One thing I hear a lot from my clients, friends, colleagues (and, truth be told, from myself) is, “I’m overwhelmed.” Or variations on that theme like, “I can’t keep up,” “It’s just too much.”

It’s fashionable, really. Shows you’re really in the game, you’re a player, right? In fact, some people outright flaunt their frenzy as they flit from thing to thing. 

People defend their overwhelm: I mean, there’s…

so much to do, 

so many emails, 

so many commitments, 

so many demands, 

so many interruptions, 

so many inconveniences,

so many frustrations,

so many expectations, 

so much noise, 

so much information, 

so many opinions, 

so many options, 

so much fury,

so many changes,

so many channels….

It takes no special effort to be overwhelmed. No degree, no innate talent, no specialized skill.

What it does take (for all of us) is a willingness to be overwhelmed. A belief that it’s inevitable. Or, out of our hands.

And while I get why everyone is overwhelmed and definitely have empathy for it (after all, overwhelm is what often prompts people to seek out my work), I’d like to call it out a bit. I’d like to take it’s power down a peg. I’d like to puncture the propaganda for a minute. 

In a sense, overwhelm is the false belief that you have no power. Overwhelm is a denial of agency. A shirking of responsibility. 

Overwhelm is the false belief that you’re not up to the task of your work and your life. It’s basically, a lie. 

Overwhelm is the false belief that you’re not up to the task of your work and your life. It’s basically, a lie.

Now this is not to say that there isn’t a good, understandable case for overwhelm. Yet, the only reason the score turns in favor of overwhelm is because we’re playing without rules. 

Without rules to the game: overwhelm will likely win. With rules, you play on your terms (which should always be favorable to your “winning” or success, right??! I mean you can rig the game, you know…)… 

What are rules? They are the boundaries you put in place to protect your mind, body, and spirit – to protect your performance and peace of mind. They cure the pain of overwhelm. 

How to chose your rules? Figure out first the game you want to play. What are you after? What is important to you? Rules are the friendly fences you erect to protect what you care about. 

Then, follow the pain, follow the overwhelm and figure out a rule that will protect you from it, keep it away.

Are you overwhelmed by tiredness? Then, maybe a new rule for the time you go to sleep. 

Are you overwhelmed by your inbox? Then, maybe a rule that specifies the timeframe for managing your email. 

Are you overwhelmed by political rhetoric? Then, maybe some rules about the sources and frequency of exposure. 

Are you overwhelmed by all the social events? Then, maybe some rules about what to say yes to and what to say no to. 

The definition of the word “overwhelm” is: “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something. To give too much of something to, inundate. To defeat completely. To be too strong for; overpower.”

It’s interesting (and revealing) that we mostly use the passive form of “overwhelm” – we are the objects of some invisible player doing the overwhelm. And what’s also interesting is the dictionary doesn’t include a noun form of the word. We’ve adopted that because “being overwhelmed” has become “a thing,” a reactive feeling when someone or something out there is overwhelming us. 

So let’s turn things around and take back the power from this overwhelming phantom. Let’s overwhelm overwhelm with some good rules. Let’s call it out, see it for what it is – and keep it at bay with some basic boundaries. 

What has been overwhelming you? And what rules can protect you and keep you on your productive path?

PS Want to get some good, solid, tested, easy rules for managing your commitments on the daily? Then, I encourage you to check out the self-paced, online course: Workflow Mastery: The Disciplines of Accomplishment. This course will help you say goodbye to overwhelm.