I occasionally have a dream of being in Rome, Italy, where I grew up, and not being able to find my car. I don’t know why anyone would want to drive in Rome. I mean, the Romans are known for their traffic and their crazy driving. But I have the dream nonetheless. In the dream, I run in circles all over town feeling a sense of panic at the idea that I will never find my car and get moving again.
It’s not one my more cryptic dreams; the metaphor is obvious. The city is overwhelm, the car a sense of direction and ability to move forward. The dream is a clear indicator that I’m not living in alignment with my goals and values.
Fortunately, over the years, I’ve picked up some strategies to not only cope with the overwhelm, but to get back into alignment with my best self. Here are my top 7 strategies.
1. Stop and Breathe
“There is peace in just letting your body breathe, without having to do anything about it.” — Leo Babauta
During a bout of overwhelm, we often mistakenly believe that the faster we move, the sooner we will experience relief. But when those tires are spinning, the most effective solution is to stop. Then breathe.
A few minutes of sitting and consciously breathing works wonders for calming the monkey mind.
2. Clear the Chaos
Clutter in your space leads to clutter in your mind. You know this, but as soon as you think about cleaning, you’re reminded of all of the cleaning that needs to happen. Just the thought of tackling that to-clean list is overwhelming. Clean or binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy? It’s not even a contest.
If your apartment is a mess but you also want to indulge in some GA, use the Three Minute Rooms Strategy to forgo your perfectionist tendency to do all or nothing and still achieve some order. Simply set the timer on your phone for three minutes and go ham in one room for those three minutes.
Clear the most visible clutter first, no digging in drawers or closets! Pick up the magazines, the dirty dishes, the laundry, the trash and quickly throw them where they belong. Straighten pillows and cushions. Place the books in a neat pile or on a bookshelf. You get the idea. When the timer rings, move to the next room and repeat the process.
I suggested this strategy in a previous article, and one of my readers wrote back about her experience. She said that she cleans for hours every day and her husband has never — ever — mentioned the cleanliness of the house. After she used the Three Minute Room Strategy for the first time, her husband walked in from work, looked around, and asked, “Wow! Did you clean?”
3. Claim a Space of Your Own
Once you’ve achieved a basic sense of order in your surroundings, take a look around you. Does your living space reflect who you want to be?
Winston Churchill wrote, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” How is your environment shaping you? Is it helping you feel relaxed and in control, or is it contributing to your overwhelm? If your space is not in alignment with your highest aims, it’s time to start claiming it, piece by piece.
You don’t have to hire a decorator or a personal organizer to make your place more congruent with your goals and personality. This isn’t about pleasing your neighbors or your mom. It’s about alignment. If you love to paint, claim a space, a corner of a room even, to set up an easel and a chest for art supplies. Mason jar on the chest with some cute paintbrushes, and voila: alignment.
Simply choose a priority — yours, not someone else’s — and align a space with it. If you’re prioritizing career advancement right now, set up a killer organization system at your desk for when you bring work home. If relaxation is your focus, claim a space for that.
It’s amazing how a supportive environment can put your mind at ease.
4. Create Rituals
Like with your space, it’s important to start claiming blocks of your day that are for you as your best self. Rituals are an excellent way to do just that.
What do Benjamin Franklin, Twyla Tharpe, and Tim Ferriss have in common? Two things actually: being wildly successful at their respective callings and consistently engaging in morning rituals. In fact, many of the most productive and influential people in history have sworn by the practice.
Rituals are so effective because they take away decision paralysis. You know exactly what you’re going to do, so you start. You don’t have to decide to work out; you just put on your yoga pants and move to the next step in the ritual. Same with writing, meditation, or planning-the-day rituals. There’s no stress because you know exactly what to do next, and you know that it’s in line with your goals and values because you designed it that way.
With early work hours and long commutes, morning hours are sacred. Every extra moment spent in bed is another happy moment, so the ritual needs to be more attractive than the snooze button. One of the ways to achieve this is by positively engaging as many of the senses as possible. Plan ahead for the taste, the smell, the feel of the ritual. How will it look? How will it sound? The more visceral the experience, the more your body and mind will learn to not only expect it but to crave it.
5. Make a Reset List
You can think of the reset list as the when-in-doubt ritual. When you feel like you’re chasing your own tail, you simply look at the list and perform one task at a time in order until the list is done — or until you stop feeling overwhelmed.
So, you ask, what goes on this magical list? Well, basically anything that brings you back to the launch pad. Nothing is too small, too simple or too mundane to go on the list. The only set-in-stone rule is that you don’t write what should work; write things that actually make you feel more composed and are realistic in your current context. For example, don’t write “go on a three mile run” unless you will do that next Tuesday at 4:00 pm when you’re feeling overwhelmed and you will actually feel more with-it as a result.
Try having one list for home and one for work. Here’s my home list:
1) take a shower
2) clean off desk
3) do a brain dump
4) set the timer for 10–30 minutes (depending on the time available)
5) work on current top priority until the timer rings
By the time I complete the items on the list, I’ve nipped overwhelm in the bud, and I’m ready to take on the rest of the day.
6. Trust Your Intuition
One of the most prevalent causes of overwhelm is valuing other people’s opinions over your own intuition. You know this is the case when the wordshould takes over your mind.
“You should do the project later and come out with us!”
“You should apply for that job, you know.”
“You should try the gluten-free diet I’m on!”
“You should dump that guy….”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a friend’s advice. But when your head is filled with someone else’s shoulds, you’re not going to be able to hear that quiet little voice inside that knows what’s best for you. Take the suggestion into consideration, make a decision that feels right and let it be over. Don’t let someone else’s expectations clutter your mind.
7. Go on a Word Fast
According to a study at the University of California, the average American consumes roughly 100,000 words per day. Clearly, our society is addicted to input. One way to counteract the overwhelm that comes with the resultant information overload is to engage in a word fast.
A word fast can last for any amount of time, but an hour is perfect to start. For the allotted amount of time, do not interact with words in written or spoken form. No speaking. No reading. No writing. No Facebook. No listening to music (other than instrumental). No words in, no words out.
What can you do? You can paint, dance, meditate, go on a walk in a park, or even just sit silently. Anything that does not involve words. At all.
I know what you’re thinking…. Is sex allowed? Of course. But not every time, because then we’ll have to rename this strategy to something hotter than word fast.
The beauty of a word fast is that it allows your subconscious self, the root of your best self, to have the run of the roost for a while. As much as I love words in all of their many expressions, when I do my weekly word fast consistently, I find that my thinking is much more clear and my creativity soars. I get more ideas and inspiration right after that 1–3 hours of no words than I do for the rest of the week combined.
By applying some or all of these strategies, you may find that you don’t run into overwhelm nearly as often. And if that dreaded feeling does rear its ugly head again, you’ll have a plan in place to stop it at the outset.
By the way, I haven’t had the lost-car-in-the-city dream in a while, but I’ll keep you posted. Next time, I’m hoping for Paris.
The role of light is not to run around extinguishing all of the darkness in the universe.
The only purpose of light is to shine–with no concern for darkness.
It just shows up and burns brightly.
P.S. Curious how–once it starts shining–light doesn’t even see much darkness. It’s too busy shining.
The surface changes like refined to-do lists, decluttered closets, or pay increases are fine, but they don’t do the real job. Many times we need a complete overhaul, not just of the physical things, but of ourselves and who we are being in the world.
Strip away all the stories you’re telling yourself.
All of them.
If you were starting again, with a completely blank slate, who would you be in the world? Where would you place yourself?
Start being that.
Some of your current physical realities might need to be adjusted to accommodate the new you, but often the only thing that was making you miserable was the way you were showing up.
I’m tempted by efficiency. My overactive brain craves the order of a predictable routine, a color-by-numbers life, the safety of no surprises.
But I also crave enchantment. My heart craves the unpredictable, the spontaneous, the magical.
In many ways, the two are mutually exclusive. Indeed they can’t be experienced at the same time. At any one moment, you can choose efficiency or enchantment, but not both. Please your brain or your heart, but not both. Derrick Jensen states it best:
Efficiency leaves no room for the enchanted. Anything that’s magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, is apt to be inefficient. Furthermore, enchanted systems are often complex, and involve highly convoluted means to whatever ends are involved. And they may very well have no obvious ends at all. By definition, efficient systems try to eliminate as many of the preconditions for enchantment as possible.
Enchantment Happens in the Space Between
We’ve all heard the idea that music is the space between the notes. The same is true with enchantment. It happens in that space between the things you already know. It happens in the slowing down.
When you think and act like you know everything that’s going to happen, the magical can’t approach you, and even if it could, you wouldn’t be able to see it. You would be too busy knowing exactly what’s next.
The enchantment begins when you slow down–way, way down–and pay close attention. In conversation, in play, in work, in sex, in the daily rituals, just slow down and allow for the unexpected. Don’t let your brain decide ahead of time what will be next, what you will feel next.
Open yourself up to the vast field of potential and allow something completely new to envelope you.
Stop being so efficient by assuming what he will say next and really listen to the subtleties of his word choice and intonation. Respond to that instead of your Pavlovian expectations of what he must be saying (because that’s what he always says).
If you expect her to criticize you, anything she says or does will be received as a criticism. The compliment was backhanded; the silence was judgmental.
Your expectation creates your reality in a very practical, very real way. When you predict, you close your eyes to all of the other possibilities.
How to Stop Predicting and Allow Enchantment
You can stop predicting by opening yourself to change, by having new eyes.
Marcel Proust said,
The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is….
In our day and age, much of the outer world is known, but we’ve placed a do not enter sign on the path to our inner selves, the space in between the physical. Hey, I get it: it’s scary in there. So much darkness, so many possibilities. That is, however, also where the enchanted happens.
Enchantment, the space in between, is frightening because it shows us something new, and when we encounter something new, one of two things must happen: we must close our hearts (which is painful and numbing) or change our minds (which is scary as hell).
Stay closed or change. There are no other options.
Now the change need not be drastic every time, maybe just a refinement of perspective. But change is intimidating because there are so many possibilities. The field of potential is infinite and dark and scary. We know but a pinpoint of it. It’s so much easier to believe that what we know is all there is.
Like the multitude of people who were confronted with the truth that the world might not indeed be flat, we have the choice to remain in denial, in smallness, in flatness, or to acknowledge the limitations of our current perspective and see possibility.
In order to fully embrace the enchanted, we have to admit the smallness of our world, the singularity of our perspective. We have to shed layers of assumptions, habits, and ways of looking at and engaging with the world. We have to be able to don new eyes.
And that ain’t easy, my friend.
But that’s where the magic happens, where life happens.
Every moment spent in true enchantment is a step off the ledge into the unknown. It’s the new layer of intimacy with our lover, the discovery of an unexpected friendship, dancing in a thunderstorm, letting go of our preconceptions about others, opening up to the enormity of the Divine. It leaves us exposed and vulnerable, no doubt, and it’s not efficient or predictable, but it’s freedom.
It’s beautifully dangerous.
Anything less is just a comfy jail cell.
Allowing is about letting the action that you took to have its quantum way. You took path-aligned action; now allow its fruition.
Action shows that you really mean business, that ya ain’t backin’ down.
Allowing (letting go) shows that you trust in powers higher than your self and the visible world to deliver the effect.
We’ve got to balance the path-aligned action and the allowing if we’re going to manifest change in our lives. Maybe you don’t quite believe in magic, but you definitely believe in the automagical, right?
When you live in a fantasy world and you try to manifest a new reality, it’s tough for your inner guidance to get you there. If you live in Boston and you want your GPS to get you to Buffalo, you don’t plug in directions from Los Angeles to Buffalo. You plug in the shortest route from Boston to Buffalo. Likewise, when you want a new reality, it’s important to start from where you really are, rock bottom, not some idealized version of yourself that lives only in your imagination.
You know you’re living in a fantasy world when your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, actions, words, relationships, and reality don’t align.
Turns out, ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand. We do though. Metaphorically.
Are you taking daily steps on your highest path or just always planning to?
Is your financial situation harsher than you allow yourself to think? Do you avoid taking pictures because you don’t want to face your years of self-neglect? Are you living in a fairy tale in which Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, or the Lotto will magically show up to save you?
If you use the phrases One day… or When…I will… regularly, you’re stuck in fantasy land. I’ll quit smoking when I have less stress in my life. I’ll leave him when I get the raise at work. I’ll start working out when I have time. While they seem like intentions, those stock phrases are holding you back; they’re holding you in fantasy land.
And you can’t get traction in fantasy land.
“Start noticing how you actually live.” –Krishnamurti
Take a candid look at yourself. When you start here, you start from a place of truth, a solid foundation. Whatever the truth is–divorce, overweight, broke, still single at 35, or just the buzz of discontent–it needs to be firmly acknowledged. This is who I am being right now.
I believe in the mystical, but I also believe in the reality of the physical. The physical is the way it is for a reason. If we don’t face it head on and without excuses, we will continue to perpetuate it–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Pretending to still love a man who abuses you doesn’t allow for real action. Facing the fact that you smoke two packs a day, allows a choice, the choice to continue in a life that doesn’t represent your highest self, or the choice to start making changes, to start the unveiling.
So, stop lying to yourself.
Claim the stark truth: I’m a smoker and I have no intention of quitting. I’m married to an alcoholic and I have no intention of doing anything about that. I’m out of shape and I have no intention of starting a workout plan. I don’t have a college degree and I have not intention of getting one. Sit in that feeling for a minute. Really sit there and feel how it feels to accept that as your reality.
From a place of clarity and truth, you can define a new reality. There is no one right way to start; your path is certainly a unique amalgam of many methods and strategies. Here are some places to start (in no particular order):
Feel your feelings. They can be good or bad, doesn’t matter. But feel where you really are. Life’s too short for numbness.
Get a good cry in. I’m not talking about a shed a tear as you drop your toddler off at daycare. I’m talking about the kind of cry with punch, the kind of cry that has you writhing with anger and pain, throwing yourself on the ground with a feeling of wanting to escape but not having one place to go. The kind of cry that leaves you feeling clear, like the morning after a violent storm.
Face your wildest desire. Don’t deny what you really want. Face it head on. Face the space between reality and your desire.
Journal. Write about the current reality. Ask yourself why you are where you are. What are the beliefs that got you here? What are the decisions (or lack of decisions) that got you where you are?
Meditate. Go inside. Listen. Start taking a look at what’s in there.
Pray. Ask for guidance, for a sign that you’re going to be okay. Continue to ask even, especially, if you don’t get an answer immediately.
Take a leap of faith. If facing reality makes you realize that you’re in real danger, such as in an abusive situation, you might decide to take a leap of faith. Taking a leap of faith from the clouds of fantasy land will only leave you broken, but a leap of faith from a place of unwavering truth might be just the ticket you need to get on the path to healing. In the case of an abusive situation, you might face the fact that it’s time to move out or call a crisis hotline.
Clone the bright spots. No matter how dire the situation, there will always be positives. Once you face the reality, you can see the small ways that you’re already at your best. Heath and Heath, authors of Switch, say that you should clone those. Couldn’t agree more.
Take daily steps in the real world. Now that you know where you are, you can start taking steps to change. Start building the muscles you need to make the bigger jumps.
Realize you’re happy where you are. Sometimes when we face reality, we find that we can drop the story and it’s just fine. You don’t really need a college degree. In fact, the only reason you ever wanted it was to please your father. Now, that’s an enormous pressure taken off your to-do list. Maybe you face the fact that you’ll never be a size 2, and you realize that it doesn’t matter; it was just an imaginary goal brought on by a one-size-should-fit-all media. The pressure is off and you can love your own body now!
The path of your best self is a combination of consistent small steps, large shifts, and quantum leaps. The fastest way to step onto the path is with a small daily step. You might think of this as a daily acknowledgment of your path, a refusal to spend a day without a step, albeit a small one.
Ideally, the step will be enveloped in a ritual, but even as an item on your to do list, it is exponentially more effective than inconsistent action. Anthony Trollope once said, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
This could be a physically productive action, such as exercising, eating a pound of vegetables, or cleaning the kitchen at night. Or it could be more spiritual in nature, such as meditating, praying, or journaling on limiting beliefs. As long as the daily action is on-path, the effects will compound and reinforce your desired direction.
So what’s one thing that you can do every single day to move closer to your best self? Choose one path-aligned behavior and perform it daily, starting today.
Remember that you’re not working to change into your best self. You’re looking to unveil your best self.
The difference sounds subtle, but it’s monumental.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E. B. White
The balance between doing and being is like breathing. Which is more important: inhaling or exhaling? Clearly, they are both important, literally vital. You can choose to take a particularly long breath–sometimes your body needs it–but you can’t choose to inhale forever. Similarly, you can’t continue striving ad infinitum. Neither can you stay at rest forever.
Sometimes, it’s time to do. Sometimes, it’s time to be.
The cues to switch from one to the other are more subtle than the signals to breathe in or out, and they are not automatic, until pushed far past healthy zones. Our bodies will eventually rebel against too much of either doing or being, but this kind of crash and burn is easily avoided by being aware and switching at the optimal time.
When it’s time for doing, push. Produce. Create. Achieve. Change. Ideate. Expand. Build. Design. Read non-fiction. Learn. Organize. Pursue. Lift heavy. Optimize. Work. Practice. Give. Improve the world.
Early, positive signals to switch to being are a sense of completion, the end of a productive day, that tug that your body gives at the end of a deep satisfying inhale. Listen to these cues.
You’ll know you’re doing too much when your efforts become ineffective. The law of diminishing returns kicks in and you find yourself spinning your wheels. Exhaustion sets in. You can’t keep your eyes open or your mind clear. You might be grumpy or feel like a martyr. You might reach for the addiction to give you relief. The goal of course is to avoid this state as often as possible.
Switch to being with the early, positive signals instead
When it’s time for being, let go. Do the things you love to do. Caress. Touch. Make love. Meditate. Go on an easy walk in nature. Cry. Laugh. Play. Dance. Read a novel for fun. Appreciate. Nap. Cuddle. Rest. Rejuvenate. Bask. Allow. Receive. Enjoy the world.
Early, positive signals to switch to doing are inspirations, ideas, the intrinsic motivation to do work that matters. Heed these signals.
When you’re being too much, it starts to feel sloppy. Like when napping too long, instead of waking up rested, you just feel groggy. Too much being ends in lack of motivation to do anything, a vague sense of laziness and lack of concern for the work that matters. You might fall into your addictions or just feel bored. Obviously, this state is to be avoided as often as possible.
Switch to doing with the early, positive signals instead.
Flow is the intersection, the intertwining of the two, doing and being together. We move naturally–without conscious thought–from one to the other just like we breathe.
Someone once pointed out that we are human beings, not human doings. Agreed (semantically, at least). However, the dichotomy of being or doing is unnecessary, and, frankly, ridiculous. As with most aspects of living your best life, it’s all about balance.
Doing. Being. Doing. Being. It’s as easy as breathing–and almost as important.