Imagine you’re getting ready to work on a big project in your business.  Someone sitting next to you says, “Wow, this is going to be so much work. How will you ever get it all done?  You don’t even know where to start.  It’s going to be so hard.  Are you sure you even want to give this a try?  Thanks, but no thanks!”  …That’s overwhelm.  Needless to say, overwhelm impacts productivity in profound ways.

3 Ways overwhelm impacts productivity:  Introduction

Overwhelm is an incredibly common human emotion.  Left unchecked, though, it can wreak havoc on your personal and professional growth.  It can also prevent you from reaching your goals and unlocking your potential.  Today, I’m sharing more about what overwhelm is, and 3 of the most common ways it affects productivity.

What is overwhelm?

Psychology today defines overwhelm as “a feeling of being ‘buried or drowned beneath a huge mass or defeated.’”  It’s a sensation that you have more to deal with than you can handle. 

At its core, overwhelm is a defense mechanism.  It happens when your brain takes a look at all that you’re being asked to do, and says, “thanks, but no thanks.”  The instinctive reaction to overwhelm is to shut down.  Walk away.  Preserve energy and other resources.

That made a lot of sense when, for example, a human felt overwhelmed at the idea of hunting as night fell thousands of years ago.  Better to wait until morning, right?  More light, easier hunt, fewer predators on the prowl.  However, that defense mechanism isn’t always helpful in today’s 21st century world.

While overwhelm is a natural reaction, is it the reaction you want to carry forward?  Is it the place from which you want to make decisions about how to spend your time and energy?

For most, the answer is no.

While overwhelm is a totally normal to experience, buying into it can secretly wreak havoc on your time management and productivity.  Let’s take a look at 3 ways overwhelm impacts productivity.

Overwhelm can prevent important prep work

Creating plans takes time, energy, and cognitive work.  Sounds like the perfect place for overwhelm to pop up, right?

I can’t tell you how many clients and people in general have told me that they feel overwhelmed by the idea of:

  • Defining goals and creating plans to achieve them
  • Planning and scheduling their time and tasks for the day or week
  • Doing the cognitive/emotional work to overcome limiting beliefs and pursue their own personal and professional growth

The interesting thing is, just about every person I’ve talked to agrees that these things are important.  Almost everyone WANTS these things for themselves.  Yet, overwhelm shuts progress down for many.

The brain’s default programming is often to think about:

  • Defining a goal (the brain sees this as risky and scary),
  • Creating a plan (the brain perceives it will be exhausting and a lot of work),
  • Prioritizing tasks (the brain believes this will be difficult and ambiguous),
  • Creating a schedule (the brain might predict that this will take lots of work that might get changed anyway),
  • and changing how you think, feel, and act (the brain thinks these will be such big, big changes!)

…And for many people, overwhelm is the natural response to these thoughts.  Shutting down is what comes next.  It’s easier and more comfortable in the short term to shut down, and that’s what the brain often subconsciously chooses.

As a result of feeling overwhelmed, some people don’t clearly define their goals.  They don’t Make plans to achieve them.  Forget creating a schedule and putting in the work to grow, personally or professionally.  They give in to overwhelm, and shut themselves down.

Overwhelm encourages procrastination and distraction

Another way that overwhelm impacts productivity is by encouraging people to procrastinate or engage with distractions.

Another lesson about the brain:  By default, the human brain generally wants to feel good.  Makes sense, right?  We want dopamine.  We want to experience “positive” emotions.

Overwhelm?  Not exactly considered a “positive” emotion that feels good to the brain.  In fact, overwhelm usually feels pretty uncomfortable.

What’s the brain’s answer?

Seek out positive emotions in the short term.  Procrastinate by avoiding those difficult, overwhelming circumstances.  Get distracted by social media, books, food, and anything else that creates short-term hits of dopamine.

In other words, escape the feeling of overwhelm by trying to feel good in the moment.

If you respond to overwhelm by buying into it, your brain is going to push away (escape) from whatever circumstances are causing you to think and feel in terms of overwhelm.  Instead, it might push you toward procrastinating or seeking out a distraction, instead of facing the thing you’re feeling overwhelmed about and working through those thoughts and feelings.

Clearly, that can be incredibly detrimental to your ability to manage your time effectively and get things done.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply here that feeling overwhelmed is wrong, or that you should always try to “do something” about feeling overwhelmed.  Rather, the idea is to:

  • Understand what causes the feeling overwhelm
  • Notice overwhelm when it comes up for you
  • Consciously decide how to respond when you experience overwhelm

Overwhelm can stop progress in its tracks

Third, overwhelm can impact productivity by blocking you from making headway on tasks and goals.

Whether you’re at the beginning of a task or project or in the middle, overwhelm might come up.  As I said earlier, the emotion of overwhelm doesn’t feel “good” in the brain.  What can immediately relieve that state of not feeling good?

Walking away.  Giving up.  Allowing progress to stall.

If you’re no longer asking yourself to work on or complete the task, the overwhelm usually fades (at least temporarily).  Your brain gets instant relief from not feeling good because of overwhelm.

Of course, if you give in to overwhelm repeatedly, it comes at the expense of not making progress toward your goals.  It might even cause you to abandon a goal altogether.

Interestingly, the instinct to escape the “negative” feeling of overwhelm in the moment can lead to even more “negative” emotions later on.  If you stall on or walk away from a goal that matters to you, other “negative” emotions might come up as a result.  Things like regret, disappointment, frustration, and feeling self-critical or having self-contempt.

In essence, you end up creating relief from short-term discomfort in the moment, only to experience longer-term discomfort down the road.

3 Ways overwhelm impacts productivity:  Conclusion

Overwhelm is a common human emotion.  It’s normal to experience it.  However, if overwhelm goes unchecked, it can seriously impact your productivity and progress toward goals.  To recap, here are just 3 of the ways that overwhelm impacts productivity:

  • Prevents important prep work
  • Encourages procrastination and distraction
  • Can stop progress in its tracks

If you struggle with overwhelm in your business or personal life, here are a few things to know:

  • Overwhelm is normal
  • It is possible to overcome
  • You don’t have to do it alone

As a neuroscience-based time management and productivity coach, I work with people like you one-on-one to help them identify and overcome their hidden barriers to effective time management (such as overwhelm).  Once my clients learn to navigate the mental and emotional side of business and life, they get more done, feel more fulfilled, and make more money. If that kind of support sounds awesome to you, schedule a free call with me.  We’ll talk about where you’re at right now in life and business, where you’d like to be, and how you can get there.  I look forward to speaking with you!

About the Author Amy Schield

Amy Schield, MBA is a time management and productivity coach for small business owners. Using a mix of simple tactics and neuroscience-based strategies, she helps clients manage their time successfully, set and achieve goals for business growth, and navigate the mental and emotional side of owning and running a small business. Acting as a personal trainer for the brain, she teaches clients how to get out of their own way, so they can finally build the business they want.

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