Six Ways to Get Off the Overwhelm LoopJan 11, 2023
It's a conversation I've had a hundred times.
The people we work with aren’t short of ideas. They aren't usually short of clients either.
They're most often overwhelmed with both ideas and clients and are stuck in a loop of not knowing where to start.
This is a blog post about how to get out of this loop.
But first a story.
In fact, this story is so old, it's almost an urban legend. You may have heard it before but like all great stories, it holds a great Truth.
The Story of the Big Stones.
There was a time management expert giving a lecture at an important business school. Stood at the front of the lecture hall, expectant faces before her, she placed a tall, glass cylinder on the desk. Then she carefully placed four big stones in the glass cylinder until they reached the rim.
She looked at the students. “Is this cylinder full?”, she asked. “Yes!” was the emphatic reply.
She reached under the desk and took out a bag of pebbles, pouring and shaking them into the cylinder so they slid between the stones. “Is the cylinder full?” she asked.
The students were bright and so several called, “no!”
She reached under the desk and pulled out a bag of sand, which she poured into the top. The grains of sand trickled through the stones and pebbles, taking up the remaining space. When she finished, she asked, “what can we learn about time management from this?”
Someone put up their hand and called out, “no matter how busy you are, you can always fit in more!”
The students and the time management expert all laughed.
Then she said, “No, the lesson is unless you put the big stones in first, you’ll never get them in. Your job is to decide the big stones and put them in first.”
In all the busy-ness and overwhelm, it’s easy for us to lose touch with the big stones.
The big stones in our practices may be activities we are prioritising, people we are determined to connect with, ways in which we want to show up in life for our family, friends and community.
However, as the story goes, if we don’t put these into our practices on purpose and then organise around them, we often find ourselves putting them off.. and putting them off.. and, ultimately, losing connection with what made life and the practice of psychology meaningful in the first place.
Here are 6 ways you can define and prioritise your Big Stones:
Decide on your Big Stones! To get off the Overwhelm Loop and create an inspiring practice that fits with your life, you first need to decide on your Big Stones. During The Inspired Practice programme, we have three quarterly planning sessions and each of these starts with us defining our individual ‘big stones.’ We review them every quarter. For some people, it’s really important to take off the school summer holidays so they can be there for their small children. For others, their lives feel whole when they can head off on important adventures. Others have passions focused on sport, art, or volunteering. Or they want some time to write every week.
For me, weekends are my Big Stones. I could spend every day of my life working; the To Do list is endless. (the to do list is endless for everyone..) but I love my garden and my pets and being out in Nature. I spent years putting these on the back burner, giving myself burnout twice in the process. Other Big Stones for me are supporting our two children, who are now young adults. My Big Stones aren’t a long list but they go in the planner first, every time.
Create Habits for Getting Perspective. This ability to get perspective is one of the habits we often need to work on in leadership development in organisations, so if you also need to work on this habit, you are not alone! In private practice, this challenge looks like zooming in to work with clients, but then habitually zooming out to look at the bigger picture again. (It's even more helpful when you have a strategy and a plan to review when you zoom out.)
You can build a daily or weekly habit of reflection, asking yourself bigger picture questions, which will allow you to get perspective on your practice on a regular basis. You can even even book some time to take yourself somewhere lovely for a 'strategy session' every quarter. I have clients who book a trip to the seaside or a cabin - somewhere refreshing, connected to nature, and outside their regular working environment.
Changing the scenery often helps us get perspective.
Decide on your Corner Stones. More stone analogies! This time, the cornerstones of your practice. These are the actions you do regularly that will keep moving you forward. What are the three to five things you need to do every week or every month that will move your practice forward?
One of my cornerstones is reading. Not reading the internet, but proper books. There’s something about annotating long form prose that makes me reflect more deeply on the what’s and why’s. Another of our cornerstone activities is video creation. A third is interacting with people on LinkedIn. The fourth is writing articles - like this one! Number 5 is having coffee chats to connect with other practitioners.
These items aren’t the practice delivery work, they’re the practice development work. Getting out of the boom and bust cycle of private practice requires us to develop as well as deliver.
Work in your practice and work on your practice.
Connect with Others Regularly. One of my favourite sayings is, "the inside of your head is round. That's why our thoughts go in circles until we open our mouths and voice them to someone else."
Connecting and discussing your practice with those that get it because they’re on their own, similar journey, helps you realise you aren’t alone in your cycle of overwhelm. Just that normalisation is helpful to getting sufficient perspective and insight that you can often find a new off ramp from the overwhelm loop.
Connecting with and discussing your challenges with those that aren't involved in a similar journey often leads to amazing questions that challenge our assumptions and blind spots.
Build Mindful Transitions into Your Day. A commonly overlooked experience that feeds the overwhelm loop is the sympathetic nervous system activation we experience daily in our private practice owing to the multiple transitions we navigate.
Regularly tuning into which part of your nervous system is activated and doing something to help it to shift to a place that's more helpful or easeful could be an important Big Stone.
Polyvagal theory tells us that when we're living in an activated sympathetic nervous system, it's hard to access the social connection resources we have in the ventral vagal part of our nervous system. It may be that the experience of overwhelm goes along with either sympathetic or even dorsal (freeze or shut down) experiences, so mindfully attending to transitions and kindling our ability to move back into ventral vagal can help us manage the overwhelm loop.
Build in Rest through A and B Weeks. This is a simple tactic that can help to alleviate the sense of being on a relentless treadmill in our private practice. In the Inspired Practice, we use a planning methodology that adapts the AGILE concept of sprints, where, in any 4 week period, we have three weeks of focused activity in our practice and then one week where we shift how we work. Sometimes that’s by having a less intense week, sometimes it’s by scheduling a completely different kind of practice activity like workshops, writing, or video production. It doesn’t have to be the same week in every 4 week period but this tactic can be a Big Stone in terms of ensuring you take regular rests, shift your focus, and provide another off-ramp opportunity from the Overwhelm Loop.
How to Create An Off-Ramp from the Overwhelm Loop
Creating opportunities to identify your priorities and aspirations is one aspects of getting off the Overwhelm Loop; actually getting off the loop needs a step-by-step plan.
As with any loop, the first question is always where should you start? And then what's the plan for staying off the overwhelm loop and creating an inspiring practice that fits with your life.
You can find this step by step plan for ending the overwhelm and pivoting your practice to one that’s more purposeful, meaningful and profitable in our free video series but here is a quick overview of the tactical plan contained in the video series for where to start and how to stay OFF the overwhelm bus.
Get Clear on Your Financial Needs, Wants and Aspirations. This is an exercise in clarity about the reality you face - the bills that need paying, and your inner hopes and limitations.
My rule of thumb is get started by covering the base figure with work that is easy to come by and not soul destroying. This is important for freeing up thinking and creativity. It’s extremely hard to impossible to allow your creativity out to play whilst you’re worried about making ends meet.
However, there’s often a sweet spot where you can get your basics covered and delay gratification on making more than that whilst you pivot to start including work that’s taking you in the direction you want to go.
Understanding your stretch financial target and your personal Unicorn target help you to understand the inner limitations and aspirations you’re holding. Bringing these out of the dark recesses of your mind and into the light of day helps you to play with potential products and services that could move you towards those targets.
Decide on your Hell Noes and Hell Yeses. The Hell Noes are the biggest energy drains in your practice. They can creep up on you and we can just accept more and more of the Hell Noes until we’ve lost sight of the Hell Yeses completely.
It’s not uncommon in a first coaching session when I ask people to define these for themselves that they have a long list of Hell Noes and a teeny tiny list of Hell Yeses. That’s absolutely fine - but eliminating Hell Noes one by one tends to allow more space for the Hell Yeses to emerge.
Work Consistently on these Three Pillars
Sustainability - what flexibility and resources do you need and want in your practice? Do you need flexibility in your working times or locations? Build it in. Do you need a VA to help you? Work towards that too. You get to decide what you need to make your practice sustainable for you
Value Creation - do a regular audit of all the ways you currently create value or would like to create value for your clients. Is it psycho-education? Is it creating resources? Is it speaking and presenting? Is it only 1:1 or do you enjoy group work? Is it creating pieces of art work? Whatever you enjoy and your clients find valuable, even if they’re not currently the clients you want to serve, make a note. So many times, we can repurpose and refocus how we work as we become clearer on who we want to work with.
Contribution - where do you want to serve and have the biggest impact? What’s that still, clear voice inside calling, or even whispering for you to do? Keep a note of this because as you move through this process of reducing overwhelm, your own clarity around your contribution and purpose will likely emerge more strongly. It’s really hard to have clarity on a completely different way of showing up as a psychologist in private practice when you’re currently operating from a place of overwhelm.
Being overwhelmed is never fun. It can pollute your mind and perceptions especially when it's dragging you further down a rabbit hole of self-doubt or lack of inspiration. Getting off the Overwhelm Loop is challenging, but it doesn't have to be as difficult as we imagine. So be kind to yourself, as you're not alone in this experience. Take a moment to understand what are your core values and why they matter to you. In other words, slow down and create some Big Stones and plan your off-ramps.
This process will probably feel very different for each person, because each of us will have a unique relationship to our work. It might take a few days to adjust to the questions (I know it has for me in the past!) but give yourself time to see what you can uncover and keep asking yourself about your big stones, and then start working the off-ramp plan.
If you'd like some help getting off the overwhelm loop, book a chat with Wendy here.