Look in any thesaurus, and the synonyms for overwhelm are pretty awful: overpower, subdue, oppress, quash, engulf, swallow, submerge, bury, suffocate. Groan.
I think everyone has been experiencing ‘overwhelm’. The COVID pandemic made even simple tasks like grocery shopping a fearful and frustrating experience. Whether the overwhelm is sudden or cumulative, chronic or acute, the feeling is one of immobility and powerlessness.
When you feel overwhelmed, tasks that used to take only 10 or 15 minutes feel utterly impossible. When we’re overwhelmed, making dinner becomes a monumental effort, but we can’t go out to our favorite restaurant because they are closed. After a year of everything being stressful we become overwhelmed. The hope that this will pass, people can return to work, children can return to school, has been crushed by months of endless cancellations, closures and conflicting information. We seem hopelessly mired in the quicksand of anxiety and the desire to have some semblance of “normal”.
I have always been a believer in goal setting and each New Year holds promise and I set goals for what I want to accomplish. Last year, two thirds of my goals were completely unattainable on some level. I felt overwhelmed that I could not fulfill even half of my goals. After surviving 2020, I realized that it wasn’t about planning huge projects and ambitious goals, but to setting goals that were personally enriching and satisfying.
For me, the key to not feel overwhelmed, is to scale back. I often set expectations for myself that in the long term are not sustainable. All my big goals were waiting and the path to get there seemed like a road under construction, orange barrels and stalled traffic. Until I read the book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. In the book the author, BJ Fogg, promotes the idea of setting tiny goals that can be easily accomplished and celebrated. My biggest takeaway was that I wasn’t celebrating any of the accomplishments I had made toward a goal. I was too focused on the final outcome and my too slow progress toward that goal.
I simplified my goals into categories like Health, instead of lose 10 pounds this month. In the Health category I had: Take Vitamins, Drink Water, Walk, Track food . When I accomplish just one thing in that category, I count that as a success. Tiny habits helped me to not feel overwhelmed because I was able to accomplish and celebrate my small steps toward being healthy every day. It was as simple as star on the calendar for each day I completed the tiny habit. It encouraged me to see how many stars I could get in a month and feeling like I wasn’t overwhelmed but, instead smiling at a whole calendar filled with stars.
In the shadows of the COVID pandemic I learned a couple of things. First, is to appreciate the small things in life. The time with family and friends is something I took for granted and now I make time for connecting even if it is a Zoom call. I celebrate my small achievements toward bigger goals and try not to focus on my slow progress. Secondly, I am grateful for the everyday beauty of the world around me. The spectacular sunset or brilliant stars on a cold winter’s night or the silence of falling snow are a moment in time that will repeat but never be the same. I am grateful that I can enjoy them in that moment and I feel at peace, not overwhelmed.