Overwhelmed? Choice overload might be part of your problem.


What is truly unique about the age we live in? Social media, being able to order things online, or the low cost of travel? I think what sets this era apart is the number of choices we are faced with. Peter Drucker, the preeminent management thinker of the 20th century speculated that when historians look back on our age, they will remark that, “for the first time--literally--substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves.”

Are we ready to manage ourselves? Most people, I would say--including myself--are not. The sheer number of options, competing deadlines and irreconcilable priorities, coupled with the never-ending external distractions has most of us floating in a condition Brigit Schulte has dubbed “the Overwhelm.” One of the causes of the Overwhelm is the widespread, yet highly problematic, belief that you can and should strive to have it all.

Let me tell you about a client I had:

Let’s call her Lucy.

Lucy contacted me because she was feeling utterly overwhelmed, so overwhelmed in fact, that she’d basically stop doing anything at all. She’d sit down in the morning, look at her growing to-do list, and not knowing where to even start, she’d ‘warm up’ by surfing the web. By the time she’d look up from her screen, she’d wasted yet another day.

Finishing her book was at the very top of Lucy's to-do list. Lucy was an assistant professor and having her book out was critical for her tenure review. She had been struggling to finish the manuscript for over a year now. That’s why she contacted me. Things were getting down to the wire.During our first meeting, Lucy kept mentioning in passing other projects she was working on in addition to her book. After a while, I started to get curious. Exactly how much did Lucy have on her plate?

On a hunch, I had her list every commitment she had. I took notes:

  • She was working on the book (and to finish the book she still had to do a bunch of additional research).

  • She had her usual teaching and administrative duties.

  • She was advising a number of bachelor and masters students on their theses.

  • She was translating work for some colleagues in Finland.

  • She was preparing a photo exhibit related to her research for a local museum.

  • She had been awarded a competitive grant to do a service-learning project with her students. 

  • She was applying for another grant to work on a new, totally fascinating research project.

  • She was trying to learn Italian to be able to better communicate with her fiance’s family.

  • Oh, and did I forget to mention? She was getting married and had to plan a wedding with about 200 guests in a city across the country.

No wonder Lucy felt overwhelmed!

Lucy is not alone. She’s an interested and interesting person, curious about the world, dynamic, talented, and open to new experiences. And always a little worried about missing out. This, of course, is wonderful. And it’s also a very privileged position to be in, let’s not forget that either. But it also has a dark side: the Overwhelm.

The first step in resolving this is recognizing how taxing it is to have so many  choices weigh on us. We need to see and seeing the false promise that the abundance of choices entails. Whether explicitly or implicitly, we are constantly bombarded with the message that we can and should have it all. The result: choice overload.

Consider this: until the 1900s the word priority was only used in the singular form. We spoke of a priority (singular). It was only after the industrial revolution that we started speaking of priorities (multiple). The notion of priorities is a modern invention and one that gets us in trouble.

The thing is, you can’t have it all. You have to figure out what’s essential for you to (at least for now). 

How do you get clear on what’s essential? One way is to take the time to consider the big picture, figure out what's important to you, what your values are, where you want to go. There are a lot of great exercises out there that can help you get a sense of your compass or North Star. 

Personally, I prefer this simple, yet powerful exercise:

  • Start by writing down everything you’ve got going on on a separate note card or post-it note. Often, the mere act of putting everything down on paper and seeing it all in front of you leads to powerful insights. 

  • Now try to categorize or group the cards in various ways. Play around. Come up with categories/labels.

  • What do you notice? Do any insights come up? Any questions arise?

  • Next, systematically ask yourself:

  • What’s essential?  

  • What can you eliminate?

  • What can you delegate?

  • What can you delay? (Experiment with creating a timeline with your cards). 

  • What can you automate/systematize?

Given the realities of modern life, most of us can’t get down to one priority. Perhaps not even the great Peter Drucker managed that. But  getting a little more pointed and focused in our daily life is a good first step on the road to taming the Overwhelm.