We tend to believe that we're more overwhelmed than ever before.
Yet look around you and you see people who are doing twice or thrice as much. It's hard to admit it, but often their work is of a higher standard too. How come they're not overwhelmed? Is it because they're more talented, or is there something that we're not quite seeing? Let's find out in this episode.
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Who would be more overwhelmed?
A person who had twenty tasks to do? Or ten? Or three?
The answer isn't what you'd expect.
The person with the fewest tasks tends to be the most overwhelmed. But does that mean the person with the most number of tasks is less stressed?
I woke up this evening, after a Sunday siesta, wondering how my life had taken me down a weird road. I wasn't supposed to be a marketer. Or a person who wrote books, who did seminars and webinars.
I wasn't supposed to know—or do—a lot of the things I do today. I was a cartoonist, plain and simple. And yet, there was a secret I mistakenly learned while in the field of cartoons itself. That overwhelm comes from less, not more.
What a weird thought, right?
To go back to the origin of the thought, we have to go back to Mumbai, India and two local newspapers. Then the trip forks around 2003 in Auckland, New Zealand where once again, this concept plays out.
And today, in 2018, Pinterest and Instagram play yet another role in seemingly making life more complicated. But it hasn't. Why is this the case? Is overwhelm grossly mistaken? Are we going about it the wrong way?
I don't know if you've ever been part of a 30-day challenge, but a simple challenge like that can solve your problem of overwhelm forever.
Back in Mumbai, India, I had a bigger problem than a 30-day challenge. I was a young cartoonist in Mumbai, India, who wanted to make a name for himself. I wanted to draw cartoon strips for the newspapers, just like my heroes in the cartooning world.
I'd tried to mail big cartoon syndicates like United Features and King Features, but all I ever got was a bunch of rejection letters. Instead of trying to go to the big American names, I figured it would be easier to get the attention of the dailies in Mumbai itself. Since the newspapers were Indian, I reckoned my chances would be far better.
I was clearly wrong in my assumption
It wasn't that Indian newspapers didn't publish cartoons. If anything, every newspaper had over ten comic strips on a daily basis. However, what I didn't know at the time was that those cartoon strips were being dumped at rock bottom prices. I, on the other hand, wanted to be paid at least moderately well for my work.
However, being the persistent type, I bugged two editors of two separate newspapers to accept my cartoons, even pitching two separate comic strips to them. One was called “Mumbai Meri Jaan” and the other “Sultanuts”. And like the comics syndicates, all I got was rejection.
And then all of a sudden, both the editors changed their mind.
I can't remember the exact sequence, but I do know that I suddenly had two editors giving me the green light. My plan of getting published had, it seems, gone too well. I had to draw a daily cartoon strip for two newspapers, five times a week. I'd gone from having to do zero to ten comic strips in a week.
I've found the experience to be a lot like the 30-day drawing or writing challenges you see online.
A person isn't doing too much drawing or writing. Then some challenge pops up online, and this very same person turns out a whopping 150,000 words that month or draws every single day. Even the ones that don't quite stick to the pace still put out a credible amount of work.
Wait a second—don't these people have a life? How come they suddenly have time to do a cartoon a day or write a couple of thousand words?
The answer lies in the last place you'd go looking
You might think the answer lies in ability, yet that's not it. When people do these challenges, the ability levels are all over the place. Some have exceedingly good work, and others have yet to catch up to that quality, but whether the work is rudimentary or outstanding, they're all there, ploughing ahead.
The ones that are on track have one ace up their sleeve, and it's called “planning”.
When faced with having to draw ten comic strips a week, you can't just sit down to draw. Your brain is fried with the thought of having to create such a high volume of work on a constant basis. The only way forward is to sit down and work out a plan. And that's precisely what I had to do.
Without the plan, I would be soon floundering. To get those cartoons in day after day without skipping a deadline, the only lifesaver was a plan. Time and time again the people who are overwhelmed will almost always not have a plan. You and I will buy a book online, or get one from the library. When are we going to read it? Sure, when we have the time, right?
We are going to cook a meal: when are we going to get all the ingredients in place? Sometimes after work, isn't it? If you go back to the root of overwhelm, you will almost always find a lack of planning.
Once you get down to planning, you realise it's a bit like being on the road. You may have a plan to get to your destination, but things have changed since you got into your car. There might be too much traffic, or an accident up ahead.
Every lousy driver seems to have shown up on the road at the exact point you started on your journey. When we get started on any project, we realise that plans evolve. To finish 30 cartoons in a month or write a ton of words, we have to tweak or even overhaul our plans.
Even so, a basic plan will have the following ingredients
• The time
• The place
• The ingredients required
Let's face it, we're all distracted with the volume of information at hand.
Even so, if you have a plan, things tend to fall in place more than if you have “hope” as your strategy. One of the best ways to get the plan going is to tag them along to tasks you do on a repetitive basis. For instance, I make breakfast every day.
Before I turn on the gas to make a hot breakfast, I perch my iPhone on the window sill and switch on the course I'm following. For the next 10-15 minutes, I'm listening and cooking breakfast. Then, after breakfast, I'll sit for 30 minutes to paint my watercolour diary.
Most people who get things done have similar routines.
They first set a plan in place, then turn it into a routine. The people who are overwhelmed never have the plan, and hence no routine either. You can check it out for yourself. Go and meet the busiest, most productive people you know and they'll have plans and routines.
Find someone who is overwhelmed all the time, and they'll tell you they have plans and routines, but they often have none. They complain they have no time to plan. Well, there you go—it's all downhill from there on. A plan needs to exist, and you have to keep tweaking that plan, or nothing happens.
Planning also stops us from going over the top.
When your day is already filled with Spanish lessons, writing articles, learning software you really should master—you know that you've got enough on your plate. Without the plan in place, it seems you can easily cram in some more stuff.
Out comes the big dreams only to find themselves crashing not long after. Now it's not like you're going to be utterly chaste with your choices, even if you do plan, but you're less likely to be taking a swipe at every possible distraction in sight.
To get off the overwhelm bandwagon, you first have to work out a plan.
Then the plan has to become a routine. But that's just the starting point. It doesn't help if you take ages to get something done. Another open secret that most productive people have isn't talent. Talent, inborn talent is a well-worn myth.
Instead, productive people tend to look for another superpower. That power is called fluency. Let's find out more, shall we?
Ever since I got the iPad Pro, I've been besotted with a program called Procreate.
Procreate is a drawing app, and most people consider me to be a talented cartoonist. What could go wrong? A lot. Procreate is a program with its shortcuts and features. However, when you start working with any software, it's like entering a new world. There are too many buttons, too many features, and you stick with the stuff that's easy to understand.
A month passes, two months, possibly years—and you're still in the comfortable zone
Except it's not the easy zone at all. Take for instance some of the stuff I was doing. When you create a cartoon, you have to draw it in two layers. The first layer is the outline layer, often done in black. The second is the colour layer, which sits below the outline.
Much like I did on day one, I continued to draw the outline and then laboriously put in the colour on the layer below. In short, I wasn't using the features of Procreate like they were meant to be used and I was doubling my effort and getting worse results.
Look at all the work you're doing, and you can be sure you're wasting massive amounts of time.
Let's take the simple act of trying to type out your address. If someone asked you to give your mailing address, would it take you two seconds or a few minutes? If you wanted to find a folder buried deep, deep, deep, deep, really deep into your folders, could you do it in one click or seventeen?
The difference between people who get a lot done vs those that struggle is merely the lack of fluency.
You may call it talent, but it's fluency.
No one is born to find folders buried seventeen layers down, and no one we know is born with the talent to type out their address in two seconds. All of this speed is achieved through the power of fluency.
You and I have technology at your disposal, but we choose to do things as we did on day one. We fail to learn new shortcuts because of course, we're busy. We fail to implement new features because we have a life, you know.
It's all a lack of fluency, and it leads to a drain of energy. Once your energy is drained, you've reached your state of overwhelm.
However, it's not just technology that's at play.
Skills like writing, drawing, cooking—they can all be fine-tuned so that you can get the job done at great speed. You can write a sales page in three days flat, or labour over it for a whole week or two. You can get a high-quality article done in 90 minutes flat or sweat over it for days on end.
Skills are not about being hit by a bolt of lightning or being born with the right genes. Instead, what you need is a big dose of moving that skill ahead day by day, week by week, month by month.
People who are overwhelmed take the longer route.
The way to get away from that overwhelming feeling is to ask yourself: How can I do the task in x. minutes? Or x. hours? The answer isn't as distant as you believe. In reality, most of us can reduce the no. of hours we spend on tasks quite dramatically.
The usage of technology and sheer skills we pick up along the way allow us to become exceedingly good at what we do. We use up a lot less energy and hence are fresh and ready to take on more than ever before.
Try it for yourself.
Reach for that folder deep, deep, deep, seventeen layers down. Can you do it in one second? If not, welcome to the land of overwhelm.
The third point of overwhelm is just the overuse of the word itself.
Do you find yourself saying you're overwhelmed?
Well, look at any kid under the age of seven, and you find they don't use that word at all. Now how can that be true? Being a kid is the most overwhelming task of all. Just trying to learn what the number “five” means is overwhelming.
Does five mean a number that comes after four? Or is it a number of a bus or a house? Is “five” a concept they need to master? We think nothing of numbers, languages and skills, but for a kid, it's like being on an overwhelm treadmill all day long.
So what words do kids use?
They use words like “afraid” or “scared”. Not one kid you know is overwhelmed, just scared, afraid, or unsure. Now, what if you used the same language? What if you were afraid of Photoshop? What if you were scared of WordPress?
What if you weren't sure of how to cook a dish to perfection? Almost immediately your frame of reference changes, doesn't it? Instead, you and I want to be super-macho and use big words like overwhelm.
What the word “overwhelm” suggests is that we're just having a bad day.
Not one of us is overwhelmed. We are just going about things the wrong way and getting an avalanche of errors. When faced with these errors, we do the most idiotic thing and try to aim for the highest possible goal, instead of conquering our immediate fear.
If you use the word overwhelm, that alone will kill you.
The way out of overwhelm is not exactly easy, but it does start with a word change. Fear, scared and afraid would be a good start. Then, once you have accepted your fear, try to overcome that fear with steps — tiny steps all the time, achieving fluency.
Technology is on your side, and even seemingly difficult skills like writing and drawing are more a matter of finding the right teacher, than amusing yourself with the flawed concepts of inborn skills. Finally, nothing beats a plan.
Yes, you may think you already spend enough time with your plans. Well, it's not enough. Like a driver on a busy road, that plan changes all the time, and you still have to keep going to your destination. If you haven't planned well, chaos will hit you and then it's the O word that surfaces yet again.
Change your language. And there's one last thing. It's called meditation.
There are times when life throws a tantrum. You're stuck in a queue of seventy-five people at the airport. Or your computer decides to give up the ghost on the day you have to start your project. This is where meditation lets you rebalance yourself.
Meditation? Oops, you're going to have a plan for that too, aren't you?
When I started out in Psychotactics, I couldn't write articles. Go back in time a bit, and I didn't know anything about Photoshop (or computers for that matter). Today I turn out well over 20,000 words in articles and podcasts every month.
The Psychotactics podcast called The Three Month Vacation has literally completed a million words. There are cartoons to be done, questions to be answered on 5000bc, courses conducted and no fewer than three Instagram accounts that need feeding. Plus there's nothing in our fridge because almost every meal is freshly cooked.
If that sounds like a bit of a boast, well, sure it is.
But take that time travel journey and notice that I couldn't do any of the above, and in many cases wasn't doing any of the above, either. I might have been drawing a few cartoons here and there because I was indeed, a professional cartoonist, but today I'm doing at least twenty times the volume of cartoons (and mostly just for fun). If you asked me twenty years ago if I would be able to do all of this, I'd think you were mad.
Now I know better.
Anyone can get to where he or she wants to be and do it without feeling overwhelmed. It's a combination of several elements, but in the end, the ones who are the most overwhelmed, are those that fail to do the very things that can set them free.
It's a sobering thought, isn't it?