“Why is my eye twitching?!”
It’s 5:45AM, and I’m lying in bed with my eyes closed. I’m exhausted because I managed to have one of my recurring nightmares the previous night where I dreamed my bed was covered in spiders—this happens once every few months, especially when I’m overtired.
It’s real enough to me that about 50% of the time I actually jump out of bed and run into the other room.
And yet, despite being sleep deprived, there’s no WAY I can go back to bed either. Because I have far too much on my mind. It looks something like this:
“ACK! I was supposed to call the dermatologist yesterday to schedule an appointment—it’s been on my to-do list for 10 days weighing me down and yet I can’t get myself to pick up the phone. Why am I so averse to talking to a human on a telephone? Just do it, idiot! Call them today at 9AM.
“Why the hell did I dream about spiders again last night? I have to write thousands of words today. And I have that awkward meeting planned stressing me out. OH **** I forgot to send my mom a mother’s day card! I did send her flowers. Is that enough? She loves cards. Can I express ship one in time? AHHHHH!
“Is that networking event I agreed to tonight or tomorrow night? Why did Past Steve commit Future Steve to that? I hate that guy! Wait, is today Wednesday? Sonofa, today is a training day at the gym too. Good luck finding time for that. Oh GOOD, I’m out of clean underwear. And the fridge is empty. And how do I have a pimple inside my nose? I would like to curl up into the fetal position and opt-out of all responsibilities today.”
They say depression is worrying about the past, while anxiety is worrying about the future.
Like many who read this site, I’m quite good at both of those things!
Even though I’m generally a happy person with a very positive outlook on life, life can get overwhelming at times and my brain likes to take over and shut everything down.
What the inside of my brain looks like: take my crazy stream of conscious above and read it in the style of slam poetry, while a Tasmanian devil plays the bongos with no discernible rhythm in the background. He then eats the bongo and starts Irish step dancing. To salsa music. While setting off fireworks.
The days where this happens are shitty.
And many shitty days in a row only seem to compound the problem.
I can get so overwhelmed that I can’t seem to make any progress on anything, and yet I know making progress on stuff is the fastest path for me to escape this maniacal prison my brain has trapped me in!
I am a logical, rational, scientific person, which means thinking through this logically, rationally, and scientifically makes sense to me.
And yet in those moments, emotions sit in the command chair and start calling the shots.
At this point, you are either nodding your head going “Steve, WTF are you talking about?” orrrrrr ”OMG I totally know what that feels like.”
I’ve been running Nerd Fitness for close to 10 years now. I’ve seen and heard it all, and been through some shit.
In that time, I’ve come to a few universal truths:
“Busy” and “overwhelm” are serious problems that don’t go away without a plan to tackle them. Having a Strategy Guide to deal with these scenarios can be huge.
Knowing that, I’ve created a personal checklist (yes, a real checklist) for myself of things I can do when I can’t seem to get out of my own head.
These ideas help me break through overwhelm—and get back to a more natural state where I can start making progress on tackling what I need to for the day.
And today, I want to share that personal checklist with you!
#1) GET AN EARLY WIN
For me, the best early win? Making my bed.
When I’m stuck in a rut, lying in bed, and faced with a daunting day ahead of me, I try to give myself a quick momentum-building win to start the day.
I learned this philosophy from William H. McRaven, retired US Navy Admiral and author of the book Make Your Bed: how you do the little things will impact how you do the big things. And by starting with a simple little thing, it can help me build momentum and show myself that I do have control and can affect the outcome of things.
Sure, I don’t make my bed with military precision (sorry Admiral!)—I simply pull the covers up as neatly as I can, I put the pillows on the bed and make sure it looks presentable. This takes less than 2 minutes and gives me a quick win before I’ve even left the room.
WHY IT WORKS: “Look, you already did a thing today. Today can be different. What’s next?” It’s an instant, quick, gratifying win that is the first action meant to build momentum.
Note: Comically, this is often the suggestion I get the most vitriol or controversy for. I’m going to ignore the argument of “this makes it easier for bed bugs Steve” or “I read that creative geniuses have messy beds and I’m unique and blah blah blah” or “nobody else sees my bed; why should I waste valuable time making it?” or “I get up early and my spouse is still asleep and thus I cannot make my bed.”
Okay, that last one is totally valid. I hear ya!
If you are vehemently opposed to making your bed (or there is a person still asleep in it!), pick another thing like cleaning up your room, cleaning out the sink, cleaning off your kitchen table, etc. as soon as you wake up to give yourself an early win. OR, just make your bed, take the win, and move on!
#2) QUICK HYGIENE FIX
At this point, I’ve already started off my day with a win in the bedroom.
Wait, that came out wrong.
Next up: self-care! This term is hot these days, like “bitcoin” and “avocado toast.”
But I’ll be damned if it’s not an actually important thing that falls by the wayside when life gets busy. And I imagine if you’re a mom or a dad, you have plenty of other people to care for, and caring for yourself is often at the bottom of the list.
And yet, a little bit of work can go a long way.
Although I work from a home office and often type these articles without pants on (too much? cool), I still find it to be incredibly valuable if I treat myself like an actual adult:
So I take a shower. I shave my face. I put on moisturizer that makes me smell like I have my act together. I actually comb my hair.
Oh, and the big one:
Yes, I know you’re supposed to floss every day. I do not floss every day. As the late comedian Mitch Hedberg once said, “It’s as hard [to quit smoking] as it is to START flossing.”
But I’ll be damned if my teeth don’t feel great after a good floss. For whatever reason, flossing is something that I avoid, until I actually do it and realize “that wasn’t so bad, I’m glad I did that, I feel better.”
I like to think this primes my brain to tackle other undesirable tasks later on in the day. Flossing wasn’t bad, and I’m glad I did it. What about that other task I’ve been avoiding? I bet it’s not as bad as my dumb brain has built it up to be.
That first tooth is always the hardest, but once I do one, I know it’s all downhill from there to do the rest of them.
WHY IT WORKS: They say dress for the role you want, not the one you have. And I don’t currently have a spacesuit. So I’m stuck with dressing like a more grown-up, put-together version of me. When I’m showered, shaved, shampooed, conditioned, and flossed, I just feel like a better human being worthy of some compassion and also a guy that can get things done.
Plus, I know flossing will avoid my nightmare scenario laid out here.
#3) WATCH A MOTIVATING YOUTUBE VIDEO
I have a love-hate relationship with motivation.
Motivation is a consistently flaky friend that shows up when things are good and abandons me when I need it most.
So I don’t let myself be victim to the ebbs and flows of motivation. Instead, I make motivation work for me, and use it to strategically get me out of my own way and back on track.
It’s a video I can put on that takes 5 minutes or less that makes me want to run through a brick wall. In lieu of a brick wall being readily available, it inspires me to start actually getting things done and getting closer to my goals.
So before I do any of the next steps, I often put on this SINGLE VIDEO:
WHY IT WORKS: Motivation is a real thing. And when timed correctly, it can really help me get unstuck and get the ball rolling on a project or a good pump-up talk before hitting the gym. What I don’t do is force myself to watch 40 motivational videos and run out of time to exercise. This is neither productive nor helpful. And I know motivation wanes, so I use the motivation strategically to set myself up so that I don’t need motivation later.
Side note: please don’t get lost down a youtube rabbit hole—that’s how you end up watching 15 videos about baby goats. Not that this just happened to me. Have your go-to video that you watch and reminds you that you can get stuff done, and then go do it.
#4) DO THE 10-10-10 PROTOCOL
When life gets too busy, exercise is often the first thing to get thrown by the wayside. And I know that when I can’t get a workout in, I tend to eat like an idiot too, which makes things even worse.
Which means when I’m overwhelmed and need a reminder that I’m a work in progress trying to level up my life, I do the 10-10-Protocol.
Why is it a Protocol and not a Workout? Because I’m the one writing, and I decided “protocol” made it sound way cooler and possibly makes it connected to espionage or Batman.
So what is the 10-10-10 Protocol?
Think of it like a system reboot for your body and brain:
- 10 push-ups
- 10 lunges
- 10-minute walk
I’m a big fan of the mentality: “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt). And this protocol will allow you to
diffuse bombs and apprehend fugitives snap out of a funk with a clear head and remind all the muscles in your body: “We’re doing fitness things today!”
This is a workout that can be done no matter what you’re wearing. It can be done in your cubicle. It can be done in a house with a mouse. Or in a box with a fox.
WHY THIS WORKS: The 10-10-10 gets the blood circulating. It gets my muscle fibers firing. It gets my brain working. And that 10 minute walk can really clear my head. It allows me to get out of my head, stop worrying about the past and the future, and just focus on what I can do TODAY.
Unsurprisingly, I get my best ideas walking around, NOT sitting at my desk. And I know I’m not alone on that—this is borrowed from Steve Jobs, who held walking meetings instead of “sit in conference room” meetings.
If you want to stop reading right now and initiate the 10-10-10 Protocol yourself, go for it.
#5) DO THE VERY NEXT THING
There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling so overwhelmed at all of the things that I’m trying to do and not being able to get anything done.
It makes me want to curl up into the fetal position on the ground and hide from my responsibilities. Or play victim and lament the fact that I have so much to do. Or complain that life is so busy.
I do all of those things for about 30 seconds. And then I realize:
- Busy is a choice.
- It might not be my fault, but it is my responsibility.
And then I do three things:
- Get mad at Past Steve for saying yes to so many things.
- Make a note to start saying no to way more stuff to protect Future Steve.
- Write down on paper all of the crap I have to do.
Sometimes if I feel like I could use a win, I put “make my bed,” “floss,” and “10-10-10 Protocol” at the top of the list and then immediately cross them off.
Progress and momentum for the win!
Next, I try to number these things in order of importance if possible. I ask, “Which of these things can I do today that will actually make an impact on my life?”
Then, I ask: “Okay, I now have my most important priority. What’s the very next step I need to take on this particular item? Good. Now shut the hell up and do that thing.”
As you can tell, I have to have conversations with myself like I’m a 5-year-old.
WHY THIS WORKS: When we get overwhelmed, it’s because our brains like to make Misty Mountains out of molehills. The “stuff” we have to do is nebulous, opaque, and scary. Until it gets broken down into steps.
And then it’s not so daunting. And once you can start to cross a thing or two off the list, or make meaningful progress on a project or activity, you come to the realization I come to every single time: I do have the time to do things. I need to say no to more things, I need to manage my time better, and the sooner I can get out of my head the faster I can be DONE.
No joke: halfway through writing this article I finally called the dermatologist, and timed how long the process took.
It took 2 freakin’ minutes.
This is something that had been on my to-do list weighing on me for the past 10 days, and it took me 2 minutes to schedule the damn appointment!
#6) BREATHE, IDIOT!
The past: I can’t change it!
The future: It hasn’t happened yet!
Today is a pretty good day. And yet, I have NO problem spending all of my time worrying about tomorrow.
This is suboptimal.
So I force myself to “breathe, idiot!”
(Before you get offended at my self-talk here, I mean “idiot” in a joking, loving manner to remind myself that I’m probably overcomplicating things to the point of paralysis and I need to just slow way down. Feel free to use the term “nerf herder or “cotton-headed ninny muggins” instead.)
5 minutes. I just sit there and focus on breathing. In, out. In, out. You get the point.
I’ve tried meditating for 20 minutes a day and kept it up for 60 days (I used Headspace, and I’m also a big fan of Calm). It was like herding cats, and it didn’t unlock the secrets of the cosmos. I did enjoy the Cosmos miniseries on Fox, but that doesn’t apply here.
But just taking 5 minutes to breathe can help me slowwwww way down and just get back to work.
WHY THIS WORKS: I find big time value in reminding myself to breathe and just focus on the day I’m living. 5 minutes is enough for me to settle down and then I can go back to #5 (work on the very next step) of a project without being overwhelmed.
#7) CONSUME LESS, PRODUCE MORE
Whenever I’m overwhelmed and feeling crappy, a look back at my previous week will always reveal one constant:
I consumed more than I created.
For starters, from a pure health perspective, when I consume more than I produce—meaning I eat more calories than I burn—it’s going to result in weight gain.
The whole reason we have survived as a species is due to us producing more than we consume! Saving for a rainy day, thinking beyond just TODAY, growing more crops to share with society, etc.
So let’s get back to this concept of too much consumption.
I look back at how much time I’ve been spending consuming:
- Video games
- Social media
- Outrage news stories
In each of these instances, I’m an innocent bystander. Sure, video games are an active activity, but they can take over one’s life and contribute to overwhelm (I see you Fortnite), so I’ll put gaming in the “consumption” category.
If I’m overwhelmed, to borrow from Nate Green (who calls it “Nuclear Mode”), I recognize the things that are contributing to my overwhelm, especially the stuff that I can’t control—I see you political outrage on Facebook—and GET IT OUT OF MY LIFE.
I already don’t have any social media apps on my phone. I then use Freedom.to to block certain websites for the ENTIRE day. No more mindlessly scrolling Facebook or Instagram. No tinfoil hat theories on Zero Hedge.
JUST GET THE STUFF DONE I NEED TO GET DONE.
And that means less consumption, more production and creation!
- Writing and creating content, like this article
- Playing music (violin, piano, guitar)
- Cooking my own meal at home
- Creating art, doodling, drawing
- Creating conversation with friends
WHY THIS WORKS: Creating makes me happy, and it makes most humans happy. And yet, our default behavior is to consume because consuming is so much easier. So I remove the temptation of consumption by blocking sites and deleting apps, and emphasize creation—even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Who cares if what you create isn’t worthy of being recorded or published or hung in a museum. It’s not the end result, it’s the activity itself!
#8) ASK FOR HELP, TALK IT OUT
When I get stuck in my own head, it’s easy to feel like Chris in Get Out: trapped alone, swimming in a bottomless pit of nothingness. Eeesh, that was dark, Steve.
It’s ALSO easy to tell myself: “Suck it up, Kamb! Other people would kill to be in your position! They have it WAY worse!”
And I have to remind myself that everybody is dealing with their own stuff, and just because others have problems doesn’t mean I can’t be allowed to deal with mine!
So I ask for help. Depending on what I’m struggling with, I’m not afraid to ask for help:
- I might reach out to my dad or mentors for business advice.
- I might call my mom just to tell her I miss her (moms love this).
- I might text my online fitness coach to ask about how I can scale or change my workout schedule.
- I might schedule a therapy session to help me manage all of this stuff!
- I might reach out to a friend for relationship or friendship advice.
I avoided therapy for years until my friend Lindsay once told me: “Steve, fit people still go to the gym to exercise. There’s no shame in going to exercise your mind.”
We’ve written an ENTIRE article on a Beginner’s Guide to Mental Health, and if this is something you’re interested in please consider it!
Note: if you really struggle with depression/anxiety, speaking with a mental health professional could be a game-changing experience. Please do so as soon as you can!
WHY THIS WORKS: I used to be afraid to ask for help, assuming I had to know all the answers on my own. Or that people relied on me to be the happy-go-lucky person and I wasn’t allowed to be unhappy or stressed. And then I grew up.
Now I have no problem asking for help, saying “I don’t know” even if it makes me feel foolish, and I get to a solution MUCH faster!
I know with everything being online these days, it’s easy to spend a lot of time being friendly but not having actual deep conversations with people. This is something I have to work really hard on, as I’d much rather sit at home alone with a book all day and avoid people.
And yet, in most instances, when I’m with friends or loved ones, my day gets much better as a result. And thus, I prioritize saying YES. (Just not too much, so we don’t overload Future Steve.)
Overwhelmed? Do these 8 Things
Okay! This is my 8-step kickstart kickass strategy to dealing with overwhelm and anxiety.
Feel free to hijack these 8 things and the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take these steps to get unstuck and back on track:
- Get an early win
- Quick hygiene fix
- Watch a 5-minute motivational video
- Do the 10-10-10 Protocol
- Do the Very Next Thing
- Breathe, idiot!
- Consume less, produce more
- Ask for help
Break this list in case of emergency! Write these down, print it out, design your own checklist and share it with me so I can add it here to the post, whatever you want to do!
You can do this!
I’d love to hear from you: how do you manage overwhelm, and what are the steps you take to get out of that mental quicksand?!
Leave a comment below!
PS: This week’s Rebel Hero: Nick T: rocking his new NF Battle Gear!
I can only assume he worked out so hard and flexed so perfectly that he blew the sleeves right off of it 🙂 Nick has been a super supportive member of our community for years and I’m damn glad he’s here.
Want to be the next Rebel Hero? Take a photo of you doing something epic in your NF battle gear, tag us on Instagram with #NerdFitness #battlegear, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
PHOTO SOURCES: All amazing LEGO photos are from Black Zack, whose photos are here on Flickr.
34 thoughts on “Overwhelmed? Here Are the 8 Things I Do to Get Unstuck.”
I love this, Steve, thanks! I especially like “consume less, produce more” — I’ve never thought about that one, and it’s a great point.
Thank you for writing this! It makes me feel less alone! I 100% relate to the description of what the inside of your brain looks like. It’s frustrating and exhausting!
Once again, another article that really hits home for me. Thanks for sharing this, Steve.
I have to say, since I’m a scatterbrain keeping a checklist really works for me, I mainly use Google Keep since I’m attached to electronics. I also find that if I can start my morning by doing something healthy (5 min walk/bulletproof coffee/actually getting sleep, etc.) the rest of the day goes by much more smoothly.
My usual source of overwhelm comes from lack of sleep. Even if I am truly too busy and can’t get everything done, I can usually keep positive as long as I am well rested. So my go to tool is to shut everything off and sleep. Not a guilty, I don’t have time for this sleep, but a deliberate, body/mind rejuvenating sleep. Making it deliberate is key to stopping the guilt/anxiety induced spider nightmares (those sound terrible by the way). If I make it top of my priority list and do it with a purpose, I can usually fight off the guilty feelings that just add to the anxiety. This may sound hard, but it never fails that I wake up the next morning and have some new clarity or can more easily reframe my problems or just have the energy to attack them with focus.
One last thing – “Hey honey, can you watch the kids while I take a 3 hour nap” sometimes leaves me with one extra issue I have to deal with when I wake up. Flowers help 🙂 Now to call my dermatologist, because I too have been putting that off.
Dang, that phone call to-do hits close to home. I put them off forreeevverrr, and then it turns out to be way less scary than I thought. Aiming to produce more today!
Damn what a timely article! I got it at work while I was trying to distract myself instead of doing my work! And thanks for the kind words 🙂
Loved this article. I can totally relate to those feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed. I don’t know if your tips will work but I don’t think they can hurt. Will be giving them a try the next time I am overwhelmed which will probably be later this week.
Thanks Steve! The timing on this could NOT have been better! I try to prioritize with lists, so I’m only dealing with the “closest alligator to the boat” but that doesn’t always work with alligators like the dermatologist that don’t have specific deadlines, so “doing the very next thing” is super helpful.
Some great advice there (as usual!). I practice the hygiene one religiously, I find getting the hygiene and breakfast done early really adds useful time to the day (like an hour or more, no kidding!) whether I’m going out or not. The point on producing rather than consuming was one I hadn’t considered, but on reflection, excellent advice. It’s so easy to get caught in a Facebook/YouTube rabbit hole and do nothing productive (yep, guilty as charged! 😀 ). And similarly, doing something meaningful for someone is also a good way to lift mood and momentum.
I also add an additional one – prioritise. After the early wins, tackle the most important things, one by one, taking into account any that are actually scheduled (appointments, etc). I also schedule where possible, it’s a lot easier for me to focus on a fixed point in time, rather than a nebulous “whenever”. There are activities I consider highly important, which include training and exercise, which get treated as important as those other obligations. These are scheduled in and planned around.
This is great and I may add some things. I did want to share one of my own tricks too.
I love writing things down and making physical lists and notes. I have digital for when needed, but when I’m stuck I have to write. I got one of those eraseable notebooks. I have an Elifinbook, but there is also rocketbook out there. I have numbered the first page front and back. I keep a running list of all the things I need to do. Not appointments (those belong on a calendar). Not any part of a daily routine (like a morning routine or evening routine) since those (should) happen each day and are already set lists. Also, not anything that is a someday type of thing or that would be nice. This is a list of individual tasks or projects (things with more than one step) that I’m currently working on.
If nothing is due immediately then I just do a random roll for what to do next. I use google’s random number generator to pick what to do. If it is a project with multiple steps, I just do the next step and then keep the project on the list. Then roll for the next thing. If it is a single task or a completed project, I erase it and move the bottom item of the list up to the empty spot.
I usually hit a stopping point where I roll something I really don’t want to do. I find myself making excuses (oh there isn’t enough time to do that. Oh my son is asleep so I can’t make the phone call…. which is BS). If something sticks on the list too long and I’ve been trying to avoid it then I will make an appointment with myself on the calendar to do it (this only works if you are good with a calendar and good about keeping appointments)
When I started this, I got down from about 36 things (so overwhelmed) to about 15 now. I feel much better overall, and I continue to work it down. I want to get to a point where I’m staying on top of things so I consistently keep it under 10.
If there are tasks I urgently need to get done TODAY then I make a sublist of those things to “roll” for.
I love the gaming randomness of it. It keeps me moving and takes some of the decision hat off so I can focus on doing. Adapt this to your needs as necessary.
This is great! I aspire to be that organised, keep it up 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Steve, and for your positivity! Overtired and overwhelmed you have built a great list of ways to get yourself motivated and going again. I love was early wins, and getting clean. The last in your list is often closer to the top on mine. Not only reaching out to ask for help, but also finding I can help someone else. My overwhelm can cause me to “turtle.” Getting out – making a call – calling a friend can make me feel more like a better human again.
I really like this idea, I can see myself bringing a d20 with me everywhere. A great way to break the deadlock when you have a bunch of tasks you “could” do next, but don’t really wanna do any of them (hello, current work task list!)
Rocketbooks are awesome, I have one too 🙂
You tell 5-year-olds to shut the hell up?
ROFL. Loved the article. I can definitely identify with the struggle against anxiety and overwhelm, and these are great tips.
I have five key areas that I try to work on everyday: Home, healthy eating, exercise, finance, and spirit. When I make my daily list, I try to include at least one item from each of these areas. It helps me accomplish my long term goals. Also, I like to make a weekly list of events and things I should to to be prepared for such events. This way I don’t feel pushed last minute to do something, because I have been working on it over time and am more prepared mentally.
Great article! It is always best to do the things one loves the most when stressed out. I would like to add doing nothing in a sauna. Saunas are great ways of de-stressing and unwinding after a long day. For that matter even a warm bath can serve the purpose, and clear the head.
Hi George! So question for you about sleep (since I too and someone for whom sleep is vital). Do you ever find that, especially keeping in touch with friends long distance, you end up in that “I should stay online and talk to this person” vs. “Dang I need to sleep” dilemma?