How overwhelm is caused and tackled – another GTD mini course

By johannatime On April 26, 2013 Under Quality of Life and Work

Stress other than running or fighting for your life or being hungry, is generally caused by thoughts, not by the threat itself. And in 9 out of 10 times, these are thoughts about possibly catastrophic scenarios for the future. You may recognise similar thoughts like:

  • I need to do my taxes because otherwise I will get a penalty or I will go to jail
  • The next meeting should be organised and if I don’t do that now, the board will be furious
  • Our household will go bankrupt if we don’t adjust our mortgage this week
  • If we don’t organise our son’s college enrollment he may as well end up without a degree at all

The human brain has a rather underestimated talent for thinking through disasterous futures for ourselves and the ones we care for. The mysterious thing is, these hugely dramatic ideas come from tiny thoughts like:

  • It’s that time of the year to do taxes
  • I think there’s another meeting due in 2 weeks or so
  • Would there be a more suitable mortgage for our financial situation?
  • I can’t believe our child will be going to college as of next year

Strange, isn’t it? Let’s investigate this phenomenon:

Things move and happen in our lives all the time, and many of them, we can influence with interventions and initiatives. Options are limitless, and our brains know. The healthy thought: ‘I could do this in order to achieve that’ could easily be mistaken for: ‘If I don’t do this, that could go wrong’.

Our brain can only do one cognitive thing at the same time, so as soon as there is more than one thought like the above, the brain registers ‘failure’, which directs our thoughts towards the catastrophic scenarios instead of the unlimited opportunities.

No matter how relaxed you are, there will always be more than one thing on your memory’s to do list, hence: failure.

No matter how talented we are at creatively imagining scenarios, our brain is terrible at task management. So in order to wisely choose from the unlimited options, we need to facilitate our brain’s creativity without causing the ‘failure’ stress. The good news is: this is just a matter of capturing and collecting everything that has our attention into a trusted system preferably at the stage where it’s still a tiny thought rather than a catastrophic scenario. There is an important condition, though: the system must be trusted, or our brains will try and do the job and create the imaginary disaster.

Five steps to create a trusted system, or the five phases of work flow in Getting Things Done® in a nutshell:

  1. Capturing can be made easy by getting yourself a convenient tool, so you are looking forward to sitting down and harvesting all thoughts that are on your mind. Another useful ingredient would be making it a habit; whenever there’s a thought, you write it down (or record it otherwise)
  2. If we’d just let the thought sit in the adored tool, it would creep back into our brains within hours, so we must organise to process the harvest properly. And this means: making a believable plan to get the project sorted. The plan must be credible and do-able, or the brain will not accept it and signal ‘failure’
  3. All this intelligent work would be fruitless if we didn’t organise the thinking properly, so that’s why we make a system that is seamless and that we trust. This must all happen outside our minds, because as I said, the brain is a terrible task manager
  4. In order to stay organised, up to date and seamless, our trusted system should be reviewed regularly and frequently so our trust grows and our brains get more creative inspirational opportunity work and less worry to do
  5. Because the above approach saves us time and headspace, there is time to get things done and move forward in the direction of our opportunities, rather than being overwhelmed by worry and stress, caused by nagging thoughs lurking in the dark corners of our minds. The lurking just means: you need to think a little further about this, because there’s no credible plan, yet. Then put the thinking into the system and let that system serve you with whatever you need to do, without distraction

One more note: if your thoughts are creating scenarios and options, that can be overwhelming in itself even if all ideas are positive. Creating even more degrees of freedom and hence uncertainty by ad hoc deciding how to treat your brain work, will likely drive your inspiration into overwhelm and sorrow. So apply some discipline to how you treat your thoughs, ideas and intended actions. Your mind will thank you for it.

And please feel invited to comment below on your personal experience with overwhelm and realising ideas:


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