Why feeling overwhelmed can actually be a mind trick

The myth of information overload

I know that can seem hard to believe - but trust me on this!
One of the marks of modern life is the nagging sense of all the things that need to be done. The list never seems to finish and it is so easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted thinking about all you have to do. But does that have to be the case at all?  This 18 minute TED talk by David Allen gives a helpful perspective on how to deal with the feelings of overwhelm and never-ending distractions we all experience at one time or another in our lives.

One of the key points David Allen seeks to get across is that we don't actually need more time, but what we need is more room. Or in other words, enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you at this moment to get your most important work done......

When we use the word work we mean work in the most general sense.  So work can be bringing about change in anything that matters to you.  From as small as changing a light bulb to as significant as changing the career or even spiritual direction of your life. The next question to think through is what is most important now in this moment?

Our brains if we rely on them alone can become exhausted and paralysed by all the potential choices and information we have to deal with. There is simply not enough room for our conscious minds to handle all that comes our way in even a single day. Neuroscience has shown that without external help our conscious minds can only deal with the staggeringly low figure of 4 items at any one time. That is why we so easily fall into the trap of feeling overwhelmed!

But, according to Allen, we delude ourselves if we think our basic problem is information overload.  If that was the case then our brains would literally explode every time we walked into a library. But they don't because every book in a library is carefully organised according to topic and so we only go to those that are most relevant to us at the present time.

Even more intriguing is to reflect on how one of the most relaxing places to be is in nature! The opposite, or sensory deprivation, with no external stimulation whatsoever can also be incredibly stressful.  That is why solitary confinement can be a form of torture. Nature has more data and information to integrate than almost anywhere else, but it is no where near as stressful to us because it does not have a huge amount of actions or potential actions screaming at us. When there are potential actions in nature then they are well defined and obvious - a charging bear or sudden thunderstorm for example. In those cases we know what to do and we have to act more or less immediately.

Compare that to dealing with an inbox of maybe hundreds if not thousands of emails. Many may be trivial and of little significance, but there also may be some that have huge implications on how I spend the next few days, weeks, months or even years! It is not the information itself, but the potential personal meaning and relevance that can be so overwhelming.

In a future blog post we are going to look at practical steps to get out of overwhelm. David Allen touches on this more in the video.

For now what are your reflections and thoughts on seeing how overwhelm can actually be more of a mind trick than reality?

Also see:

Are You Out Of Your Mind?

Why Making A Decision Can Be So Hard

Are You Being Efficient Or Effective?

How Do I Become Truly Effective?

Why We Need Timeless Principles To Be Truly Effective

What Does It Actually Mean To Be Effective?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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