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Managing "Overwhelm"


Managing "Overwhelm"

Phil Meehan

According to scientists at the University of Southern California, we are exposed to five times more information as we were back in 1986 (1). True, there’s a good chance that you weren’t born in 1986, and even if you were, there’s an even greater chance that you were not yet reading, but the point is that this feeling of being overwhelmed isn’t about how people today can’t deal: it’s that we are exposed to the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information on a daily basis! That an incredible amount of processing that our brains need to do between waking up and going to sleep. Our brain works like a muscle, and when you exercise it (a lot) over the course of a day, a week, a year, it gets tired.

So what can you do?  One of my favourite expressions is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… but if it is broken, try something different”. I think that when it comes to managing the busyness and stress of life these days, we sometimes tell ourselves “If I just work harder at doing this thing (um, this thing that hasn’t been working, because I’m stressed out, tired and getting sick), I’ll get it eventually.” I’d like to argue that it’s time to try something different.

According to Christine Carter from U.C. Berkeley, and her upcoming book “The Sweet Spot”, here are a few simple changes that can help to counteract the bad habits that contribute to feeling overwhelmed (2). 


Bad Habit 1 - By expecting to stay focused and productive all day, every day, we get tired, and more work doesn’t mean more productivity.

What to Do About It - Work for shorter bursts, then take real breaks - take a walk, do something you love, nap. Listen to your body (3); Pre-make decisions. [e.g. rather than agonizing over what you’ll have for lunch, follow a pattern – hey, if it works for Mark Zuckerberg… (4)].


Bad Habit 2 - Believe that multitasking is efficient, but the switching between tasks can increase the total time it takes to complete it by up to 25%.  

What to Do About It - Do one thing at a time (instead of working on a project while replying to messages and reading email and reading this blog!).


Bad Habit 3 - Constantly checking devices for information - this depletes our energy, increases feeling of being overwhelmed and since you’re always available, there’s no downtime.

What to Do About It - Technology free zones in your life/home. Take a break; Predictable time off (e.g. your friends know that you will not check devices between 9pm and 7am); Respond to information in bursts, but the rest of the time, your phone is on silent or better yet, silent and in another room.



(1)       Alleyne, Richard. "Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day." The Telegraph, 11 Feb. 2011. Web.

(2)       Carter, Christine. "Week 7: Mental Habits That Contribute to "The Overwhelm""YouTube. Greater Good Science Centre, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

(3)       Ciotti, Gregory. "The Science of Why Energy Management Is the Key to Peak Productivity." IDoneThis Blog. N.p., 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

(4)       "#AskMark: Why Do You Wear the Same Shirt Every Day?" Vimeo. Facebook, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.