The First Step in Dealing with Overwhelm: Doing Nothing
How many things do you have on your to-do list? How many projects remain uncompleted or not even started?
How do you feel when you think about all the things you want to get done?
A couple of days ago, I started imagining what it would be like if I had a task genie. What tasks and projects would I assign to the genie to complete for me? And what projects do I want to do myself, regardless of the time and effort required?
I started answering the exciting question first—the things that I want to do, no matter what. There were 5 items on that list, and none of them was a surprise. The same stuff came up: investing, composing music, playing the piano, writing, and learning. I felt excited, motivated, and a bit scared. It was a good mix of feelings.
Then came the not so much fun part—listing all the things I want to get done but don’t want to do myself. I started the listing with enthusiasm wanting to clear my mind. I didn’t look into any existing lists or reminders. I just wanted to take the stuff out of my mind as I thought of it.
As I kept writing and adding to the list, I felt more anxious. It took me about 15 minutes of writing before I stopped—I could barely catch my breath. There was so much on that list. Most of the items are home maintenance stuff: wall patching, spring cleaning, de-cluttering certain areas and getting organized.
I didn’t finish the list. I stopped and looked at it. Usually I deal with the really important stuff as it comes up. For example tile sealing in the bathrooms is crucial if I want to prevent moisture from seeping into the walls—it takes me a couple of days to complete and I get it done when it’s due. The other things like a ding on a wall that needs to be filled and painted, blinds cleaning and stuff like that gets pushed back. But they linger in the back of my mind. Over time things start adding up and overwhelm kicks in.
An intentional stop
After I stopped, I realized that a lot of the things I listed have been there for a while. So obviously they’re not that urgent. What would happen if I didn’t do anything?
It’s usually very hard to stop when you’re bombarded with things to do. Our reactive mind pushes us to do something—anything, just to feel we’re making progress.
It may seem counterintuitive to stop for a period of idleness. It’s necessary, however, if we want to gain some perspective.
Feeling overwhelmed means that my mind is taking this stuff seriously and it’s freaking my body out.
In order to break the feeling of overwhelm, I decided to stop for a day and do nothing. What’s going to happen?
Absolutely nothing! The things are going to remain not done for another day or week or month or year. So what?
A day of doing nothing
I chose the first day when I didn’t have any important commitments to stop and not do anything.
I turned off the alarm the night before and decided to sleep in. I got up when I felt ready to, read for about an hour in bed before moving and then had my coffee basking in the sun.
Other than writing in my journal for a few minutes, I didn’t do any work on the computer. I read, watched TV and then soaked my tired feet in a warm relaxing bath. That was all I did.
Nothing collapsed; the world is still as it was the day before, and my list remains unchanged.
A whole lot of stuff we worry about is really not a big deal. These tasks can wait or be completely ignored.
What you can learn from doing nothing
When we stop acting and reacting we get a chance to look at things without false urgency and anxiety. The main benefits can be summed up below:
1- Calm the fearful mind
I think the best practice to convince your mind of the fallacy of its assumptions is to do the opposite and prove to yourself that things are okay.
When I stopped for a day I proved to my mind that things are manageable. I don’t have to do everything my mind thinks I should.
2- Transform your emotions
Questing the mind and proving that it’s wrong is one of the best ways to feel an inner calm.
You interrupt the mind from feeding negative emotions on a subconscious level, before you even notice.
A break is needed every now and then to help us refocus on what matters. Leaving things incomplete is not so bad when we realize that they’re not that important.
Pursuing a handful of dreams and desires is not only more rewarding in the long run, it’s the fuel that keeps your soul alive. It’s what motivates you to do the things on your genie list.
What does one do on a do-nothing day?
It depends what nothing means to you. For me it was about relaxing and doing things that I enjoy outside of work without guilt or worry.
It can be anything from staying in your pajamas all day, eating when you feel like it, reading a novel, watching TV, taking a bath, napping, or just sitting and enjoying the silence.
The most important thing is not to cheat yourself and pretend that you’re not doing anything when in fact you’re trying to catch up on house chores or any unfinished work.
The whole point is to not work on anything on your to-do list and not worry about it.
If you can’t take a full day off
Take an afternoon, or even an hour. Try and take one full day on the weekend if you can. Just start where you are and break the cycle of action by consciously choosing to say no to your list and yes to inaction.
On keeping a genie list
I have my genie list and will keep adding to it. Writing things down puts the mind at ease. But this time I’m going to make my list more fun and less serious. I won’t allow it to take control of my inner state.
The genie list is for all the things that I would like to get done, but if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. The list can help in making decisions: I can hire someone to do some work and get it over and done with. I can motivate myself every now and then to get something off the list. Or simply remove the item.
I invite you today to imagine what it would feel like to rub a magic lamp and have a genie do all the work for you. What work would you delegate and what are the things that are yours—and only yours?
The list of things you want to do is what’s truly in your heart. Breathe, smile and work on that. The rest will take care of itself through you, time or someone else. And when things get a bit overwhelming have a relaxing do-nothing day and enjoy every minute of it.