Moving out of apathy, anxiety, and stress and into focused intention and clarity

Feeling overwhelmed is a common experience for most people. Whether you are trying to start a new project, achieve a goal, or just survive the daily activities during a pandemic, you’ve more than likely experienced the state of overwhelm. In this state, your emotions begin to override your other skills and abilities, making it difficult to get started on tasks and projects, follow-through with ideas, make progress toward goals, or achieve desired outcomes. Even though the experience of feeling overwhelmed is unpleasant, the task, change, or activity you want to make or do feels absolutely insurmountable and you remain stuck in the same pattern you want to change. Initially, you may attribute the feeling of overwhelm to a lack of knowledge: you are simply not sure where to start. But a lack of knowledge is not often the underlying cause of feeling overwhelmed. Even though a lack of knowledge is relatively easy to solve with some research and information-gathering, it rarely translates into the action needed to achieve the goal. Feeling overwhelmed interferes with your ability to take goal-directed actions, even when you have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do so. In this post, I present three¬† concrete action steps that can help overcome feelings of overwhelm and help you to achieve your goals.

Behavioral Activation

Behavioral activation is a component of cognitive-behavioral therapy and is often used to treat depression. In traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, the therapist and client work on changing thoughts and beliefs; the theory holds that changing these underlying thoughts and beliefs will lead to desired behavioral changes. Behavioral activation works in the opposite direction-the goal here is to focus on making behavioral changes that lead to changes in mood and thinking. Think about a time when you didn’t feel like doing something but went out and did it anyway and your mood improved. Maybe you felt like turning down a friend’s invitation to stay home and watch TV, only to end up going and having a great time. Or a time you really didn’t feel like working out, but did it anyway and felt much better than you expected afterwards. If you would have waited until you felt like doing these activities, you might not have done them. These are examples of behavioral activation at work. By focusing on the behavior, you bypass some of the cognitive and emotional barriers.

So how do you use behavioral activation to overcome feeling overwhelmed? Start by breaking down large tasks into smaller parts that have clear starting and ending points. Initially, you want tasks to be relatively achievable so that you can have success and build momentum. For example, if you want to get into an exercise routine of working out 60 minutes per day, you might start with a 10-minute exercise routine three times per week. The following week, perhaps you increase each exercise session to 15 minutes. The week after, you add a 4th day. If you want to write a 5000-word essay, start with writing just 500 words per day over 10 days or 250 words per day over 20 days. These are just examples; the specific increments and pace at which you increase them will vary from person-to-person and task-to-task. The key is to focus on taking a step in the direction of your goal that you can achieve so that you can begin to feel successful and competent. With continued achievement of these smaller goals, you begin to build momentum and motivation and feelings of anxiety and overwhelm begin to dissipate. By focusing on the behavior, you are bypassing the limiting thoughts and beliefs that are getting in your way, as well as an emotional state that makes you feel unmotivated. As you accomplish these mini-goals, you may notice that your mood and thoughts begin to subtly or dramatically shift. As time goes on, you may find it easier to make larger or more substantial changes, rather than the small, incremental steps you took in the beginning, because you have fewer cognitive and emotional barriers interfering with your progress.

Batching Tasks and Activities

Sometimes the sheer amount of tasks that need to be completed is what makes you feel overwhelmed. You think about starting a business and get overwhelmed by all of the steps required for start-up. You want to clean the house but get overwhelmed by all of the things that need to be cleaned or done. You want to get started on that side hustle or new project but you can’t imagine how you would even find the time to work on it. The behavioral activation strategy of breaking goals down into meaningful, manageable, incremental components is a key first step; the next step is actually getting it done. This step requires effectively managing your time, since time and energy are the critical limiting factors in getting tasks done. Batching tasks is a highly effective time management technique and can often free up time. Batching tasks requires you to complete like tasks together in order to be more efficient.

Let’s take cleaning the bathroom. Say you have two bathrooms in your home that both need to be cleaned. One approach would be to clean bathroom #1 on one day and bathroom #2 on another day. This approach requires you to use different cleaning supplies for the toilet, bathtub, and sink, so each time you do it, you have to spend time getting out all of the supplies and cleaning each room completely. Batching the task would mean you would do like tasks together. So one day you might clean both toilets, which only requires you to get the toilet cleaning supplies out once. Then, you clean both sinks. The following day, you get out the shower cleaning supplies and clean both showers. In the end, both methods get you to the same goal of having 2 clean bathrooms. But batching the task gets you to the goal in a more efficient and less time-intensive manner.

Cooking is another task that lends itself well to batching. Perhaps you spend 5-6 pm preparing dinner each day. You can batch cook by doubling or tripling the amount of food you cook at one time with little increase in the time and effort required to prepare and cook the food. Because you’ve cooked extra food on day one, you only have to reheat your meal for the following day or two, which takes significantly less time than preparing an entire meal. And just like that, you’ve gained 1-2 additional hours in your week with little effort.

Structured Routines

Structured routines can also help to reduce feelings of overwhelm and a lack of motivation. By making routines automatic and second nature, you reduce the cognitive, emotional, and physical effort required to complete them. Your body begins to expect certain activities to occur at certain times, regardless of your emotional state or thought process. Again, these routines help to bypass the negative thoughts, limiting beliefs, or unfocused emotional states that might interfere with your activities.

The key to establishing routines is consistency over time. Think of your morning routine. More than likely, you do the same activities in the same order without much thought. If you wanted to change your morning routine, you would need to exert a lot of effort at first to establish a new pattern. Over time, however, this new pattern would be integrated into your routine and you would complete it without even thinking about it. The problem is that many people get stuck in the effortful phase; the new routine is difficult to integrate, labor-intensive, time-consuming, and feels awkward, so they stop. Or they do the new routine inconsistently so it never gets established as a behavioral pattern. Over time, the inconsistency becomes more frequent and eventually the new routine is lost and the person falls back into their familiar, even if undesired, routine. To establish a new routine, you need to do it on a consistent basis over an extended period of time. You need to sustain the new routine through the effortful stage into the integration stage (where it becomes less labor-intensive) and into the maintenance stage (where it becomes automatic). There is no set amount of time to go through this process, as it depends on how much the new routine varies from your previous routine and how complex or challenging it is. Some routines may become well-integrated within a month or so, while others may take 3, 6, or 12 months.

Although common, feeling overwhelmed can cause significant interference with motivation and goal attainment. It can be easy to get “stuck” in this emotional state and related behavior patterns. This blog post has focused on some strategies to bypass cognitive and emotional barriers that can interfere with task completion and goal achievement. However, it is important to recognize that integrating methods that help to address limiting thoughts, beliefs, and emotional states is also a key component of achieving goals.