An Antidote To Overwhelm
It’s been two months since I’ve written an article, and the reason why begged to become a topic—overwhelm. It occurred to me one morning last week (while I was busy apologetically responding to several early July – yes, July – emails), that I had indeed succumb to the collective cultural cry of I’m really sorry; I’ve been slammed…
‘I’m so tired of apologizing,’ sighed a friend recently in her final defeat-by-inbox. I dramatically rolled my eyes in solidarity, while scrolling through all the text messages I had yet to respond to.
In 2015, the average American was receiving 88 business emails per day, according to the market research firm Radicati, and it shows no sign of slowing. In 2015, the number of worldwide email users will be nearly 2.6 billion. By the end of 2019, the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion.
That’s a lot more potential emails in your inbox that you get to handle. Not to mention mushrooming use of texting, posting, iMessaging, Facetiming, Skyping, pinning, WhatsApp-ing, and Zooming. My heart rate goes up just writing about it.
The hydra of overwhelm has become a constant in 21st century life. No matter how many life hacks one implements to chop off its head, another hundred emerge.
We are all trying to beat time. Jam more into less. In 2012 Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the cover story in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The most disturbing account was the one about an overworked mother of three who ‘organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.’
Perhaps the most startling statistics come from the front lines of the frenzy – the upper class C-suite white males. Hand delivered to the top of society by their privilege, they have become the veritable canaries in the coal mine. In 2015, the age adjusted suicide rate in white men was almost four times as high as that of white women. And the suicide rate for white males aged 40 to 65 was more than twice the rate of suicide in the general American population.
Depression in the C-suite has gained attention in Silicon Valley lately, where ever-growing expectations and capital for promising startups can overwhelm anyone. One study found nearly 50% of entrepreneurs reported having a mental health condition.
Recently, the almighty brashly outspoken Elon Musk broke down, confessing exhaustion and the ‘most difficult and painful year of his career’. Inside an hour long interview with the New York Times, he ‘choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model’.
Even young children are overwhelmed. Overscheduled and seldom unplugged, the average American grade-schooler spends seven hours a day in class, often without any recess, and over two hours a day on smartphones or tablets on social media. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Theories about this vary, but overwhelm is a constant in the narratives.
What is overwhelm exactly? It’s when a finite resource – time – collides with an infinite demand – things to do. When you think of it that way, it’s quite simple. We have a limited number of hours in each of our lifetimes. But we have an infinite number of things, and possibilities of things, to do. So to strive for the end of the abrasive rub between the finite and the infinite, is futile. You may as well try to stop the sun from coming up.
This is why trying to hack your overwhelm mostly misses the mark. These life hacks imply that you have more power over the physics of time, space, and the collective consciousness than you actually do. While I geek out as much as anyone on some of the really good books on innovative time and project management (David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and The Power of Full Engagement by Loehr and Schwartz being two of my personal favorites), it’s important to understand what’s really going on here.
“The problem of overwhelm is much bigger than you,” writes Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time. The problem is systemic, and cultural. For example, while time saving innovations have emerged such as flexible work schedules and virtual workspaces, they are overlapped with longstanding outmoded expectations such as ‘face-to-face’ meetings and the idea that longer work hours equate to excellence. This creates the perfect conditions for overload at an organizational level.
Schulte continues, “It all comes down to systems change: What if instead of expecting workers to ‘fix’ themselves on their own, we designed work environments that led everyone to make better choices?” Pointing out that humans are very influenced by social norms, she suggests organizations take responsibility for overwhelm by making it uncool to be overworked.
“How do you shift social norms, so that overwork goes from being virtuous to being shameful?” she quotes Dan Connolly, a senior associate with ideas42. “Can management, at a senior level, begin to treat long work hours as a sign of failure—the result of poor planning, or poor management—rather than a necessary or toughening experience?”
Mandatory vacation days, technology that bans work after 5 pm, and required hobbies are all part of this new thinking.
So, on one level it may seem like a relief to know that your overwhelm is not proof that you are broken in some way. In fact, overwhelm is a natural response to unnatural circumstances. But on another level, you may be asking, ‘there must be something I can do?’
Go ahead and enjoy any of the time saving, chaos diminishing life hacks that you may have. But here’s another idea. And it’s not a hack.
The anecdote to overwhelm is not more done, or less to do, or more time (there is only so much of that, remember?). And it’s not Adderall or caffine, or Zoloft. The anecdote is trust.
The other day I was in a conversation with my son. He’s an actor, living in L.A., doing the real work of acting. If anyone understands overwhelm it’s Dakota. Just imagine it…every audition has the potential to give him work. And every missed audition could mean the difference between success or failure. Rational thinking would suggest that the more auditions he does, the more potential he creates for himself. It’s a perfect overwhelm generator. Do more. Do more. Do more. Or else.
We were talking about the effects of overwork, and how corrosive it was to creativity. Caught inside the headlock of not wanting to miss out on anything, lest it risk our very survival, and needing to nourish a different rhythm in our lives, we were brought to the threshold of a simple truth. So, in his characteristically direct way of speaking he said, “You know mom, at some point, you just have to trust.”
Trust is a complete sentence. But for anyone wanting longhand, here it is: trust that which is orchestrating this entire machine. Whatever force – call it God, call it consciousness, call it whatever—that life energy that is conspiring events, moving the tides, animating all the hands that send you emails—is in charge. Let it handle the events. You do not have to toil behind the curtain, trying to make all the magic happen. And trust that if you relinquish some control, you will not get lost. You will not starve. You will not end up adorning rags on Hollywood Boulevard pushing a shopping cart talking to yourself.
Dakota’s words dropped into my heart with such gravity. The next day I discovered myself to be less rushed, less determined to make it to the end of my to-do list. If the behemoth of modern life really is much bigger than me and my insignificant strategies, then I can hand it over to a life-force much bigger than me too. I can surrender. I can push all my emails aside to write this blog. I can delay that important proposal to follow a quieter, yet truer calling.
Curiously I began to notice something positive. I was more present on phone calls to clients; I prioritized better; I became more efficient; I followed more leads, and the big surprise? The following week became our best financially in the history of EQUUS.
Perhaps overwhelm is here to cook us, to crush us in its relentless crucible that keeps us up at night, and set us free. “Surrender!” she screams with her foot on our neck, while we carry on pretending we are beyond mortal. For me, I’ve decided to kneel at her feet. To stop. To leave my desk on a Wednesday morning, grab one of my horses from the paddock and take a wild gallop down the arroyo. To flip the proverbial bird at my to-do list.