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Where the feeling of overwhelm comes from (and how to destroy it)

Where the feeling of overwhelm comes from (and how to destroy it)

Last week I published a post encouraging people to try out my Next Step Challenge. It was a busy week. Having typed free, from-scratch reports until losing sensation in my finger tips I now feel qualified to report on some trends amongst the entrepreneurial community.

It actually surprised me. Time and time again, I kept hearing the same thing from ambitious (but stuck and frustrated) entrepreneurs.

Everyone is overwhelmed. There’s way too much to do and picking the top priority on a to-do list of hundreds is impossible. The worst part? Every day that passes adds more items to the to-do list.

Clearly, it’s high time to share some insight into the source of overwhelm. Overwhelm isn’t what you think it is.

The variety of scenarios I heard about last week was incredible. It’s not just the work that’s overwhelming entrepreneurs – it’s also family commitments, finding time for someone special, getting started on that great new project you know will be awesome and so much more.

Hugh MacLeod summed it up perfectly in his incredible new book Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination.

You’re probably already an unwitting member of The Overextended Class.

According to Chris Anderson (I’m shamelessly plagiarizing Hugh’s book here…), “there’s never been a better time to be over extended”.

The people who are achieving big things in life and business are those who are doing the equivalent of two or more full time jobs. They’re entrepreneurs using leverage, delegation, outsourcing and a shit load of hard work to move mountains in record time.

What I’m really getting at here is simple. Hard work and too much to do isn’t the problem. That’s the price of ambition. Personally, I’m a maximalist – I believe in doing more, winning more and contributing more.

Getting ambitious in life and business comes with an interesting learning curve. You have to learn to do far more than anything pre-entrepreneur life teaches you to do. Nothing prepares you for this level of to-do juggling.

Overwhelm strikes down newcomers to entrepreneurialism because they’ve got the ambition but no experience doing as much as they wish they could.

As soon as overwhelm hits, the newbie entrepreneur makes an enormous mistake. They assume overwhelm is an emotion.

Overwhelm isn’t an emotion. It’s the habit of not separating planning from action.

When you lump overwhelm into the “negative emotion” box (along with frustration and fear), it becomes something to avoid. We’re culturally and behaviorally conditioned to avoid emotional pain – negative emotion is bad and we must run away from it.

This is why emotions like frustration and fear result in procrastination and self sabotage. Both are fantastic emotional avoidance strategies. The longer you procrastinate the easier it is to never do the thing you fear.

If only avoiding overwhelm were so easy.

For most people, overwhelm results in the same avoidance reaction, but it’s a tragedy when it does. Overwhelm could be so easily destroyed – it’s simply the symptom of a habit, not an emotion.

The moment your separate planning from action, overwhelm vanishes. The separation is easy too, because like almost every challenge in your business… it’s all in your head.

Be in the now

Every second of every day, we habitually ask ourselves questions. Internal, psychological and thought-inducing questions.

Here are the questions that, without fail, create a sensation of overwhelm:

  • What else have I got to do today?
  • What am I forgetting?
  • What else should I be doing?

Notice the trend here? All these questions draw your mental laser of awareness away from the present. They focus you (like a scattergun) on sooner-or-later upcoming events and happenings for which you eventually need to prepare.

Planning is great. Remembering things is fantastic. Not being able to take action in the moment because you can’t stop thinking about the future?


To avoid overwhelm you need to learn to be in the now. Simply ground yourself in the present. Turn off the planning and switch on the action. Destroy overwhelm for good.

There’s only one question you need to ask yourself to align your focus on the present. Here it is:

What can I do, right now?

Fuel that question with a firm belief that an hour of action, right now, is going to get you further in life than distracted mental planning will. Don’t doubt it.

It really is that simple. When you ask yourself this question and make yourself answer it, you force yourself to focus on the present. When you start the doing, your ability to pointlessly plan vanishes. The overwhelm is destroyed in the face of action.

You don’t need me to tell you that execution is everything, but since I am you should also know:

95% of “planning’ is a waste of time. Overwhelm is the enemy.

What can you do, right now?

Let me know what you’ve got to do and why today is the day to destroy overwhelm. Let’s talk in the comment section below.


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  1. Peter,

    This post really made me think about exercise. When I started up running it was all too hard and easier to say “I will go tomorrow”. Then I would spend the rest of the day plotting routes on my mobile phone. Finally I pushed through and just started running. The excuses slowed down because I didn’t want to sabotage myself.

    When I feel overwhelmed I put more obstacles up in my way (in the guise of planning). How dumb is that?

    So today I need to start training myself to notice the sabotaging and get it out of my head before it breeds into planning.

    Any tips on that?

    1. This is a perfect example Ainslie. I’m glad you asked. Here’s the tip:

      “What can you do NOW?”

      When the answer is “run”…. run. Don’t think, just run.

      When the answer can’t be run, it’ll be something else. Don’t think, just do that other thing.

      The ironic thing about running specifically is that even when you’re actually running… you don’t think about running! In fact, when I run…. I do some of my best PLANNING!

      You just need to not think about running 😉

  2. Hi Peter!

    You’re so right that a lot of folks feel like they are drowning under the weight of overwhelm. Will check out Hugh’s new book. Have his previous one. Here’s my four inflated cents. When I’m in my Fearless Why Zone I can do superhuman things and I WANT to. I don’t feel overwhelmed. I feel high on life.

    The overwhelm kicks in when I’m doing things out of my FWZ. Things that drag me down instead of pulling me up. Most of us are trained to be generalists – to do everything mediocre for lack of a better word – mediocre folks follow Simon Says directions better.

    That said, I just got a great idea for a new program! Off to create. Thx, Giulietta

  3. I’ve been practicing living in the now for some time (thank you, btw) and it truly opens up perspectives that can have incredible impact. What I’ve noticed, though, is that it’s *really* tough to embrace.

    Like I said, it takes PRACTICE. I believe (though I could be wrong) that very few people have this ability to live in the now in a consistent, healthy way – which goes to say that I believe there are unhealthy ways to live in the now.

    There’s a huge difference between throwing caution to the wind and applying a “live in the now” mindset. I’ve seen people act like complete idiots because they forget that there are consequences to actions, and they act impulsively. Learning the difference between the two is key.

    So there’s the question for you – how do you explain that difference to others? And, perhaps more importantly, do you feel there are healthy and unhealthy ways to live in the now?

    1. Hey James. You raise some interesting points here.

      I think there is a distinction between people who live in the now and ignore consequences (events that they have the power to control) …. versus people who worry about events OUTSIDE their control.

      To live in the now healthily (as you put it) we need to be present in the moment, accountable for our actions and flexible enough to deal with what the world throws at us.

      And yes, people who can do all that are rare.

  4. Overwhelm hits me hard when I am answering the question “What can I do NOW?” by referring to my list and getting started taking care of the most burning tasks, but the phone rings, or I get an IM, and the caller or the ping-er needs something NOW also, so I start putting out new fires, but never fully extinguish the old fires and end up with the entire forest in ashes at my feet.

    1. Hey Dava, the trick is to turn off the phone, IM client and email…. and build a life and a business that allows you to do that more often and easily.

      (in that order) 🙂

  5. Couldn’t love this any more if I tried Peter! My version of your awesome question is,
    “What one thing would move me forward today?” There’s always one thing that comes to mind as the best use of my time and then I can breathe and take action again!

  6. Peter,

    This is a great post, but also a big challenge. You and James are right about the habit…it really DOES take effort to move from constant fire stamping (or thinking about fire stamping, or planning to prevent fires that you will then have to stress about putting out) into a proactive, value based choice in the moment, moment after moment…but I tried it today. When I felt the dog race go off between my ears, I’d stop and say “what can I do right now?” The answer from the center of my chest was almost always “finish what you are doing.” That resulted in having a lot more actually “done” at the end of the day. Fancy that.

    1. Hee! Cory I was hoping this post would elicit a response from you!

      My favorite part of your comment is the bet where you say doing this is a big challenge… and then the bit where you describe how easily you were able to do it.

      what what? 😀

  7. just found you through @mfarinella. that one statement alone,”Overwhelm isn’t an emotion. It’s the habit of not separating planning from action.” just stopped me in my tracks. as i drown in overwhelm i keep hearing a mantra in my head, “be here now”. great though for sure, yet i’m realizing that it’s coming from my mind rather than my heart & therefore not helping me. i will ponder your words. thank you peter!

    1. Hey Shana! Great to have you join the discussion here.

      Thoughts that come from the mind can help Shana. It pays to label your thinking in ways that empower you 🙂

  8. This is exactly what I needed to read right now! Thank you!! I just cleared my head in the time it took me to read this:)
    I am coming up to huge change in my business and my head is drowning in planning and Im not gettting anything done….now I understand why.

  9. Well Thank YOU! Your words came at the perfect point in time for me! And for those of us that live with ADHD, {that old DaVinci syndrome} the answer is: anything, something, the closest thing! The point is to FINISH.
    Thanks Doc!

    1. Hi StrangePuppy (interesting name!) thanks for stopping by.

      Have you ever considered that you don’t so much live with ADHD (like a room-mate!) but rather you DO ADHD (like other people do tired, distraction and procrastination).

      It’s a behavior, not an object. 🙂

  10. I used to think I was living in the moment because I used to end just about every phrase with “at the moment” so “things are going really well…at the moment” or “I’m really happy… at the moment.”

    Then someone pointed out that it sounded more like things were going to get worse just around the corner and I realised I wasn’t appreciating the moment at all, I was kind of saying “well, things are okay…but let’s wait to see what happens.” Some days I still get the feeling like I’m at one party but waiting to get to the next one, when things really take off 🙂

    And whenever I feel like that, the worse thing I can do is sit and think about it, if I start pushing in the direction I want to go, I feel better, but fighting that temptation to think about it is still a struggle.

    I’ve just finished reading a book that said something along the lines of: “Don’t worry about possible future emergencies, unless there’s something specific you can do today to avoid them. Trust that by focusing on what you can change today to make it a successful day, you will be more equipped to deal with those challenges on the day they arise.”

    I liked that. 🙂

    Meaty post Peter!

    1. Hey Amy, it sounds like you used to live in the near-future… not quite in the present. That’s a frame of mind that can be quite vexing!

      Glad to hear you’ve got this in the bag *now* though.

  11. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your article this week!

    I’ve got dozens of mind maps and prioritised lists, and I regularly tell myself “80/20 rule” to focus on my biggest bang activities.

    And yet, there are those days when I feel like (and act like) I get so little done. Thinking back on some fo those days, they often coincide with (1) having simply too many well-planned activities to choose from, thus creating some mental ‘what should I do next’ chatter, or on the flip side (2) having not done sufficient planning, thus creating some mental ‘what should I be doing in the first place’ chatter. So, in both, the mental chatter is the enemy, which you’ve skillfully distilled in this post. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a very productive day today! 🙂

    1. Hey Aron! Good to hear from you mate – looking forward to grabbing a beer when I get back from the US.

      I think the distinctions you’ve mentioned here are critical. Planning has to happen – there has to be “enough” of a plan. Then, the next skill we need to master is knowing when to STOP planning and start doing.

      Let me know how it goes 🙂

  12. After reading and commenting yesterday, It occurred to me that I got so much more done before computers and all this social networking cluster____. Most of my feelings of being overwhelmed are the helpless and confused state of having to constantly adapt everything to the latest technology! I still don’t have the whole SEO thing, but there’s so much more heaped on top that I wonder if I will ever manage to get to that issue. Every time a better camera becomes available, I’m obliged to take fresh new pictures, every time FB changes something I have to learn how to use that! It never ends and I can’t possibly create items to sell when I have to spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to market my Etsy shop!
    Much as I would like to believe that it’s a simple fix to make me get more done, and that it’s all my fault for thinking wrong, (as my mother would tell me) It’s NOT.
    So back to one thing at a time. Like sewing gloves, it has to be done by hand one finger at a time. And that’s what I’m going to do starting today. Thanks again Doc, I never would have seen things from this angle without you.

    1. One thing at a time! The way things were meant to be done. Especially the things really WORTH doing (like creating something of value).

      PS I’m no doctor – although we are fortunate enough to have members of the medical fraternity posting here 😉

  13. Great article and very relevent to me right now. Its like your in my head Peter.
    And yes I so get it. As I said to my friend on Sunday. Its not the doing that is stressful, its all the thinking about what I have to do that is stressful.
    I have many projects I am doing and want to do. I have just started a new business coaching business, want to do a retreat with a friend in Bali, run my business clubs and some other seminars. So yes as you can imagine, when Im thinking about it all in one hit. WOO!
    Overwhelm and want to stay under my pillow.
    Thanks so much for the reminder Peter to stay focused in the present and for me I add on take action to do my best with what I have to get done right here right now. Just one day at a time.
    The money, clients and opportunities will show up as they always have.
    Gold Coast Australia

    1. Hey Trevor – maybe I AM in your head 😛

      I love your distinctions about stress – you’re spot on. Keep actioning things day after day and you’ll be in Bali before you know it 🙂

  14. What overwhelms me?

    Ohhhh…maybe the million blog posts that I’ve subscribed to that I try my very best to read daily in an effort to better myself, my knowledge, my abilities, so I grow stronger, so I become smarter, so I can achieve more, so I can be less fearful that I might be missing out on the ‘missing link’ that will make everything clearer than clarity, so I don’t make a dick of myself and look like a big ape, so I can be an authority on at least one thing before I die, so I feel like a worthwhile human being, so my thought processes can get from A to B in a straight line instead of the meandering, twisted path they normally take (like this comment), so I can feel like I understand and know everything…so I can…so I can NEVER, EVER feel overwhelmed, fearful or scared again.

    Overwhelming isn’t it?

    So…what can I do today? Right now? Delete allllllllll my RSS feeds, stop listening to others and start listening to myself.

    Of course, your feed shall remain anchored in my inbox Peter 🙂 As will Seth Godin’s. That’s it. The rest can gooooo!

    Consider me in the now. Weeeeeeeeeee.

    Thanks for the free guidance:)

    1. Hey Catie! Thanks for stopping by here 🙂

      Remember: Reading isn’t the same as doing – both are important, but I’ve noticed that successful entrepreneurs tend to read a lot before they begin the projects that become extraordinarily successful. However, once the action taking begins… the reading needs to go on the backburner.

      I appreciate you holding onto to my rss subscription though! Some blogs are always worth making time for 😉

  15. Peter – I agree with you up until the end. “Planning” is not a waste of time – if it’s done right, and done in a way that works for you. I don’t spend hours planning (yes, *that* would be a waste.) 10 minutes, tops. Without my list for the day, I’m lost and overwhelm hits. I forgot my planner yesterday, and even though I knew what I had to do, it was like I forgot my road map.

    Everything else you said, though, is pure gold. Thanks.

    1. Hey Mare!

      I’m not sure we entirely disagree – I think some planning is useful. I’ve participated in whole day planning sessions that were superbly empowering! My point here is simply that as awesome as planning can be,… It isn’t action. 🙂

  16. Peter, i so appreciate the bracing nature of this post and your excellent distinction that overwhelm is not an emotion (not sure I totally agree but I like the idea so will try it on!)…

    here’s where I struggle: knowing what I want to do right now – market the next course I’m teaching to a new audience- but then drawing a huge blank of how best to do that. So end up spinning my wheels not knowing how to do how to do what I most want to do right now… thoughts?

    1. Hey Jennifer!

      If youve just got that one single project on at the moment, I suspect you’re not overwhelmed at all…. That what you’re really dealing with is procrastination (through fear). Overwhelm is a state of knowing what to do but not where to begin… If you think you REALLY have zero idea of what to do, I’d guess that there’s an unconscious block at some level.

      Really, I think you DO know what to do… Part of you just doesn’t want to do it 😉

  17. Hi Peter
    I just finished reading your Seek and Destroy ebook. It was fantastic!! Thanks for sharing such a great resource. Some of the roadblocks really hit home for me. There were even a couple of blocks that I had never considered affected me (but they obviously do).
    I decided to have a look around your blog (I signed up for regular updates as well) and I loved this post on overwhelm. I have had such a sense of overhelm lately. This post make a lot of sense and gave me a new way of looking and dealing with the situation.

    1. Hey Thea! Welcome aboard and thanks for taking the time to introduce yourself 🙂

      Stay in touch and let me know how it goes *implementing* the stuff you’ve learned from Seek & Destroy.

  18. First of all, you are the bomb .com!

    Second, this article is the most exciting thing I’ve read while researching this topic. As I’m sure you know, the words “fun” and “endless research” seldom go hand-in-hand. So, thank you for this. X10

    Finally, although I love your theory, I challenge you to rewrite this article after having kids for a couple of years. The overwhelm that you know, will go beyond any level you could ever imagine possible. (Lmao….seriously though…)

    Stay inspiring (:


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