other than myself, and that they depend on me as part of their morning routine, so I got up. I managed to boil the kettle and get both kids up and dressed before my husband arrived home, but I was certainly behind, scattered and dragging my feet. Throw in reproachful comments from my loved ones: (Husband: “I guess you slept in this morning?”, Son (age 5): “You promised to make me waffles. I don’t want oatmeal”, Daughter (age 2): *incessant crying* unless I was carrying her around in my arms) and of course from my biggest critic (spoiler alert: it’s me): “What’s wrong with you that you can’t just get out of bed in the morning? These are simple tasks. Get your shit together, woman!”

Somehow the three of them got out the door on time. I shut the door, exhaled, and immediately felt lost as to how to approach my day. I was mid-way through a mental health leave from my job as an addictions counselor so had the day presumable “to myself”.

I did a couple mildly productive, though rather aimless tasks online, and then the phone rang. It was my husband to inform me that he was reprimanded by my son’s teacher for not bringing his winter boots. He returned home, picked me up and dropped me and the boots off at school and he hurried to drop off our daughter to daycare and hopefully get to his office on time.

Boots were dropped off and I took the bus home. I contemplated stopping at a coffee shop to “collect my thoughts”, though decided against it. On the bus, I wrote my intention for the day “Planning”. A task that is quite satisfying for me and tends to quiet my mind a bit.

Though it was a brief walk from the bus stop to my door, the very cold breeze served as a wake up to realize that I have a whole day ahead of me. It’s mine. I can choose how it goes. Instead of getting caught up in my “not good enough” narrative, which ultimately stalls and exhausts me, I can make it a good day.

How can you break the overwhelm cycle?

This brought to mind a concept that I’ve been thinking about the past few days. The idea of “overdrive”. I had my own definition of overdrive in my head, and it felt right to describe my recent thought process. Since my “breakdown” “wake up call”, I have read so much, reflected so much and shifted my thinking, opening up possibilities for myself that I hadn’t considered before.

For me, I thought this flood of thoughts, inspiration, etc. had two paths: “negative overdrive”---essentially feeling overwhelmed, spinning in circles, reinforcing the very narrative that contributed to the breakdown burnout symptoms. So basically, doing the same thing I’ve always done, just with novel ideas. OR---and this is the exciting part “positive overdrive”—feeling inspired in a way that the course feels clear, fear of failure becomes negligible, and process is far more important than product.

break the cycle of overwhelm and turn it into overdrive

This idea started simmering in my head and I started to wonder about the concept of overdrive in general. Because I know virtually nothing about how automobile gears work, I consulted the Internet to learn more.  While I don’t feel like I know much more about cars, I got swept up in the beautiful metaphor that seemed to create itself.

Per Wikipedia: “Generally speaking, overdrive is the highest gear in the transmission. Overdrive allows the engine to operate at a lower RPM for a given road speed. This allows the vehicle to achieve better fuel efficiency, and often quieter operation on the highway.”

So, if one wants to work in their “highest gear” (what I previously, unintentionally and redundantly referred to as “positive overdrive”), they need to reduce their RPMs, or in modern slang “Slow Their Roll”. [Side note/Disclaimer, I have never used the phrase “slow your roll” in my life and even typing it felt incredibly unnatural to me, so I’m unlikely to every use it again, but if the roll fits. . .]

To be more efficient and be faster, I need to get quieter and slow down. Damn! I am pretty sure that’s what all of those mindfulness and meditation gurus have been talking about for years!  Come to think of it, isn’t that the moral in the Tortoise and the Hare? “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”. Another learning from my breakdown reflection period—As precocious and mature as I am at helping others find insight, I’m a bit of a late bloomer for myself. 

Can you give yourself permission to slow down if it can make you more productive?

So, back to my morning. My natural inclination was to do one of two things after the morning started as it did:

1) Work toward being very busy and try to accomplish a lot and in doing so ignore my self care i.e.: skip breakfast, delay showering and start about 12 tasks, finishing none of them only to crash mid-day, end up on the couch with a headache, eating junk food and feeling really shitty about myself. . . not that I’ve ever done that. . . OR

2) Skip ahead to the neglecting self care, and go straight to the couch and junk food. 

Neither of those is overdrive. I’m not sure either of those is even driving.

Option 1 is at best doing donuts in a parking lot and at worst gunning the accelerator while the car is in park until the gas runs out.

Option 2, is just parked, likely with the door of the car open going “ding, ding, ding”. (In case you haven’t noticed I have a tendency to push metaphors to the limit of tolerance).

It occurred to me that when I am in this mental state, I struggle to give myself permission to do what I need. This martyrdom is getting really old!!

And then “aha”, something that I tell my clients on pretty much a daily basis came to mind (yep, I’m definitely a late bloomer). Focus on where you have choice and control. I have an abundance of both that I readily take for granted, undermining both my needs and values in the process.

Choice and control. Choice and control. Choice and control.

can you slow down and simplify to overcome overwhelm, be happier and more productive

One learning from this breakdown  awakening phase is a clearer vision of my values. An often-neglected value of mine is simplicity. Yet on that brief streetcar ride and walk home, I talked myself into focusing on that very value. And realized it is the key (pun intended) to get this vehicle into overdrive. So, I vowed that before I do anything else, I’d make myself breakfast and eat it. Which I did (a peanut butter sandwich---what is simpler than that?), and to truly savor the simplicity, I made myself tea (a beverage I drink multiple times per day, especially in the winter). I made a pot of tea and took out a beautiful hand painted tea cup and saucer that my Mom gave me a while back. It’s so pretty. I made the perfect cup of tea (by my standards) and sipped from this beautiful cup and the day slowed down, focused returned, and a contentment fell over me. So, instead of creating and diving into an ambitious “to do list”, after my breakfast I started writing, and this is what came out.

Part 2: Written 3 months later

What can we learn from the bumps in the road?

So, here we are, nearly three months later, and I must admit, I have made some pretty significant shifts in my perspective and approach to how I use my energy.

I am undoubtedly still very much a work in progress, but I’ve learned a great deal in the process.

If you are like me and are excellent at doling out wisdom to others, but sometimes find yourself on the couch with orange “cheese” dust on your fingers, see if you can shift (pun intended) into overdrive using these steps:

Step 1: Notice that you’re overwhelmed and staling.

This is harder than it sounds. We get so used to behaving a certain way (even if it’s not in our best interest) that it becomes comfortable.  If you notice it, you can do something about it. So, find ways to check in with yourself, whether it’s a body scan, some quiet time, or my favorite, free writing.

Step 2: Do something to break the pattern.

Something. Anything. If you want to lay on the couch, walk around the block. If you want to each junk food, eat a piece of fruit. If you want to open up ten windows on your computer and try to take on the world, step away from the computer and breathe. Shake up the routine.

Step 3: Create a different kind of “to do” list.

Instead of listing everything you would like to accomplish, which is often an extensive, anxiety provoking list that has no hope of being completed in one day, make a list that is what you absolutely can and will finish today. I like to add items like shower, eat lunch, call a friend, and chat for 30 minutes, because these all add to my well-being and productivity, and it feels good to cross them off. Don’t worry about forgetting something! If you forget something, it wasn’t that important.

Step 4: Focus on what’s in your control.

how to stop being overwhelmed

It is easy to spend a lot of energy on what isn’t in your control. I like to use this analogy. Let’s say I’m planning a picnic for next weekend. I can worry that it’s going to rain and continually checking the weather report. But guess what? No matter how many times I check the weather, I don’t have any more control over it. Instead, I could have a contingency picnic plan that would account for whatever weather comes (i.e. a rain date, an alternative venue, etc.). Do what you can and let the rest go.

Step 5: Make a choice, and take action.

I suppose this is technically two steps, but I intentionally made it one. I know I am not alone in the pattern of making a choice and then procrastinating toward taking the necessary actions to move forward in that choice. Getting caught in indecision will lead to further frustration. Two steps forward is better than spinning in circles, and far less tiring!

Step 6: Celebrate. 

This step so often gets forgotten. We’re so quick to move on to the next task that often we don’t take the time to savor what we’ve already accomplished. This is especially true about “the little things”.

If you are feeling overwhelmed it might seem at first that this is adding to your overwhelm, but it’s not. This is about transitioning from overwhelm to overdrive by increasing your efficiency. You can absolutely do this.

Step 1: Notice that you’re staling

Step 2: Do something to break the pattern

Step 3: Create a different kind of “to do” list

Step 4: Focus on what’s in your control

Step 5: Make a choice, and take action

Step 6: Celebrate. 

So, take these steps to “slow your roll” into overdrive and leave us a comment about how it’s going.

Good luck!