When You’re Overwhelmed, Simplify

By Leo Babauta

The feeling of being overwhelmed is extremely common in the people I talk to, and it’s becoming more and more clear to me that this is the default state for most of us.

We’re overwhelmed by it all: all the things we have on our plates, all the interruptions and messages and emails, all the things online and on social media, all the news and chaos of the world, all the things going on in our relationships.

It’s a lot! We can celebrate the abundance of our lives, but often we bemoan it.

The problem isn’t the abundance, but our fear and anxiety about all of it. Actually, for most of us, the fear is that we’ll let people down. We’ll drop one of the many balls we have in the air and let people down … or worse yet, we’ll drop them all and we’ll be exposed as inadequate!

So how do we deal with it? I suggest three practices of simplicity.

And as you practice with simplicity, you might recite a kind of mantra: When you’re overwhelmed, simplify.

Let’s talk about the fear and anxiety before we talk about the three simplicity practices.

Fears That Drive Our Overwhelm

The first reason we feel overwhelm is that we often have too many commitments. We’ve taken on more than we have time for, often out of optimism for how much we can do in a day. It’s a lot less than we usually think.

We say Yes to too many things, partly out of optimism, but also because we are uncomfortable saying No to people. When your boss, spouse, child or parent asks you to do something, there is an expectation that you’ll say Yes. The idea of saying No to them and protecting a boundary can bring up a lot of fear of letting that person down or upsetting them. This plays out even with people who are not as central to us: coworkers, neighbors, friends. We don’t want to say No to them, out of fear of letting them down or upsetting them, so we say Yes. This creates a Huge Pile of Things we can’t do.

Having a Huge Pile of Things we can’t possibly get done on time then brings up the overwhelm: what if I can’t do all the things in my Huge Pile of Things? I’ll fail! And let people down. So we created the Huge Pile of Things because we’re afraid of saying No and letting people down, and now we have too much to do and the fear of letting people down returns.

And there’s more! If we decide to simplify the Huge Pile of Things, we feel the same fear. And if we pick one task from the Huge Pile and try to take it on … it takes longer than it has to, because we’re afraid of doing it wrong and letting people down. Same fear! It leads to forms of perfectionism. And procrastination, because doing it right is all too much.

So you can see how the fear of letting people down drives our overwhelm in a bunch of ways.

Simplicity Practice: Soothing the Fear

The first practice is simply noticing your fear and anxiety in all of the above situations, and soothing them. Can you notice how it feels in your body? We get caught up in the thoughts about them, but what about how the fear and anxiety feels as physical sensation below the head?

Once you can tune into this, can you rest your attention on it for a minute? Take some slow deeper breaths, and give yourself some loving compassion.

This is a simple, powerful practice. You will find opportunities to practice it all day long, in every meeting, conversation, email, errand and task, if you look. It will calm your overwhelm.

Simplicity Practice: One Breath at a Time

Only after you’ve done the first practice should you take on this one: take one thing from the Huge Pile and focus completely on it.

Actually, let’s change the term from Huge Pile of Things to something like Amazing Pool of Opportunities. Or Deep Well of Love. These are things you chose to do – can you see the beauty in each one?

Then pick one task … opportunity … act of love. And focus fully on that, as if you were completely devoted to it. As if it were the most pure act of love you could give while on this green bountiful Earth.

We can only breathe one breath at a time, even though we have millions of breaths left to breathe (hopefully!). We don’t get overwhelmed by all the breaths we have to breathe, we simply breathe the next one.

What would it be like to simplify, and focus on just the next thing to do? Ask your heart: What do I want to do next? What am I being called to do? Then give yourself to that.

One at a time. That’s all we can do. It’s so simple, so pure, so beautiful.

Simplicity Practice: Protecting Your Time & Commitments

Finally, what can we do about having too many things to do? Well, first, we’ll probably always have some of that, no matter what. We can relish in the abundance of it if we like – can you imagine what would it be like to never have anything to do? We’re blessed with abundance!

Second, we can start saying No more. A Sacred No, that honors our boundaries and honors that we want to be a Hell Yes to things. A Sacred No that is a gift to the other person, because then they don’t have to be a burden on us. A Sacred No that is a gift to us, because then we can be a Hell Yes to what we truly want.

This will bring up fear for many of us. We know how to practice that fear (see the first simplicity practice if you’ve forgotten). Honor it, but don’t let it drive you to say Yes to something you don’t want to do.

What would life be like if you let your Sacred No protect your time and the commitments you cared most about?