On overwhelm, the tricksiest imp of all….

Overwhelm and I have been good friends these past five years.

Running your own business takes you to a level of productivity that is quite astounding, especially when you’re just establishing yourself.  Instant superpowers are to be had.

For year 1, I lived and breathed Art House, from when I woke up to bedtime.  I spent all my time there and never seemed to stop for anything else.

My friends and family forgot what I looked like and I almost got dreadlocks from not brushing my hair (see photo!).

My sister was upset, understandably, that her last year in the UK, living in the city along from mine, she saw me about three times. 

Until she got her own business.  Then, she called me up and said ‘Jani, I get it now!’.

The first year gives you an excitement and an energy that carries you through 100+ hour work weeks, dramas and disasters as if you were more than an ordinary human being.

We didn’t even know if we’d MAKE one year, let alone five, which is why I was happy to work at this pace.  I honestly didn’t know if we’d last and every day was a massive gift.  I was living the dream and didn’t want to miss a minute of it,.

If I had known I would still be the director of a thriving, growing arts venue with even bigger projects on the horizon, and a second business running online courses, I would have learnt about overwhelm A LOT sooner.

Because it’s been a near run thing to total burnout more than once, that’s the truth of it.

Admitting this isn’t a permission slip for anyone to advise me, or remonstrate with me when they think I am ‘doing too much’.  Only I know what too much is.  I know it a little too well, in fact!  I’m admitting this because EVERYONE who takes on a business of their own will make good friends with overwhelm at least a few times.

Overwhelm for me takes the form of just keeping going, working ineffectively  for long hours, ignoring hunger and tiredness signals, getting snappy and/or distant with people, eating badly and late at night, skipping meals, waking too early, going to bed too late….

At the same time, Overwhelm is a good sign.  It means opportunities are plentiful, which is something many people wish for.

It’s just that you have to get selective, and know that more goodness is always on the way.  Hitting overwhelm, for me, happens when I think like that first year – that I’m going to lose it all in the next moment.

Here are my rules for making overwhelm my buddy instead of letting that imp get the better of me – because overwhelm IS a friend, one that keeps you focused and on track with the things that really matter.

– Know the signs before they get too hard to ignore

For me, I get sick.  My poor body knows I ignore subtle signals, so I’ll get a doozy of a cold, or headache, and be literally unable to do anything but stop.  On a recent retreat, when I was resisting like mad the need to just SLEEP, I got what I have now called my ‘healing headache’.  It knocked me out for 12 hours and I felt wonderful afterwards.

As time goes on, I’m learning to spot those early signals BEFORE they turn into a full blown illness, and to slow down before they do it for me.

I take a little time to ask my body what it needs, and it’s usually very good at telling me – but BEFORE I’m at worn out stage.  At worn out stage, it asks for sugar and chips!

– Fill the well

I can’t work on an empty tank.  Regular rest, meals and recreation are vital no matter how busy I am.

When you do what you love, it can become hard to stop.

But if you don”t, the joy will drain out of things pretty quickly as you feel tired, ill and resentful.  I have been there!  Feeling negative about going to work at the most awesome cafe in the world made me sort my shizzle out, fast.  I was having none of that!

The trick I’m learning is to ‘fill the well’ BEFORE I get tired, rather than approaching things from a ‘rehabilitation’ perspective.

I used to say ‘we have a busy weekend coming up, I’ll make sure I keep Monday free to rest’.  Trouble was, I was on empty BEFORE Friday, so by Monday I was just done for and I wasn’t at my best the whole weekend.

New mantra ‘Busy weekend coming up, I’ll take Thursday off, go hug some trees, nap in a hammock with a good book, and sip green smoothies and eat yummy good stuff – and have an early night – to get ready’.

Filling the well means, for me, using timers to remind me it’s mealtime (yes, really!) and set bedtimes at least a few times a week, so I don’t get so engrossed in what I’m doing that Mrs Cranky and Hungry come to visit.  

You wouldn’t like me when I’m cranky and hungry.

– Knowing what to do when burnout feels imminent

I have handy lists of positive, helpful things to do when overwhelm looms.

When I’m tired and undernourished, I tend to do the very things that make me worse (too many carbs, late night snacks, wine, lounging around watching films, working as avoidance behaviour, that kind of thing).

To overcome my self-destructive urges I make lists of what makes me better whilst I am feeling good, and refer to them for advice when I’m not so good.

But, more and more, I am working on just *not getting into that state in the first place*.

– Being clear on my purpose

I know what I am here to do on this planet, I’m really clear and I revisit it all the time, to adjust it as I change and grow.

The Art House also has really clear aims.

We do NOTHING that doesn’t fit the aims.  As you get more successful, a lot of people start telling you what you ‘should’ do.  People are veritable cornucopias of great ideas they want YOU to carry out.  In the course of one week it’s been suggested that we:-

– Start a LETS Scheme for the whole of Southampton
– Run more stuff for kids
– Open another branch in another city (I kid you not!)

You need to know exactly why you are in business, and what the purpose of your business and life is, to stay on track.  Other people’s ideas are their ideas, don’t feel tempted to take them on!

– Making friends with the firm ‘No’.

The above people full of ideas can be very, very insistent.  Many people will recognise that you are a capable, motivated sort of person and those are the people we go to when we want something done.

Learning my own way of saying a polite, kind but unmistakable ‘No’ was a very valuable lesson.

A strong ‘No’ is far better than letting somebody down later, or doing a crappy job because you’ve taken on too much.

Most importantly, I forgive myself when I waver – and I never feel obliged to keep a promise I were pushed into making, or sticking with something that isn’t working.

Sure, it’s crappy to break a promise, but most people will understand if you explain and apologise.

Most of the time, these days, you’ll notice that I never agree to anything new right away, I give it time to brew.  Like a nice pot of tea.

– Don’t forget to say ‘Yes’!

As you get more successful and busy, there’s a temptation to feel that you can’t take on anything new.

Trouble with this is, us creative entrepreneurs THRIVE on new projects.  For two years out of the last five, I refused to take on anything new.  I got bored as hell.  So I found ways to allow myself to keep moving and growing.  A lot of this has to do with knowing when to hand something over, or let it end, or just let it go it’s own way.

I did this by:-

– Delegating, setting up systems, simplifying, automating

That stuff you are doing that you don’t like and is taking over your time?  Chances are somebody else out there would love to do it.  Can do it faster, better, more effectively than you can.

There’s also a fair chance you’re overcomplicating a lot of your systems.  I know I do.

Lastly, the magical world of computers is full of tools to automate many things.  My top cyber-assistants are:-

– Mailchimp:  Mailing list manager with monkeys.  The paid version does ‘autoresponders’ which I use for all my eCourses and to communicate with new people that join my mailing list.  I can also write emails when it suits ME and set them to send when I need them to.  Awesome.

The free version lets you have a pretty hefty mailing list and use many of the features.  Muchos recommended.

Boomerang:  A feature for gmail which allows you to delay sending and also reminds you if you haven’t had a response to an email you’ve sent.  Extremely handy.

– Hootsuite:  This little magical social network management owl means you don’t have to log into Facebook, Twitter etc a gazillion times a day to stay in touch with your peeps.

At the start of each week, I load it up with posts for Facebook and Twitter – usually reposts of handy blog posts, articles I’ve found and yummy quotes.  This means that even if I’m busy elsewhere, my social media accounts are providing goodness for people in my tribe.

I still DO log in to Facebook and Twitter for muchos personal interaction, but Hootsuite helps me with the more ‘planned’ stuff.

Hootsuite is free, although the paid version has a gorgeous calendar option that I love as you can drag and drop posts around for a whole month.  Yum.

– Ze Smartphone

Being able to pick up emails on the move, with firm boundaries about when I absolutely won’t, works well for me.

– Mindful procrastinaton

Procrastination ain’t always a bad thing.

I have a tonne of ideas in my head I’d love to do right now, but if I tried to do the lot I’d do none at all.  I have a phrase now ‘I’ll put a pin in that one’.  It means, I’ll come back to it later.

Write down ideas, plan weekly, monthly, by season, by year and by decade when you may be able to do them.  Then, put a pin in them.

You have time.

– Take time to plan, follow up and reflect

It seems like a waste of time to sit for two hours before a busy project and plan it all out.  You just want to get started.  Plans need to be changed anyway, so what’s the point in making them, right?

Trust me, flexible plans with fluid deadlines smooth the way no matter how soon the deadline.  Set aside just a little time, and during your planning set immediate actions, to stop yourself using planning as a procrastination tool.

Reflection can be an even harder, as the benefit doesn’t seem obvious.  Reflecting on any project, making time for follow up and what I call ‘pack down’ is crucial.

This process gives you closure, helps assimilate lessons and leaves you clean and clear to move onto the next big thing.

Over to you – how do YOU deal with overwhelm?  I’d love to know!

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On overwhelm, the tricksiest imp of all…. — 2 Comments

  1. Overwhelm terrifies me. It immobilises me. Even you talking about it makes me want to go and hide, put my hands over my ears and say NO, NO, NO. That level of extreme reaction is scary but helpful in a way. The closer I come to it, the slower I go. Life can be a pain though, when a lot of unplanned things happen all at once and cannot be avoided. That is when it is dangerous. Like eating when I am too hungry, when the food is too yummy or I don’t really like it, I will try and get through it all without stopping. THIS IS NOT GOOD! I think actually it is a panic reaction.

    I rush at it as I know if I stop I will never start again. Starting is the hardest thing for me. Every morning it is a struggle to a lesser or greater degree, when I am on overwhelm it becomes almost impossible.

    Eventually at that point, when I am in overwhelm, I take teeny tiny steps. teeny weeny tiny steps. One I always quote as an example is when slumped in front of hours of meaningless telly unable to move for the overwhelm, I will decide to do something deliberately, maybe take dirty plates to the kitchen, DURING THE ADVERTS ON TV. That is it. Sometimes that is all I manage. Soonish though I do something EVERY TIME THE ADVERTS ARE ON. From there it tends to be all up. I get engrossed in whatever I am doing and forget to go back and watch whatever it was. It doesn’t help the starting process. Bodily processes are useful for that too. Whenever I need a pee I will put the kettle on or make sure my hands are full on the way to the loo and on the way back.

    That is what I do when I find myself overwhelmed. Obviously, (I hope its obvious) I work very hard to avoid overwhelm. Order is the key for me. Control freakery it may be or have been in a former time, it is less radical and extreme these days. I have made my life small and quiet on purpose. Manageable. It is such an invisible word. I am ruthless at excluding all issues that wind me up yet I can do nothing about. I do feel a little guilty about the extent of the ruthlessness, to the point where I wont get involved in spirtitual or political discussions and I avoid a lot of personal crisis and negativity conversations with all but a very few people who I have an active relationship with, this includes my family in large part. Its hard but essential.

    I have to remind myself and acknowledge that my physical, emotional and spiritual resources ARE limited and that no one benefits if I allow myself to be guilt tripped into overload.

    In my experience burnout is something you don’t recover from. My resources and ability to cope have improved slowly from complete breakdown but they are severely limited. Used up. Exhausted. My burnout was mainly from being an unwilling single parent for over a decade, working and running my own business. I would probably have survived that but then other external issues were imposed on me, as they often are, and although I got through them and survived, I am damaged, impaired. I hope long term that the situation will continue to improve but I have learned that I must protect me. No one else will. I have to be my number 1 priority.

    With the best will in the world, people subconsciously expect you to take care of yourself and set your own boundaries and say no when you can do no more. it makes sense. They can’t know when you really are on your beam ends. If you don’t take responsibility for yourself, seek help when you need it and say no when you can do no more they will allow you to run yourself dry, wear yourself out and then walk away shaking their heads in genuine sorrow at your loss/breakdown/failure.

  2. This method – little tiny achievable steps, is the ONLY cure for overwhelm I’ve ever encountered! It’s also so true that nobody else is going to set your boundaries for you – a deep learning that took me WAY too long 🙂