For most of my life, I thought the answer to feeling stretched too thin was to just work harder.
“If I just work harder, I’ll catch up. Then I won’t feel this way.”
That worked to a degree when life was divided by school semesters and we just had to muscle through final exams to get to our break and fresh start.
But it doesn’t work at all as an adult.
Adult responsibilities and careers are constant – there’s no clear break between work projects, home maintenance, and childcare responsibilities.
When the work is constant, muscling through isn’t a long-term solution. There’s no big break to muscle toward. It just leads to exhaustion.
So, what is the solution to feeling stretched too thin? How do we feel more in control and have more peace of mind when it comes to everything we have to do?
In doing this work, I’ve realized there’s a spectrum to this:
To get that clarity and peace of mind we crave, we need to
- have mental freedom (think: lightening the mental load versus constantly juggling it all in our heads), and
- manage our day intentionally to focus on what we know is important (versus reacting to whatever comes through our email inbox screaming “fire!” the loudest).
So, let’s talk about the stages along this spectrum – from having the least clarity/peace of mind to the most:
- Overwhelmed: This is that panicky feeling where you don’t even want to write out a to-do list of everything you need to do because it’s too overwhelming. Because of that, you’re frozen.
- Grinding: You’re moving forward and tackling to-do’s, but you’re in pure firefighting mode. You don’t really have a system to organize everything. You just handle tasks as they get thrown at you and constantly worry you’re forgetting to do something critical.
- Organized: You have the main things you need to do written down in some format (e.g., to-do list, post-it notes, task management app), but you’re not really sure what’s a priority. You do your best to focus on what you think is important but worry it’s not the right thing to focus on. This can lead to you ping-pong between projects and tasks as you change your mind on what’s the priority, which impairs your ability to move any ball on any project forward in the way that you want.
- Productive: You feel pretty good about knowing what’s a priority and your ability to move the ball forward on those projects. That feels good. What doesn’t feel good is that you can’t turn it off – you don’t enjoy your downtime alone or with friends and family because you always think you need to be doing something in order to get it all done. You also have no clear understanding of when you should say “no” to new work, so you default to “yes” and overload your plate.
Empowered: In addition to prioritizing projects and moving the right balls forward, you also have a clear understanding of two critical things:
- (1) You understand how you’ll get it all done over time, so you don’t feel that pressure to get it all done right now. This helps you know when you can turn off your “productive” mode and just relax, helping you truly enjoy your downtime and recharge; and
- (2) You have a clear understanding of your capacity, workload, and how they interact. As a result, you know when to say no and draw boundaries at work and in your personal life – with confidence this time.
So, where do you fall on this spectrum?
It’s okay if you go back and forth between 2-3 of these stages depending on the week or life phase you’re in.
What I want you to understand is that hard work alone won’t get you to that place where you feel empowered and have peace of mind. Muscling through isn’t the solution.
To get there and stay there on a consistent basis, you need:
- A system that helps you organize and prioritize your to-do’s,
- An understanding of how everything on your plate (personal and professional) can get done over time so that you can take that break tonight and truly enjoy it, knowing you don’t have to work right now to get it all done; and
- A clear understanding of your capacity and workload so that you know when to hold boundaries at work and in your personal life and can do so with confidence.
These are the things I teach in my eight-week Bright Method time management program.
If you’re ready to go from wherever you currently fall on that spectrum to feeling empowered about how you spend your time and manage all the to-do’s in your life, I’d love to work with you in my next program. Click here to learn all about it.
I’m an open book, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions (you can email me at ke***@ke********.com).
I hope to see you in there! Let’s get you that peace of mind you’ve been looking for.
Full Transcript of podcast episode:
[Upbeat Intro Music]
Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!
Hey, hey! All right. So today what we’re gonna talk about is overwhelm and what does that really mean. I think we use that term a lot, and when it comes to time management, it’s definitely a feeling that I hear my clients talk about a lot. And so, I want to kind of dig into what it is and then what we should do to get out of it.
What I think is interesting about overwhelm is that, essentially, it’s like I’m busy and that is too much for my brain to handle. What I find fascinating is that most problems that we have in a culture we wouldn’t say do more of it to get out of it, but for some reason, when it comes to being busy, we think that making ourselves more busy, digging into working harder and things like that will solve the problem, and I really, truly believe it doesn’t, and that’s why we need to get clarity around what is overwhelm and how do we get out of it.
So, for context, most of my life I thought the answer to feeling stretched too thin was just to work harder, just like we were just talking about. If I just work harder, I’ll catch up. Then I can take a break. Then I won’t feel this way, fill in the blank, however it works for you. And that approach works in a lot of scenarios when your life is divided by school semesters and you’re younger and you just have to muscle through final exams to get to your break and your fresh start. That is really how we spend, you know, up until we’re probably 22 coming out of college. If you go to grad school, even longer. For a lot of our life, that is an approach that actually works. You just dig in, work harder, and then you get a break, then everything stops. Classes are over, things like that. But it doesn’t work as an adult.
Adult responsibilities and careers are constant. There is no clear break between now you have a work project and you’re done, and also your home maintenance is done and also your childcare responsibilities are done. Even when you have a slow period of work, you can have things kind of explode on the personal side or things can all explode at the same time. There’s just no clear two-week, you-have-no-responsibility thing that happens at a consistent frequency in our life, and when work is constant, muscling through is not a long-term solution anymore. There is no big break to muscle towards, and so, it’s just leading to exhaustion and burnout, which you don’t need me to tell you about.
But what is the solution? You’re like, “Okay, if muscling through isn’t it, what is?” I think that, sadly, a lot of people just quit a lot of things because there’s no clear alternative solution, which I want to talk about today. This is a bigger conversation that we’ll keep having here. But when we want to feel more in control and have more peace of mind when it comes to everything we need to do, we need to get clarity around what is the problem, where do I fall in the kind of continuum of this problem, and what do I need to do about it.
The Spectrum of Overwhelm – 3:24
So that brings me to what I have found in doing the work that I do, what I see is that there’s a spectrum of overwhelm, and it’s easier to see this in a chart, so I’ll attach this in the show notes. If you’re a visual like I am, there’s a chart. But essentially, what I want you to think about is one of those simple charts, I’m sure that those of you in corporate and finance think it’s hilarious that I don’t know the names of different charts, but basically, if you have a Y axis and it’s intentionality, and then you have your X axis and it’s your mental freedom, there’s a clarity progression curve that goes up where at the bottom, where you have the least intentionality and the least mental freedom, you have clear overwhelm. And then one step up from that as that curve progresses and you get more intentionality and you get more mental freedom, you have grinding, and then you really have organized, and then you have productive, and then you have empowered. We’re gonna dig into each of these, but I think it’s helpful to kind of see the progression as I talk.
So again, Y axis: intentionality. X axis: mental freedom. The curve goes up. As it goes up, you get more clarity, you get more intentionality, you have more mental freedom, and what that progression is is at the bottom you have overwhelmed, then grinding, then organized, then productive, and then empowered. As I dig into each of these, really just take the time to think, “Where do I fall on this spectrum?” because I think being aware of the issue is really powerful in and of itself, and also just know that I think it’s very normal to kind of bop around between these a little bit so you’re not like, “This is where I am, and this is where I’ve always been.” You can kind of be like, “This is where I feel like I am right now. Maybe two months ago I could clearly identify I was higher or lower,” or wherever it is. We kind of bop around a little bit, but it’ll become a useful kind of framework for you to think about where you fall and where you would like to go, like what the goal is and how do you get there.
Mental Freedom – 5:20
So along these lines, if you can’t tell from these axes, is that I believe that to get clarity and the peace of mind that I think a lot of us are craving, we need to have two things.
One, we have to have mental freedom. What I really mean by that is lightening that mental load versus constantly juggling it all in your head. Even if you have things written down, scattered across all the written to-dos like we talked about in episode one, you’re still having to reconcile it all in your head, like pull from all of those different places and create this kind of game plan that you hold in your head. That reduces your mental freedom. So we really want to lighten our mental load, get more mental freedom, have our brains feel lighter. That goes a long way to us having clarity and peace of mind.
The second point is that we really need to manage our day intentionally to focus on what we know is important. The opposite of this is reacting all the time. This is something that I very much felt in my overwhelm days. I just felt like I was kind of firefighting and always reacting to whatever came at me versus being able to focus on what I knew was most important. What I want you to hear is that I’m very much a realist. I understand that we can’t clear our days of all meetings and just focus on what we want to focus on. There is a balance of needing to be responsive, needing to be available, but I firmly believe that we don’t need to be — at least with the particular women I work with who have typically been working for three plus years — at that stage, you do not need to be responsive all the time. There can be a balance between when you are responsive and when you protect your focus time to do real work during work hours so you’re not just trying to focus at night and on weekends when people aren’t calling you and all that.
So let’s talk about this. How do we kind of identify where we are and where we want to go in terms of that mental freedom and managing our day with realistic intentionality?
Stage One: Overwhelmed – 7:15
So that bottom stage where you have the least mental freedom, least intentionality is overwhelm, like true overwhelm. Not just how we use it like, “Oh, I’m so overwhelmed right now,” but true overwhelm where it’s almost that panicky feeling where you don’t even want to write out a to-do list of everything you need to do because it’s just too much. Because of that you almost feel frozen. It’s hard to get started, and then you have that self-blame, but it feels like it’s too much, and so, you can’t even get started. So that’s the kind of most bottom-tier place of the least mental freedom and the least intentionality.
Stage Two: Grinding – 7:53
One step up from that is what I think of as grinding. You’re moving forward and you’re tacking to-dos, but you are in pure firefighting mode. You don’t have a system to organize everything. You just kind of handle things as they get thrown at you. You are pretty much constantly worrying that you’re gonna forget to do something critical. I really found myself there a lot in my early days as an attorney. Again, I mean, on the outside, I looked like I had it together. I don’t think anyone truly knew I felt that way, but that is really how I felt in the very beginning. I just felt like I was so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tasks and the number of cases and the deadlines and all of it, that I was in pure firefighting mode and probably overwhelmed and frozen on the personal side. I was so focused on the work that I just kind of completely neglected my personal side of life. My personal email inbox was a black hole that I kind of even forgot existed. That’s just where I was, and I’m just explaining that so that you know that I have been there. I truly can still feel those feelings, and it doesn’t feel good, and I know that, and I want you to know that just because you feel that way, it’s not on you. No one taught us how to do these things and that you can get yourself out of that and up this progression as we keep going. So please, as corny as it sounds, have hope on that side of things because if I can do it, anyone can do it.
Stage Three: Organized – 9:18
So we have overwhelmed at the bottom, then grinding. The third stage right there in the middle is organized. So you have all the main things you need to do written down in some format like a to-do list on Post-it notes, maybe a task management app, but you’re not really sure what’s a priority. You do your best to focus on what you think is most important, but you’re kind of always worrying that it’s not actually the right thing to focus on, and so, this leads to you ping-ponging between projects and tasks as you change your mind on what’s the priory, which obviously impairs your ability to move the ball forward on any project in a way that you want to.
So that’s kind of how I think about organize. Everything’s organized. You kind of have some sort of system, but it’s not really getting you where you want to go. It’s not giving you clarity. It’s not giving you a whole lot of mental freedom because you’re just kind of ping-ponging around and bouncing around. You’re not choosing what you’d like to focus on, and in some ways you’re still pretty reactive. You’re kind of bopping around a little bit too much in a way that it’s preventing you from showing up in the ways that you want to show up. And so, that’s the real issue there.
Stage Four: Being Productive – 10:25
The fourth stage, kind of getting closer to having more mental freedom, having more intentionality, is being productive. You feel productive. You feel pretty good about knowing what’s a priority and your ability to move the ball forward on those projects, and that feels good. That part of things feels really great. What doesn’t feel as great is that you can’t turn it off. You don’t know how to enjoy your downtime alone or with friends and family because you always think that you need to be doing something in order to get it all done. You’re just uneasy. You’re basically thinking, even when you’re sitting still or doing things, “I don’t know if I can get all this done,” and so, the best shot of getting it all done is to just keep doing. Never sit down, never relax, because if there’s a shot that I’m gonna get everything I need to do done, I need to just keep going.
Because of that lack of clarity of how you’re gonna get it all done or if you can get it all done, you also don’t really have a clear understanding of when you should say no to new work. You’re pretty sure you’re overwhelmed. I’ve been there too, where you’re like, “I’m pretty sure I’m drowning,” but I don’t really know if it’s objectively reasonable for me to feel like I’m drowning, so I’m just gonna keep saying yes because I don’t really feel confident in my no and definitely not when I get pushbacks, so I’m just gonna keep saying yes because it’s, candidly, easier in the short term to say yes even if it’s harder eventually.
And so, to no one’s surprise, your plate gets overloaded, and you’re still feeling — from the general, more colloquial sense of it, it’s like you’re still feeling overwhelmed. Even though you feel pretty productive in one sense, you’re still kind of underwater in another.
Stage Five: Feeling Empowered – 12:07
The top stage of this that I believe that at least the women I work with are really aspiring for is feeling more empowered, feeling like you have the most mental freedom you can have, you’re managing your day with the most intentionality you can have. That is what I think a lot of us are aspiring for because that gives us clarity and peace of mind. It’s my belief that in addition to prioritizing projects, moving the right balls forward, we have to have a clear understanding of two critical things to get to that empowered stage.
The first part is that you have to understand how you’re gonna get things done over time, and this is critical, so you don’t feel that pressure, that feeling of, “I have to do it all right now or it’s never gonna get done.” This helps you know when you can turn off your productive mode, like stop go-go-go-go-going and just relax, which helps you truly enjoy your down time and recharge in a way that I really could not used to do and now definitely can. I can really check out when I go on vacation. I can really check out at the end of the night because I’m deciding I’m going to, and I have a game plan of how I’m gonna get everything else done. To me, that is game changing because that recharging time is absolutely critical for so many reasons, including just having emotional bandwidth for life and things like that. We’ve got to be able to take some downtime and have that clarity and have that ability to relax.
The second thing that is really required to have that empowered feeling is you have to have a clear understanding of your capacity, of your workload, and how they interact. And I know I’m a broken record on that. If you’ve listened to all the episodes, you keep hearing me talk about that, but it’s critical. If you want to feel confident when you say no to more work or a request at a kid’s school or a request in your personal life, you have got to understand your capacity, your current workload, and the cost of whatever that other option, opportunity, thing is, and know that you can’t take it on from a realistic standpoint, or just because you don’t want to, of what it would do to your calendar and i.e. your time and your life, and you feel confident in that so you stand firm in your boundary. That, to me, is critical. If you want peace of mind and clarity in feeling confident about where your time is going, you have to have clarity about your capacity and your workload and how they interact.
That’s something that I think people talk about to some extent. They’re like, “What’s your bandwidth?” or, “Do you have the bandwidth to do this?” or, “Do you have time to do this?” and whatever. I mean, really, I didn’t not know what that meant for a very long time until I started using the beginnings of The Bright Method as a new attorney, and it’s a real thing. Your capacity is a real thing. Our time and our energy is limited, and so, you need a real system that helps you understand what your capacity is, how full are you right now, what’s it looking like, what’s realistic for you to take on so that you can answer that question with confidence instead of, like past me, being like, “I’m pretty sure I’m downing, but I don’t really know because I don’t have a system that helps me understand how full my plate is, and so, I’m just gonna keep saying yes.” And so, that is truly, truly critical.
Recap – 15:21
So just to recap where we are right now with those five stages, again, we’re talking about when you have the least amount of mental freedom, the least amount of ability to control where your time is going, you’re not spending your time intentionally, you’re feeling that total overwhelm state, which is really that kind of frozen, I can’t even write out all the to-dos because there’s too much. It’s too overwhelming. It’s too scary. It’s just too much.
Then we have grinding where you’re really just in that firefighter mode, just reacting to whatever gets thrown at you, and you’re just worried you’re forgetting to do something really critical because you’re just in firefighter mode all the time.
Next up is organized. You kind of have written everything down. Everything’s written down. It’s not fully living in your head, but your head is still in charge of reconciling everything, and you don’t really, because of that, have clarity on what’s a high priority or not, and so, you’re just kind of trying to still do it all and ping-ponging between all those projects as you kind of change your mind on what’s most important in that moment, which obviously undercuts your ability to move the ball forward on any one project in a meaningful way.
Next up, then we have productive. You’re feeling pretty good about what your priorities are, but you can’t turn it off.
Then finally, at the very top, with the most mental freedom, with the most intentionality is feeling empowered, and to get that, we need to understand how we get things done over time, and we have to have a very clear almost objective understanding of your capacity, your workload, and how they interact so that you can feel confident on drawing those boundaries.
Where Do You Fall on the Spectrum? – 16:48
So really think through where do you fall on that spectrum right now. Again, you can bop around between a couple of these stages as life happens. That’s very normal, but where do you fall and where would you like to be. I think that even just the descriptions can kind of help inform you a little bit on how to do that to some degree, but I do firmly believe that hard work alone is not going to get you up that progression. Buckling down and just, “I’m gonna work harder, I’m gonna work harder,” chances are you’re already doing too much as is, and so, just trying to fit in more is just a recipe for burnout and not actually getting you farther up that mental freedom.
I think it’s that trap of thinking it’s how we were raised. It’s how we grew up in systems where it’s like just work, work, work, work, work, work, work and then you’ll get a break because that’s how school was set up. You just work through finals, and then you get two weeks off or whatever it is, and that’s just not, unfortunately, adult life. It’s like this infinite, expansive time that just kind of keeps going, and that can sound depressing, and I don’t mean for it to. But it is the reality, and so, we need to work with that reality to make sure you’re getting the downtime as you move through all of this.
So hard work alone is not what’s gonna save you and get you up that progression of where you want to go towards that empowered, more clarity, more confidence, more peace of mind. Muscling through is not gonna get you there. To get you there and to stay there on a consistent basis, I really believe you need the following things.
You need a system to help you organize and prioritize your to-dos, and really that’s like capturing it and bringing it all together into one system so that your brain is not in charge of keeping track of things or reconciling things across different places. Your system carries that burden, which gives you more mental freedom.
As I talk a lot about (you can go back to episode one) I really believe a digital calendar, leveraged with the right strategies, is the way to do that, and again, while your calendar’s going to get more cluttered doing that, your brain is going to get lighter and more free, and that’s what we’re really going for.
In addition, you need an understanding of how everything on your plate, personal and professional, will get done over time so that you can take a break tonight and really enjoy it, knowing that you don’t have to do all that work right now to get it all done. Again, the digital calendar in the ways that we leverage in The Bright Method is the way to do that where you’re basically sprinkling your to-dos over time. You see things can get done in the future. You don’t need to do them all right now for them to get done, and that gives you peace of mind to really take a break and enjoy it.
Finally, you need a clear understanding of your capacity and your workload so that you know when to hold boundaries at work and in your personal life and can do it with confidence.
When you have those three pieces, that is how you get more intentionality in your days, more mental freedom, and that all combines to get you the peace of mind that we all are striving for. That is really what The Bright Method gives you. That’s what we teach in the eight-week program. And so, I hope that this episode, one, gives you clarity about where — I do just think, even though I know this isn’t practical, tactical strategies, having the awareness of where I am and where I want to go and how The Bright Method can help me get there, I think puts a lot in context in a really useful way. So I’m sorry it’s not incredibly tactical. I do love practical. I don’t like just speaking high level, but I think understanding where I am and where I want to go is really, really powerful.
Along those lines, if you are interested in joining a Bright Method program, my next one runs this fall from September 28th to November 16th. Enrollment opens on August 1st at 10:00 AM, and if you are interested in jumping in, what I would recommend is going to my website www.kellynolan.com. I think it’s the main button right in the center of the first part of the website that you see as you click on “Learn The Bright Method.” It’ll take you to a page where it just explains the eight-week program if you want all the details, the call times, things like that.
More importantly, you can jump on the waitlist there, and when you jump on the waitlist, you can actually block your calendar now to enroll because spots are limited and also to block the actual calls for the programs themselves, because even though September sounds like — no, no, it sounds right around the corner now. But really, I want you to be able to block your work availability now so you can devote the time to get the results that we’re all looking for.
All right, if you have any questions, I truly am an open book, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions. You can shoot me an email at ke***@ke********.com, and I so look forward to hearing from you! I’ll talk to you soon!
[Upbeat Outro Music]