How I Handle Stress and Overwhelm

A friend of mine recently took a new job, and in a message to me said that they were worried about not liking the new position. Their reasoning wasn’t something that I would consider “normal” like the management sucks, the pay isn’t great, or their coworkers sucked. This was something more personal.

The reason they gave was because they were stressed and felt overwhelmed every single day at their new job. This got me thinking about those two words. “Stress” and “Overwhelm” are two very different words if you ask me.

To me, being stressed is the pressure you feel when you have a lot on your plate, it is when you are in the “busy season” of your annual work year. Being overwhelmed is when you have that kind of stress and then can’t find a way to make it all work.

I know that the idea of stress being anything other than negative sounds odd, but for me it is a means to push myself. My experience with stress and overwhelm isn’t something new. I have been working in television since I was in high school in some form, and if you ask me that is one of the more stressful jobs you can have. Every single job I have had in television, whether it was in high school, college (both unpaid and volunteered), or professionally, I have encountered these feelings. I felt this waterfall of stress wash over me like a hurricane. I worried it was too much for me to handle.

For those of you who don’t work in a high-stress environments like TV news, it can be a hellstorm that never ends. Deadlines need to be hit, things need to be working properly (there are a ton of technical pieces between recording the video on a camera and then broadcasting it over the air), and you have to know what to do before it even happens. Broadcasting isn’t for everyone, but I know these kinds of environments is where I thrive. I have known it for the better part of a decade.

High-stress, time-sensitive environments makes me feel at home. It is something that I not only thrive in, but is normal for me. Which can be a gift and a curse at the same time. Working in environments where at the end of each day you can’t believe you managed to get things to go as well as they did, the mundane can be agonizing. My fiancé, who has been with me for over 6 years, knows the naked fact that I don’t know how to relax.

I don’t know what came first, my love for high-stress working environments, or my inability to deal with downtime. For instance, when I am spending time with her, or just with our friends in general, she know the gears in my head are always turning.

"What could I be doing for my work that I am not doing right now?" "Should I start this new project?" "What about that thing I got in my email? I really need to get back to the guy who emailed me about that one thing."

This has zero to do with the company I am with, I love all my friends and family, and I want to be present with them. But that isn’t always possible with me. It feels as if my wiring is a bit off because I prefer to be working on things alone in a room with a keyboard and iPad over relaxing and putting my feet up after my full-time job. Even if there is a little bit of gas left in me, I have to keep going until I hit empty.

I am what some people call a “workaholic”. Now, I know that I need to work on this, but I also know that I love all the projects and work I do outside of my full-time job. I love having two podcasts, a blog, a weekly email newsletter, and a slack channel that people can connect with me on 24/7. All of these things make me happy, and the culmination of them all gives me that sense of high-stress I thrive in.

But this is all about stress, not overwhelm. I rarely felt overwhelm in the multitude of tasks and projects I had to do at work and on the side. The bottom never fell out from under me when I was handling all these things.

I wasn’t always like this though, in fact I was a person that was very hard to motivate to do anything. I was always creative, but I never sought to pursue my creative ideas into something tangible. I was overwhelmed.

Instead of working on things that I could do, I would sit around and make lists of dreams I had, goals I wanted to accomplish, and ideas for creative projects. I was just creating this long list of things I either couldn’t, or didn’t want to pursue. I couldn’t because I either didn’t have people willing to work with me on it, or I didn’t want to because that involved a lot of work. Work I didn’t know was possible from me. The list grew as if it had Giantism. This list haunted me for quite some time as a quiet nagging thought that always itched, but could never be scratched. Eventually that list became the size of a short novel.

With all these dreams and goals I had, I eventually began to realize all the small things I could be doing but that I’m not doing. This list of things I am not doing became my true source of overwhelm. It was a list hanging over me like a boulder 20 stories above me wrapped in twine, ready to break any second. I had the grandiose ideas to make films, write a book, finish a movie script, and create something beloved by all. If only I was good enough. If only I had what it takes. I shouldn’t even bother trying, I will only hate it. This was my feedback loop, and it was the source of my overwhelm and stress simultaneously.

This is what some call Imposter Syndrome, and it is a hell of a thing to deal with. You feel you are just at the cusp of being “found out,” that your talents are all lies, and no matter what people say they are just being nice and not actually meaning it. It is like having the ability to accomplish anything you want, but you quit before you even start. Imposter Syndrome is a term I use all too often, and something I constantly battle with, but when I finally get something past that gate it becomes the only thing I think about.

Inspiration comes to me from many places, much like you I assume. Whether it is a podcast, TV show, movie, or even something organic that comes to my head, if that something gets started in any minor way there’s nothing to get in my way.

I think this has a lot to do with the workaholic mentality I have, I get a project and I immediately begin working on it. I outline my goals, I write out my plans and I start working on some minor things. Next thing I know it has been 5 hours and I haven’t eaten anything all day. Rinse and repeat.

That is when my feedback loops come in:

"Geez, I have a lot on my plate with this new project, I think I should probably slow down." "But if I slow down I won't get it done." "But if I don't I am going to get burnt out, I really should stop." "Jeff, you're so close to getting this part done, just get through this part and take a break." "Oh man, that part is awesome, I really see how this will incorporate with this other part I still need to work on." "Let's just get this part done." "Man, I really need to slow down I have a lot on my plate."

Rinse and repeat.

Eventually this gave me that stress I was talking about earlier. it becomes the drive I need to keep going, but this is a double-edged sword. The more stress I get the more work I want to get done, but the more work I have to do the more stressed I get. It was a balancing act to keep myself driven with high-stress environments but not too stressed to where I get overwhelmed and then give up. I needed that sweet spot.

I am like a dog that has a machine to throw the ball every time I put it in the bucket. I keep going and going until I am physically and mentally exhausted. It’s unhealthy, but I am yet to find something that is a good alternative for me.

Eventually I do get a moment of clarity and decide to take a break and make this work part of my routine rather than trying to sprint through an entire marathon. That is when I start planning out the rest of this project, bit by bit and line by line.

Every small task is added to the list, some get sub-tasks, and I eventually spit out a 100+ task list that I immediately get overwhelmed about. I am getting that waterfall of overwhelmedness again and I don’t think I can keep going with the project.

At this point, after everything I have done, I make a decision to either kill this project and do it another time (aka never) or I persevere and press onward because that is what I should do. What do I do to determine what projects to keep or kill? Whatever makes me excited even when I am not working on it. That is what I want in something I work on, consistent delight and excitement.

If there is something that I am working on that I feel has lost its luster, I always have the thought of killing the project to work on something new. This has burned me before, with constant changes every few months because I “lost interest.” With that, I always tell myself that one day I will find that thing that makes me feel like nothing is work, but I am coming to realize that isn’t something that happens often.

Even writing for Tablet Habit has felt like “work” in some instances, and I would be lying if I said that I haven’t thought about killing this blog to make time for something new. But when I have those thoughts, something that I rarely do with my other projects happens. I think about the things that I love about this and how many things I have gained from this. The pros outweighs the cons tenfold and that is what I need to light a fire under me and continue to make things worthwhile.

So, what does this mean for me going forward? I have learned how to make sure that I am working on things that I love, and kill the things I don’t, but not without a serious look at the pros and cons of the things I do in the projects I consider killing. If I didn’t do that I would just be a conveyor belt of projects that start with a a fiery flame but fizzle out spectacularly.

But I started talking about stress and overwhelm, so let me circle back on that in relation to the projects I work on. The projects I work on can be stressful at times, but as I said before I thrive in that kind of environment. I am able to make that stress something that pushes me to do bigger and better things than I have before.

However, when I no longer feel that delight, or excitement I look at all of these things causing me stress and no longer use it as a means to push myself. It flips on me and becomes a source of overwhelm. This is when the things that I am working on becomes “work” and no longer becomes fun.

For me, I can’t keep killing projects as soon at the going gets tough, I have done that for too long and, frankly, I am tired of it. So, when I think about ending something that I have invested a lot of my time and energy on I no longer hastily halt all operations. Instead, I plan to really look over the pros and cons of those projects and make my decision then.

Whether this will work or not is still to be decided but I will say that I feel that I am on a better foundation than I was before I started thinking about this after my friend came to me for advice. So if you feel stress, use it. If you feel overwhelm, look into what is the root of this is and use that to make a decision on what should happen about it.

Jeff Perry @JeffPerry