Sometimes life can feel hard and overwhelming. Big life changes often cause discomfort and stress, but out of it comes growth. Growth is something most of us want, but it’s normally not something that feels good all the time. With growth can come a period of struggling, and sometimes that feeling of struggling can feel like it’ll last forever.
Personally, I am struggling right now. Having a newborn baby (second child) along with my son who just turned two, all while trying to meet the demands of being a Professional Athlete, run my business, have my weekly podcast while maintaining a high standard, sending out articles I write in my weekly newsletter, and have very limited childcare help has been far more stressful and overwhelming than I anticipated. In my line of work, I don’t get to take a maternity leave. Some of my work is work that needs to be done consistently that I have made a commitment to do. For the podcast, I recorded three months of guests in advance before having my daughter and left a bit of space for solo articles/episodes like this one. When you’re a creator, you don’t get to just step away without penalties. Adding in sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, and trying to rehab and recover from birth adds to the layer of difficulty because it is harder to cope from a shakier foundation.
My daughter is 7 weeks old this week. Some days are easier than others and I’ve had a lot of “trial by fire” experience of what to do when you’re struggling. That said, you don’t have to have the same demands on your time, be a woman, or any of the inputs I just mentioned to know what it feels like to struggle. We all know what it feels like because to struggle is to be human. We have a prefrontal cortex in our brain that is resposible for cognitive control functions like reasoning, perseverance, impulse-control, attention, inhibition, and so much more. It also tends to go offline when we are stress and struggling which is why willpower is hard at the end of the day when your PFC has been overwhelmed.
I’ll share some techniques that help me when I’m struggling and hopefully some actionable steps you can try so you know what to do when you are struggling too.
What to Do if You’re Struggling with Overwhelm
Overwhelm is a common feeling that comes up when we feel like our to-do list is insurmountable. If you tune in, you can often feel it in your body. For me, it feels like something is sitting on my chest and it’s hard to breathe. It can feel like your shoulders scrunched up to your ears. We often feel overwhelmed when we are overcommitted, when we feel like we aren’t in control of tasks being added to our plate or lacking in autonomy, when we feel rushed, and one that might be a little surprising- when we don’t have enough singular focus on one task. Yes, trying to multi-task (or rather rapidly switching trying to singletrask) adds to overwhelm. The element of concentration (also can be termed as engagement as an element of Martin Seligman’s Theory of Authentic Happiness… I wrote an article and recorded a podcast about it here). We can’t attain flow when everything except the task at hand and our thoughts melt away unless we are concentrated. I’m sure you can think of many instances where you are trying to do too many things at once, you have no down-time, you’re feeling out of control with your time, and it’s hard to breathe. I have been feeling overwhelm a lot lately. While it may not be possible to “fix” overwhelm in the moment, a few of these actions might help keep it in check.
- Periodically take a few breaths in through the nose and sigh it out through the mouth making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale.
- If possible, what can you do to do more deliberate single-tasking? You could close tabs on your browser, put your phone in the garage, or even just notice when you get distracted and leave one task halfway through to start a new one. I’ll be doing an article and podcast on how to manage distractions soon.
- Getting in nature or even looking out the window. Ethan Kross, PhD says that “Spending time in green spaces helps replenish the brain’s limited attentional reserves.” Many studies confirm this and being outside or even looking at a picture of greenspace can reduce rumination.
- Rumination and worrying can cause overwhelm when you start asking “what about this, what about that?” or you go down the rabbit-hole of all the things you should be doing. Here’s an article I wrote about how to reduce rumination. A simple noting practice can help. We also tend to feel like we are doing something productive when we are worrying. I interviewed Dr. Jud Brewer about how we can unwind anxiety (and appropriate title of his book). In his book, Dr. Jud says, “Even if you aren’t solving any problems- just spinning out of control by worrying more- that feeling of doing something can be rewarding in itself. Worrying is do ing something, after all.”
- Ask for help. Whether it’s asking your spouse, family member, or friend to take one thing off your plate or if you are financially able, paying someone to clean your house, walk the dog, etc. Many of us feel guilty for getting help or we have a superman/superwoman impostor syndrome like we should be doing it all.
- Think big picture. Sometimes thinking big picture can help get you out of the weeds and realize that what you’re experiencing will not last forever. This is definitely the case of having two very small children that need me all the time. Eventually, they’ll need me a little bit less and it will give me more space. Even adding some self-distancing can reduce the intensity of the feeling.
- Change your expectations. This might come as a surprise. Maybe your expectations are not in alignment with the time or energy that you have to commit to a goal or activity. You might need to temporarily reduce your goals, time frame, or even put them on hold if there are too many balls in the air. In fact, when there are too many balls in the air, you’ll likely just do everything mediocre or poorly that is discouraging. You have to start where you are, and that can be hard to accept.
- Practice self-compassion. Beating yourself up while you are overwhelmed is not productive or helpful. What would you say to a friend in a similar situation? Personally, I tell myself, “You are doing your best” or “it’s okay” tend to be helpful. Finding something that resonates with you and try it instead of tearing yourself down.
What to Do if You’re Struggling with Confidence
This is a big one for many people. Confidence and self-esteem can waver because they are build upon past experiences. Kristin Neff (a pioneer in self-compassion research and 2x podcast guest) says that “Self esteem is a judgment or an evaluation of worthiness. In other words, I may be worthy and may not be worthy. And typically, that judgment is based on things like, do other people like me? Do I look the way I want to look? Am I successful at the things that I care about, right? And if we aren’t, then our self esteem takes a hit. So our self esteem can be unstable.” Self-confidence is more broad about a person’s belief in their ability on a wider range of strengths and self-efficacy is more in line with a personal judgment of how capable you are to take on a certain task or course of action. Note that mood effects self-efficacy and there are many studies confirming this across different populations. Because confidence and self-efficacy are not the same thing, I’ll refer to self-efficacy.
Here are some actions if you’ve lost your confidence and/or self-efficacy:
- Start tracking small wins. I wrote a long article on the importance of small wins along with how and why to track them.
- Follow-through on your commitments. When you say you will do something and you actually do it, you build trust in yourself. That also means don’t overcommit with goal-setting. If you find that you are constantly not following through on what you said you would do, go as granular as possible and build from there.
- Talk to someone you trust. We often have a negativity bias, especially with how we view ourselves. Engaging in conversation about the area you are lacking in confidence with someone who can provide a more objective view- a loved one, a coach, a therapist, a friend- can help give you mroe perspective.
- Look for past positive experiences. Self-efficacy is built on a foundation of things that went well, or even things that didn’t go well where you were resilient and bounced back.
What to Do if You’re Struggling with Motivation
Motivation follows action. We rarely are motivated to do things that we even enjoy doing! Rather than waiting to feel motivated to get started, you can shift your energy by getting started to get motivated. The motivation follows the action, not the other way around. This is called Behavioral Activation in a more clinical setting.
Self-determination theory is the backbone of motivation. The three elements are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Looking for ways that the thing you’re trying to do link to these three elements can be helpful. Also, asking how the tasks you are doing relate to your values can boost motivation. That said, there are some things we just don’t like doing; household chores, taxes, etc. In that case, I think about how it feels to put it off versus how it’ll feel to actually be done. It’s usually back to that constricted overwhelm feeling when I procrastinate versus a more spacious calm feeling when I imagine how I’ll feel when I am done.
- Make the task so small that it moves you into action. James Clear calls this the 2-minute rule. Commit to something small so that it getting started isn’t the barrier.
- Consider how procrastinating makes you feel versus how it’ll feel when you are done. Example: I always feel better after a bike ride, even if I don’t feel like doing it so I focus on how I want to feel.
- Decide if you are someone who is more internally motivated or someone who needs more accountability. Read The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin for more (podcast transcript here). You can create structure to help you stay accountable if you understand if you need more internal routines or if you need external accountability.
- Create a reward system and temptation bundling. Behavioral Scientist Katy Milkman in her book How to Change suggests, ” (read the podcast transcript or listen here). Temptation bundling is pairing something you like with something you struggle to motivate yourself to do. An example would be riding the trainer and watching a favorite Netflix show (but only watching the show on the trainer) or listening to a podcast you love while washing the dishes.
- Enroll in my Moxy & Grit Mindset Academy
- The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting
- My Podcast/Article about Managing Impostor Syndrome
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