One of my biggest problems in my work life is perpetually biting off more than I can chew. Agreeing to things that I shouldn’t be doing, and then in doing so, creating far too much work for myself.
The problem with this is often that I underestimate how long something will take me, or how complex the task actually is. Then when I get started I quickly realize just how big what I agreed to is, the overwhelm or anxiety settles in on me.
Another way that overwhelm manifests is when I bite off too much volume of work and stare into a calendar that is far too full to handle in a given day. This is when the anticipation of handling that amount of work creates anxiety for me.
It’s a common problem with many of the people whom I speak to in interviews for Zero to Dangerous. People either have too much on their plate and get anxious trying to handle it all, or when a complex/challenging problem arises at work it quickly becomes overwhelming.
So how do we handle these situations? What do we do if we have created too much work or the challenge of our work is far too great?
This is where the science of Flow States comes into play.
In the world of flow states and peak performance, there is something called the “Challenge to Skills Equation.”
This equation/framework is as follows – Challenge plays a huge role in performance. If something is too difficult we get stressed/anxious/overwhelmed. If it’s too easy we get bored.
More or less, your ability to get into flow is a factor of How hard is the challenge Vs. Do I have the skills for it?
You want to be neither stressed nor bored. Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, not too hard, not too easy, juuuuuust right!
Ideally it’s something that should make you say, “that sounds challenging but I think I could pull it off.”
Here’s a graph of what this looks like –
For the purposes of this article, we’re focused on the top half of the challenge to skills equation – What to do when the challenge of work is too large and we’ve triggered anxiety.
As a baseline we need to understand that if we have already triggered anxiety we need to be able to make the challenge easier in order to get into flow. We need to either reduce the challenge OR raise our abilities to meet the challenge.
There are several ways to do this, some physical and some mental, but let’s start off with the physiological aspects of how your body is reacting to stress….
Here’s how I reduce the challenge – Physiologically
For one, we need to understand that physiology plays a MASSIVE role in performance. Stress, frustration, and anxiety are all blockers to flow – they prevent it from happening.
If you have triggered the anxiety response in the brain, it will be next to impossible to get into flow if you can’t calm yourself down.
A huge portion of being able to get into the zone is your ability to manage your physiology. Knowing how to keep yourself calm or how to calm yourself down when the anxiety chemicals are flowing through your brain and your heart is racing.
We know from the neuroscience of flow states that when someone is in flow, there are two very important things happening in the brain that have to do with how we are reacting to stress.
For one, we know that the brain is in a state of transient hypofrontality. This is when the region of the brain that controls inner dialogue temporarily down regulates, giving us a reprieve from the rampant monkey mind.
The second is that the brain is in a sustained state of Alpha/Theta waves. This means that, quite simply, the brain is calmer and more relaxed. Thoughts come and go a bit more slowly, in contrast to the Beta waves that we experience when we’re in a state of anxiety.
This means that if we want to reduce the challenge and make it easier, or reduce the stress response of the body, we need to get ourselves into a state of transient hypofrontality + alpha waves.
The beautiful thing is that both of these are relatively easy to hack and have a huge effect on physiology, which then improves performance.
How do we do it?
Exercise, meditation, and breath work.
Exercise is the easiest way to induce transient hypofrontality. Meditation helps to increase alpha waves in the brain. Breath work calms down the heart rate and flushes the body of the pesky stress chemicals like cortisol.
So as a baseline, whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious at work, I’ll stop and hit the trifecta of exercise, meditation and breath work.
Keep in mind that this is also a part of my morning routine where I will spend 1-2 hours on this whole sequence. At work however I don’t have that luxury of time. I need to be able to calm myself down quickly.
When this is the case I’ll hit a 10 minute pause. I’ll do a set of 25 pushups, 50 squats, and then leg raises. Then, I’ll sit down and meditate until my heart rate calms down. Once I feel calm, I’ll start doing some simple belly breathing exercise.
This 10 minute state shifting exercise is my go to whenever I’m not only feeling anxious or overwhelmed, but “off” in general as well.
Another thing I will do is a 20 minute walk while focusing on deep breathing and strong exhales. This is another effective and less intense version that works wonders for me.
If I can’t get in some form of movement, at the very least the #1 technique for managing anxiety and overwhelm is simple mindfulness breathing. Watching the in>out of the breath for a few minutes.
Deep breathing is the best way to get control of your ship in moments where you need it most. But it does take practice – don’t wait until you’re in need of a top performance moment when you try box breathing for the first time.
It’s why I practice HRV breathing in the morning. Over time I’ve learned the style of breathing that gets my heart the calmest, so that even when I’m not hooked up to the monitor I can use that style of breathing in moments of crisis.
In any case, everything that I discuss above has to do with managing your physiology as a means of reducing the challenge that you are going through. Getting your body and mind in a state where it’s no longer working against you.
But what about managing the work itself? What can we do with our actual work that will make it easier?
Here’s how I reduce the challenge – Mentally
Like I mentioned before, anxiety and overwhelm usually settle in on me when I see the complexity of a task and it seems insurmountable. Too big. Too challenging for my abilities.
Take for example a copywriting exercise I’m working on right now. At first I agreed to it because I’ve done copywriting before and I felt that I could handle the task.
But then as I dive into it, I see that there’s a framework I need to follow. There’s past copywrite I need to study. There’s new material I’m unfamiliar with that needs to be familiarised before I can write good content.
Then there’s the actual structure of the emails. How many? What space in between?
I’m also unclear of what I need to do first. Where to begin? When to start? How much time should I spend on each section? In what sequence?
Then to top it all off, we have a tight deadline to work with. I have to do all of this in under 48 hours.
A simple exercise like this is a great example of when overwhelm settles in. It simply seems like too much for the amount of time I have. Too much uncertainty and ambiguity to deal with.
In moments like these, I resort to one of the flow triggers of “Clear Goals”.
Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed like this, I break the task down into micro tasks. I try to find SOMETHING I can complete. I find the first most actionable piece, and then the second, and then a third.
More or less, I map out everything that needs to get done, and then I create a plan for how I’m going to tackle it step by step. I slow down before I speed up.
I also map out uncertainties. Unknowns. Things that I don’t know how to do….and then I’ll create a plan for what I can do to combat that uncertainty.
This simple act of planning, creating clear goals, mapping out uncertainties, and setting a plan for execution are enough to tremendously reduce the challenge for me. It gives me direction and clarity.
Rather than sitting there mulling over the enormity of the task, or worse – procrastinating, I get to work.
If done properly, by getting it all down on paper you know exactly what needs to be done, even if you can’t do it.
This system is my antidote for the chaos. Clear goals prevents me from spinning my tires in the mud.
But what about when we don’t have the skills to meet the challenge? What about when that gap is too large to overcome?
How I up my abilities to meet the challenge –
So far we’ve discussed how to reduce the challenge to meet our abilities, but another important part of the recipe is knowing when we need to up our abilities.
In short, sometimes the challenge is literally too difficult for us. We don’t have the abilities and the gap is too wide.
In these situations we need to work on our skills – Train, learn, improve, evolve.
Take the copywriting example above, a simple way to improve my skills is to spend more time researching, learning, and writing more copy on my own.
By improving my copywriting skills I can simultaneously improve my abilities and reduce the challenge at the same time.
Take the breath work or mindfulness examples I gave above as well – these are skills that need to be trained and learned over time. The better that you get at using these techniques, the better you can handle increasingly difficult challenges.
When I know that the challenge is outside of my abilities and exercise, meditation, breathing, and clear goals won’t help – the solution lies in spending more time training and evolving my skills. (I’ll also add that clear goals usually helps me to define where I need to improve my skills as well).
If you want to implement these techniques it takes some experimentation and isolation to determine what works best for you. These are the techniques that work for me, and while I do believe that they will also work for you, you will probably find your own ways to deal with this as well.
To start off with, take inventory of the types of situations you have while at work. Where and when does anxiety or overwhelm occur and how can you implement these techniques as a means of combating it?
At first simply try to cultivate awareness. Try to find the moments when it’s happening and take note of it.
Then over time experiment with one technique at a time and see what works best. Then start stacking them together.
This is a process of tinkering and experimenting. It’s going to take a lot of playing around before you get the sweet spot. Many failed attempts of not being able to properly calm yourself down after you bit off more than you can chew.
Don’t give up, remain persistent, and learn from every situation so that you can truly become unfuckwithable!
Want to dive more into the applied neuroscience of Flow State? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Also published on Medium.