When You’re Overwhelmed, Focus on the Next Smallest Action That’ll Move You Forward

If you want to achieve anything in life, the idea of a quiet, easily-paced life, is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist. Likewise, a day where you accomplish everything you need to accomplish is a myth as well. In fact, if you ever complete everything you need to accomplish in a day, you’re aiming way too low. Great dreams and great ideas always require more tasks to be completed than can ever be completed in a day—which, unfortunately, leads to a rather common experience—the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Virtually everyday you’re alive, you’ll have that feeling because big goals and projects create the feeling of being overwhelmed. Starting a new business, putting on a wedding, getting ready for Christmas, getting straight A’s, winning a championship, completing a degree program, getting a new job, restoring a broken relationship, buying a new house (or refurbishing an old one), etc. all have the potential for creating that sense of being overwhelmed.

But it doesn’t have to be big to create a sense of overwhelm, it could be something as “small” as cleaning a messy office (or a garage or a closet), getting flower beds ready for the spring, putting together a financial plan, fixing a bad credit report, getting ready for a long trip, planning out a week’s menu, organizing a team, writing a book report, studying for mid-terms, etc.

The problem, of course, is that when most of us are overwhelmed we tend to shut down and avoid doing what we need to do and instead do something completely different (i.e. instead of cleaning off our desk we’ll go on Facebook or check our email or watch a movie). And the problem with that tactic is that since nothing has changed the same problem still exists, only it’s usually worse (i.e. instead of reading a book and writing your book report ahead of time you now have to stay up all night to read the book and write the report that’s due tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m.).

So, how do you turn that around? Well here are a few ideas.

I.Remember that Avoiding Problems Doesn’t Solve Them

It’s natural to want to avoid unpleasant tasks. For example, if you don’t like paying your bills, it’s natural to want to avoid paying them (or if you don’t like cleaning your room or doing laundry or exercising or seeing the dentist or working on a personal problem, etc.). Whenever there’s anything you’d prefer not to do, avoidance is a natural go to tactic.

However, as you hopefully know by now, avoidance doesn’t solve problems. Your bills, which didn’t get paid in time, are still due (plus penalty and interest). Your laundry has become a mountain. Your room now requires an entire day to clean (along with industrial strength cleaner). Your cavity is larger and now requires a cap. Your weight keeps rising and all your clothes feel uncomfortable, etc. Avoiding problems never solves them.

So whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, and you’re tempted to avoid doing anything that might actually move you forward, one of the keys to moving forward is to remind yourself that AVOIDING doing what you need to do never solves a problem, it only makes that problem worse. Once you move past avoidance, you get to move on to point two.

II. Focus on Your Next SMALLEST Action

One of the reasons why the feeling of being overwhelmed seems so debilitating is that when you’re overwhelmed you tend to see all the things that need to be done as one big pile. And when you’re looking at a big pile, where do you start?

For example, let’s say you need to lose twenty pounds. That can be a big project. You have to figure out what to eat and what not to eat. You need to figure out what meals to make and which to avoid. You have to develop an exercise program, which aerobic and which weight-lifting exercises are you going to do. You need to talk with your doctor. You have to decide when and where you’re going to exercise, etc. Just thinking about a project like that can feel overwhelming.

So, where do you start? You start by focusing on the next smallest action. For example, you could choose, “Call and set up doctor’s appointment.” Or, “Call Joe and ask if he’d be my accountability partner.” Or, “Google and find a 5K training program.” Or, it could be something as simple as, “Do one push up.”

I love that last one, the “do one” thing. Why? Because doing one thing helps us overcomes inertia. Going to work out for a half hour or hour seems overwhelming to someone who’s overwhelmed already. However, doing one push up, that’s not too difficult. Even better, once you get down to do one push up, chances are you’ll think, “Since I’m already down, I might as well do ten.” And then you’ll think, “Well, since I’ve already started with my push ups, maybe I ought to …” And before you know it, you’ll have your thirty or sixty minute workout done.

The problem is getting yourself to take that first step. For example, if you need to call ten people, it’s easy to understand why you might feel overwhelmed. Calling ten people can seem overwhelming. That’s why I’m encouraging you to not focus on calling ten people. Instead, you want to focus on calling one. Then once you’ve called the one, you’ll feel more inclined to call number two and after number two, you’ll be more inclined to call number three etc. The key here is that you need to find a way to overcome initial inertia. And one of the best ways to do that is to focus on the next smallest task.

III. The Smallest Action That Moves Your FORWARD

This final qualification is critical to use because when you’re overwhelmed, the next smallest action you’ll probably want to take won’t be one that will move you forward—it’ll be the easiest action or an action that will allow you to put off doing what you know you ought to do (for example, from the beginning of this lesson, choosing to go on Facebook or check email or watch TV, etc.).

Of course, to make the right choice of what action you ought to engage in requires that have very clearly defined goals and objectives (i.e. so you clearly know what forward is). Then, once you know what you want to achieve or accomplish, you simply need to make sure that whatever action you engage in moves you toward that objective (Note: for a refresher, you may want to go back and re-read the Johnson lesson on “If you really want to achieve something, make sure every step you take is in that direction”).

So, here’s what I’d recommend whenever you start feeling overwhelmed,

1. Remind yourself that avoiding what you need to do won’t solve anything
2. Get clarity on what you really want (i.e. what’s the most important goal/objective you want to shoot for)
3. Determine what the next smallest action is that you can engage in that will move you forward to that goal/objecgive
4. Do it.

Don’t waste your time debating taking action. Take it. Once you start taking action you’ll be surprised at the level of energy you’ll discover—as well as your desire to take the next step and the one after that etc. However, it all begins when you make that first decision—the decision to not give in to the feeling of being overwhelmed and instead to start focusing your attention on the next smallest action that will move you forward toward your goal.

To your accelerated success!

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