How to Reduce Overwhelm and Gain Clarity

clarity

It seems like everybody is overwhelmed these days. Many of us complain, “There are too many options!” And while it’s true that there are more options than ever when it comes to choosing just about anything: your dinner, your job, your furniture, and your lifestyle—I wouldn’t have it any other way.

While I’ve been a victim of overwhelm and analysis paralysis, I don’t yearn for simpler times—I enjoy having options in life. I don’t want my biggest choice of the day to be which color apron I wear over my dress while I dust and vacuum.

But this means our choices are bigger and more impactful than ever, as well as being plentiful. All day long, we need to decide what to eat, which work project to tackle, which personal projects to tackle, how we’re going to guide our kids (if we have them, and if we don’t, should we?), and how to spend our free time, should we have any left over.

And wrapped within each of these huge buckets is a series of miniscule actions and choices we make each day: which emails to read and respond to, which Facebook posts to click, which calls to take and which ones to make. It’s maddening, really.

How to Reduce Overwhelm

But there’s hope for us! When we start to feel overwhelmed, there are two angles from which to tackle the problem: 1. Figure out what to eliminate to reduce overwhelm, and 2. Decide what to add to the mix to increase clarity.

There are three shifts I’ve made in my own life that have made a major difference in reducing overwhelm, boosting my mental clarity, and increasing my overall life satisfaction.

What to Eliminate From Your Life

Let’s begin with elimination, since you’ve got to take something away before you can pack any more in. Here’s what to cut:

1. Draining Relationships

Some friendships feed us, inspire us, nurture us, and generally leave us feeling better off for having them. But sometimes it’s really easy to wind up in friendships that are negatives for us, sometimes in subtle ways.

Ditch Gossip and Drama

I’ve had friendships that were based on gossip and drama. Some people really enjoy that. I don’t, so I had to cut them loose.

Get Rid of Complainers

I also had a friendship where the complaining was constant; I mean, this person really liked complaining. When I was younger, I could find myself falling into that same trap. It felt good to complain. Gretchen Rubin has a great quote: It’s a sign of maturity not be scandalized.

Now I recognize constant complaining as a major cause of stress, and I want to run far away from it. Life is thorny enough without looking for things to get indignant about.

Take stock of your relationships. Figure out how to avoid overwhelming, draining, or negative conversations.

2. Social Media

I loooooove social media, Facebook specifically. When I feel overwhelmed, one of the first things I do is run to Facebook and zone out. But all of those inputs—the links and posts competing for your attention—is more fuel for overwhelm.

It’s so tempting to use social media as a form of distraction, and it does make us feel better temporarily, but social media just adds to feelings of overwhelm long term. Instead of solving problems and moving to clarity, sometimes we abuse social media as a form of escapism that prolongs our difficulties in life.

I think social media is great—in moderation. I often need to reduce the amount of time I spend on social media in order to pay attention to what’s important.

3. Anything That Numbs You

I called out social media because that’s a very common bugaboo these days that seems so innocent, but it’s really insidious when it comes to contributing to feelings of overwhelm. But let’s talk about why: it’s because burying our heads in the sand and numbing out—no matter how we do it, food, alcohol, TV, or shopping—only makes us feel better in the short-term.

The mistake I see so many of us making is that when we pick our heads up after we’re done with the pleasure of distraction, our problems are waiting patiently for us to pay attention to them.

It seems so much easier to zone out than face harsh realities, but it’s actually easier to tackle problems head on than it is to ignore them while they fester and grow.

What to Add to Your Life for Peace and Clarity

Okay, now we know what to eliminate to reduce overwhelm…but how to we find feelings of peace and clarity? Here are three things to add to your life:

1. Supportive Friendships

I have friend I absolutely adore…and we always seem to call each other when things are going wrong or we have something to complain about. However, the purpose of the call isn’t for complaining; it’s to get a sense of clarity and to figure out how to put a solution in play.

I always feel better after speaking to this friend. We laugh and apologize because we seem to call when things are less than rosy, but we have an understanding with each other: that we support one another, we are there for each other, and we just plain enjoy talking to each other—whether it’s to celebrate the good stuff, or to find a way out of a struggle.

2. Stillness

My favorite activities for slowing down and gaining some clarity are meditation and journaling, and I make time for them every morning. If those don’t appeal, any activity that quiets your mind, helps you focus, and stops the whirring is something you should add to your life. For some people, it’s exercise and prayer. For others, it’s visualization or affirmations. Whatever helps your mind slow down and increases your clarity and happiness is an activity you should schedule daily.

Why do I choose meditation and journaling as my modes of being still? Both of those activities have been proven to increase peace of mind and clarity. And they don’t take much time in order to be effective.

Last night around bedtime, a major crisis popped up. Instead of figuring out how to solve it, I got upset, got on Facebook to distract myself, and then cried myself to sleep. When I woke up this morning, I was still upset. I took about 3 minutes to meditate, and another 3 to journal, and in just that tiny slice of time, a clear solution rose to the surface of the muck.

Unfortunately, when we feel overwhelmed, it can be hard to sit down and be still. We feel like we should do something. But if you don’t stop spinning, then an object in motion stays in motion, and you won’t always go in the right direction. (In fact, I usually go in the wrong direction when I don’t take time to clear my mind before making any big moves.)

When we’re overwhelmed, the first thing you need to do is take control of your state of mind. And in order to do that, you often need to pause and just be—put a hold on the doing. Once you’ve gotten still and calm, the next right action can come to you.

3. Big Rocks

It’s so incredibly easy to hop on a treadmill of stressors…get up, go to work, eat dinner, waste time on TV or the internet, go to bed. And then we wonder why we feel overwhelmed by the pace of our lives. It feels like there’s never enough time to do what we actually love.

I’m a huge proponent of lifestyle design. This means that you 1. Take the time to figure out what kind of lifestyle would make you ecstatically happy and, 2. take the steps to change your life so that you can live that way.

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” —Howard Thurman

When I grew up, my only option was to work a “9-to-5” office job…and when the economy turned bad, my job morphed into a 9-to-6 and then a 9-to-7. Then when I was handed a smartphone, my work-life boundaries were gone and I worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a corporation.

My first big epiphany came when, after dedicating my entire adult life to a corporate career, I realized that going to work in an office was no longer for me.

At this realization, my head exploded. I didn’t know who I was if not a corporate drone. So I had to reinvent myself. I knew I was an entrepreneur, but aside from that, I didn’t know which end was up.

After a few years of floundering around and trying different things, I now run a successful content marketing agency (from home!) And I really love writing novels, so that’s my big rock. I have to make time for it, otherwise it won’t get done.

What are the big rocks in your life, and how can you make sure they’re getting enough attention? The first step lies in choosing your priorities.

How to Choose Your Priorities

Once you know in your bones how you want to live, you can create priorities: the things that must get done every day to move you closer to the goal line of your dream lifestyle.

Once you know what your big rocks are, it gets much easier to say “no” to things that add to overwhelm and “yes” to things that give you peace and clarity.

We are all bombarded by invitations every day—the PTA, book clubs, the want ads, etc. It can be hard to know what to say yes to…But because I know what I’m good at, what I love doing, and how I want to spend my time, I have a lot less internal conflict than I used to when it comes to protecting my time.

The options are endless, which is great, but this also means it’s vitally important to protect your time. Some people might accuse you of being selfish for doing you boo, but here’s the thing: it’s selfish to not live the life of your dreams.

If you’re waiting for permission, consider this your official permission slip. I’ll leave you with another quote by Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

When you’ve defined your big rocks—your priorities that must be tended to daily in order to live the life of your dreams—then peace and clarity are yours.

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