Visit my show at the PSCCU Credit Union, Vashon, Washington May, June 2024 

Stumbling in the land of too-much-ness

While we’ve kept our national attention on Covid-19 and its variants, another pandemic has slipped into town: too-much-ness.

You can see it in the faces of your friends when they look overwhelmed by life. You feel it when you look at your schedule and 1) want to go back to bed or 2) feel your heart rate increase. You sense it when you look around and everyone you know is busy.

Perhaps you wonder why, having reached a certain age, things are not slowing down (even as your energy begins to dwindle).

Or maybe it’s set off by solar flares, the GNA (Gross National Anxiety), or a growing panic about the world’s intractable problems.

Even if your brain begins to spin, don’t despair! It’s not a personal failing. Too-much-ness is baked into our culture. Every day a new technology is invented, software is updated, or a can’t-live-without-it gizmo is introduced that requires a long learning curve. Plus, there will always be new opportunities to learn, medical conditions that must be addressed, friends who need help, jobs that must get done, and a world begging to be saved.

Staying engaged is key to our longevity.  But staying too engaged—that’s another thing. Problems build, projects get started, different people need things from us, and our priorities collide. Even when we love what we’re doing, we can find ourselves with “too much of a good thing.”

We start slipping into a hole and the more we struggle and try to dig ourselves out—the deeper it seems to get. 

It’s hard to pull yourself out on your own. We are held down with the weight of our self-expectations, habits, desires, and concerns about the expectations of others.

If you’ve stumbled into a hole in the land of too-much-ness: my message is this: ask for help. Our patterns have a way of blinding us, Sometimes it takes new eyes to see new possibilities.

A friend can help

A friend can be more objective.

Recently, a couple of good friends started questioning me after I admitted that my life felt “too full.” Being kind and not captive to my inner reality, they asked the quintessential question: “What can you let go of or not do?

My ever-clever self was quick with a reply: “Nothing.” All of my major projects felt important and timely. But as we kept talking, they asked more questions and I began to see some options.

Here are some questions that might help you support a friend—or use them on yourself. 

Questions to help dig out of overwhelm

  1. How much of what’s on your plate are true have-to-dos (that medical appointment or priority commitment to your team) and how much is stuff that you want/choose/or think you should do? You may think that you have no slack in your schedule, but I can almost guarantee that if I sat down with you, we’d find a few things that are discretionary—where you could make choices.

    Picture your inner Marie Kondo, the queen of tidy spaces, whisking her way through the clutter in your calendar asking, “Do you need this?” and “Does it bring you joy?” Granted going to the dentist might be a have-to-do that doesn’t give you joy, but I bet you could find something to eliminate.
  2. Could you buy help? This is a tricky question—one that evokes privilege. Who has the resources, anyway, to buy the thousand hours of weeding I need in my garden? And the idea of finding a teenager willing to dig in the dirt for minimum wage is a pipe dream where I live. But it’s still a good question!
  3. Can you space things out? Maybe you do have a lot that has to be done—but does it have to be done today? You’re not going to do it all anyway, so why not acknowledge that in advance and have a better day.

    My poor brain fries when I try to handle more than two high-priority projects at any one time. Sssssstttttretch your deadlines and give yourself a chance to breathe. 
  4. What’s the right timing? Pete Seeger harvested the wisdom of Ecclesiastes when he sang “to every thing there is a season.” Are you in a planting, growing or harvesting season? When I was finishing my book, I wanted to start a few projects that would have helped the book’s promotion. But it was harvest time. I had to wait until I was ready to sew seeds for anything new. Only now, seven months later, can I launch my new project – a local radio show.
  5. What small stuff requires sweating? Our big plans often ignore all the routine stuff waiting for us—stuff that is critical to living our daily lives. Contrary to what the author of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” wrote, our small stuff needs to be factored into our planning. Our schedule is never a blank slate.
  6. Where can you lower your standards? The poet William Stafford, a personal hero, was once asked how he wrote so much. (Usually, a poem a day.) His answer? “I lower my standards.” I’ve gotten good at that. I walk through my garden, squinting so I can ignore how much of that carpet of green is filled with sticky weeds and their invasive friends. And I remind myself that the radio show I am launching doesn’t have to be great on day one. The world isn’t expecting perfection—why should I demand it of myself? 
  7. Can you scale back? I love this question. It’s like budget cutting — if I’m not willing to cut projects, can I at least cut them back 10%?
  8. What small step could you take to get unstuck in an area where you feel overwhelmed? Tiny regular actions make me feel like I’m in the game—in my garden—rather that lamenting that I’m not playing at all. Doing a twenty-minute shift of weeding (I’ve been in avoidance) feels transformative. And my wrists are happy I’m starting small.

A powder keg question (for emergency use only)

This one needs to be used with others cautiously—although I find it helpful when I apply to myself. 

“What are you getting out of always staying busy and piling on too much to do?”

Truth is, we may be chronically overloading our schedules to fill a hidden need. I suspect I’m trying to outrun some despair about the world. So I ask myself the above from time to time.

Not everyone wants you to raise a question that is, essentially, therapeutic. (Your friend isn’t paying for advice.) And if it’s pretty clear that there is some form of addictive behavior going on, be kind. Addiction is usually more persuasive than you’ll ever be.

A bonus question to sweeten the load

Don’t forget the dog trainer’s proven technique: treats! Why not offer something delicious and see what happens? For example you could ask a friend (or yourself),

“Hey, do you want to go:

  • to the spa/movies/out for a drink?
  • for a swim/massage/milk shake?
  • to the vintage care races or a day of recreational window shopping?
  • On a trip to Paris?

The mere thought of a trip to Paris would make everything on my priorities list suddenly more do-able—or irrelevant.

Too-much-ness is tricky. It’s both personal and it’s endemic in our culture.

It’s in the air that we breathe.

But we can see it for what it is—an incomplete response to a quest for meaning or inner peace.

In the end, who wants a life filled with checked-off boxes? Even fun activities can feel like a weight. We may hope that by doing a lot, crossing off items, or even expressing ourselves creatively (my go-to), we’ll someday make it to the promised land of fulfillment, relaxation, self-expression, and freedom.

But why not go there directly? You can have these feelings now. You don’t have to earn them. 

Engagement can be fun. So you can keep checking off boxes if that pleases you. Help others. Do what you love. Learn a lot and express yourself creatively. Meditate (a benign form of doing).

But when you stumble into a crevasse of too-much-ness, don’t stay there alone. Call a friend who is standing on solid ground who can ask you questions or pull you out.

Going against the flow of our culture or personalities isn’t easy. But that’s why we need each other.

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