Does life seem like one long, tough, tiring obstacle course? Do you always say ‘yes’ when you’re crying out to say ‘no’? Are you multi-tasking your life away? Join the crowd. Overload is the modern pandemic. We’re drowning in work, commitments, information and debt. Overload is ruining our health and wrecking our relationships, creating a nation of stressed, anxious, sick people – not just adults, but children too.
You may feel that overload and stress are an unavoidable part of modern, life but, in fact, you do have a choice. You can beat overload and reclaim your sanity, your health and your life. I wrote my book, The Overload Solution, because I was suffering myself and I was desperate to discover how to stop juggling, and start living. I picked the brains of countless experts and with their help have, I think, come up with a pretty good plan to put overload in its place. Some of the work is pretty deep, but there are ten incredibly simple suggestions that are absolutely guaranteed to reduce your overload, dramatically and pretty well instantly. They are tough, I warn you. You might not be ready to take all ten on board. If you just try one, it will help. Two would be great. The more you try, the better you will feel. Here we go.
1. Turn off your mobile
Yes, this is tough, really tough. If you are constantly on the move and you have children, you will want their school or carers to be able to contact you so have a dedicated mobile for that purpose and that purpose alone. Otherwise, check your messages and texts at set points during the day and respond to them during that time. As a matter of courtesy turn off when you meet people, when you get on the train, when you get home. Pretty soon you will find that people will stop relying on getting hold of you instantly. They might even think twice about trying to contact you ‘out of hours’.
2. Unplug the TV
I am not saying never watch TV. However TV time could be spent in other, more creative ways that actively reduce overload, such as yoga or talking with your partner or friends? The content of most television programmes encourages overload, anxiety, stress and status envy too – who needs it? Be discriminating in your viewing. Think which programmes are really worth watching. Or start small by having designated ‘no TV’ days and arrange to do other things instead.
3. Take a media embargo
We all feel that somehow we ought to read loads of papers every day. But do you really want to burden yourself with the worries of the world? Cut down on your news intake. Resist the urge to check on Twitter every ten minutes or reload news websites. Buy a good quality daily paper and maybe a news round up on a weekly or monthly basis to stay in touch with the important issues. Media can go in for scare mongering on a large scale. If you are permanently wired into it you should be aware that you will be inviting panic, worry and anxiety into your life on a daily basis.
Glossy magazines encourage the feeding frenzy of consumerism and status envy – do you really need that pressure?
4. Go on an Internet diet
Choose specific times of day for receiving and responding to email. Limit your on-line browsing. Cut down on social media. Being ‘always on’ can affect your productivity (and create overload) as our brains can really only cope with one thing at a time. Research shows that texting and emailing throughout the working day can ‘fog your brain’ as much as smoking cannabis, knocking ten points off your IQ. It’s been dubbed ‘infomania’ and comes about when your mind is in an almost permanent state of readiness to react to our ‘always-on’ technology instead of focusing on the task in hand.
5. Cut out caffeine
Why give up coffee? Because virtually every overloaded person relies on it – and yet it actually increases overload. Yes, a shot of espresso will make you more alert, more awake, more energised – but only for a short time. Then your energy levels will slump down lower than before and you will need another ‘fix’. Caffeine also places strain on the adrenal glands, it puts you on unnecessary ‘red alert’ and so you’re caught in a horrible twilight stress response zone. Drinking coffee in the morning can lead to increases in blood pressure, feelings of stress, and elevated stress hormone levels throughout the day and even into the evening. Try coffee substitutes and herbal and spiced teas instead.
6. Save alcohol for the weekend
Alcohol is a downer, so although it does relax you, it can also make you maudlin or depressed, given long-term use. As with caffeine, it also affects sleep patterns, depriving you of the deep restful sleep your body and mind needs to recover (sleep is the only time our stress hormones knock off). Alcohol dulls your brain responses and, if you’re not careful, will leave you under-functioning the next day. It also lowers your inhibitions so it’s easy to polish off the whole bottle before you know it. While you’re there, you’ll be more prone to eating comfort food and vegging out in front of the television. Save alcohol for the weekend or special occasions – you will find you enjoy it far more if it isn’t a regular occurrence. Or, of course, cut it out altogether.
7. Limit your choices
I have found that limiting choices, across the board, makes life much easier and less stressful. That doesn’t mean I don’t buy nice things – but I am able to choose from a smaller range of nice things. Above all, I have learned that it is time-consuming and stressful always to have to find the ‘perfect’ anything and that a ‘pretty good’ something will do just fine. Learn to love constraints. Choose from a smaller arena or variety. Find brands that work for you and stick with them (unless they fail you). Buy from smaller shops or a smaller range of shops or websites. Cast your net small – look locally for solutions – whether it’s a partner, a home, a computer.
Control your expectations – recognise that the ‘must-have’ new bag or shoes or whatever won’t change your life. Don’t compare what you choose with what others have or want. Look for what gives meaning to your life, not somebody else’s.
8. Cull your address book
Friendships that are past their sell-by date create overload because they eat into time you could spend with people you actually like, whose company you enjoy, or from other activities. They also foster resentment (when you have to see them) or guilt (when you don’t).
Bottom line – with whom do you want to spend your time? Remember that a healthy friendship is based on give and take – you support each other. If you are always the full-time ‘therapist’ and you get no support in return, it’s an unequal friendship and one that needs to go. Equally there are the so-called ‘friends’ who, overtly or subtly, put you down, make you feel bad about yourself. Who needs it? Dump them. There’s no need to be cruel about it. All but the most persistent and thick-skinned people will fade away with benign neglect.
9. Create firm boundaries
If you are working productively, it should not be necessary to bring masses of work home. If this is impossible, you simply have too much work and need to address that issue. Talk to the person responsible for overloading your schedule and discuss what you can, and can’t, do. If you’re asked to take on something for which you know you don’t have time, say firmly and politely, ‘No.’ Working beyond eight hours is usually counter-productive.
Another important boundary is that between the working week and the weekend. Most of us run as fast at the weekends as we do during the week. There is no pause button in modern life. Recognise that you will be able to do more, in the long run, if you sometimes do less.
10. Let go
The biggest change for the better you could make would be to drop the myth that doing it all is possible, or even desirable. Let go. Be honest about what you can – and can’t – feasibly do. So many of us strive for permanent perfection. If we have a dinner party, it has to be exquisite; if we send a present it has to be the ‘perfect’ present. No, it doesn’t. Your friends want to have a fun evening – they aren’t going to be marking your table decorations out of ten and expecting Michelin starred cuisine (and if they do, I’d suggest you have the wrong friends). The old adage ‘it’s the thought that counts’ is true. I’m not saying become sloppy or slapdash – it’s important to give thought and attention to what you do. However, you need to know when something is ‘good enough’ and be content to leave it there.
For more help, read The Overload Solution – how to stop juggling and start living (Piatkus).