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All Too Much

6 min

Can you believe that in the nearly two-year history of Better Questions, I haven't missed a single issue?

Until yesterday.

I'll be honest - if loyal-reader Terry hadn't texted me to ask what was up, I probably wouldn't have even realized I missed my deadline!

Of course, I have my reasons: I recently had to let someone I loved and respected go at work. The subsequent surge in tasks-that-need-to-be-done-right-away has led to frantic activity and late nights.

In the rush of trying to get everything done, I just flat out forgot to write this week's email!

As wise men and women say: it happens.

But let's use this as a learning opportunity, shall we?

What do you do when it's all too much?

No matter what your profession or personal situation, if you're ambitious and open to experience you are likely to experience the sensation of it all being too much.

Too many expectations, too many tasks, too many things in the back of your mind. Things start falling through the cracks, and you know they're falling through the cracks, but you're now sure which things are falling through the cracks, and so the stress builds and builds until it's all to much.

My wife told me that there were a whole lot of people identifying with Luisa from the movie Encanto, who sings about exactly this pedicament:


(Sorry for the Encanto bomb, if your family has somehow avoided having this on repeat nonstop for weeks now).

This sense of overwhelm is not only unavoidable, it's becoming more common. It's a cliche to point out that our society is moving faster and faster all the time, leading to the sickening sense that we're all careening downhill faster than our reflexes could possibly handle.

So - what do we do about it?

There's a relatively simple method for handling these periods, and it's based off something my friend Nic likes to say:

"You can have it all...just not all at once."

We've all got different areas in our lives that we want to grow, improve, or expand.

You might want to run a successful business AND have six pack abs AND have a loving, supportive marriage AND be an incredible parent to your kids AND give back to your community AND beat Metroid: Dread even though the final boss is, like, 6x harder than any other fight in the game.

It's OK to want it all. Not only is it OK to want, I really believe that if you have a clear idea of what is really important to you, you can achieve everything you dream of.

The trouble is that we try to do all these things at once - and that's a recipe for overwhelm.

YES, I can absolutely have 6-pack abs if I want. In fact, I got perilously close to a legit 6-pack only last year! I got my body-fat percentage below 10% for the first time in my entire life mostly by working out, walking regularly, weighing and measuring my food. I looked good.

(For me, anyway).

But that's all I was doing. My attention, focus, and energy was directed towards my physique. It took a lot of willpower to stick to my nutrition plan, get in the workouts despite being low on energy, manage my mood swings (I get grumpy when my calories are low), etc.

During this period of success in one area of my life, other areas of my life suffered. My wife was not particularly happy with my moods, and it bummed her out that I wasn't able to go out to eat with her. I was snippy with my kids and more likely to lose my temper when they got rowdy. I barely had energy for anything and didn't read as much as normal.

All of us have limited resources. Some may have more than others - more natural energy, more tolerance for risk or uncertainty, etc - but EVERYONE's got their limits.

This means that trying to pursue lots of goals at once - a physical goal and a business goal and a relationship goal, for example - inevitably leads to half-assery all around. Nothing gets 100% of your attention, which means nothing tends to improve all that much (after all, if it was easy, you'd probably have done it already).

Frustrated and demoralized, we throw up our hands and resolve to lower our aspirations. "I was a fool to think I could have it all...I should just settle."

What's the alternative?

Standby mode.

"Standby" is when you put your computer to sleep. You're not turning it off - it's still there, ready to jump back to life whenever you need it - but it's using the absolute minimum amount of energy required to keep itself going.

Similarly, when one part of your life is demanding your attention - like my business is with me - it makes sense to focus your attention on what needs doing...and to put the rest of your life on Standby.

What do I mean by that, exactly?

Just this: figure out the absolute minimum amount of energy you need to dedicate to those other areas of your life to maintain your current progress and not lose ground. Then, do that and only that, dedicated the entirety of your remaining energy to what's most important.

Say, for example, that you unexpectedly had to let someone go, and now you're struggling to manage your job AND their job AND your marriage AND family AND writing music AND writing your weekly blog about mental models, productivity, and more.

(To pick a completely random example.)

Trying to do everything at once, in exactly the way you'd been doing it when you had less on your plate, is probably not sustainable.

Instead, pick the one thing that needs your focus most right now. In this case, say it's your job, at which all the things are currently on fire.

Your job is now your main focus, the recipient of the vast majority of your creative energies. What about your marriage, your health, your kids....?

For the other, equally-important-but-not-immediately-on-fire areas of your life, figure out what Standby Mode looks like.

What's needed to maintain your relationship with your spouse at it's currently level without backsliding? What are the non-negotiables? Maybe it's your weekly lunch date together, and making sure you spend some time each evening in conversation.

What's needed to maintain your relationship with your kids? Maybe it's promising to be home for bed time, no matter what's going on at the office. You can always go back in after the kids are asleep!

What's needed to maintain your health? Maybe it's tracking and measuring your food but not attempting to cut calories in anyway. In fact, maybe you allot yourself more calories than normal - enough to keep you well-fed and not deprived in anyway, but not so much that you gain more than a pound or two over several months.

In all of these areas of your life, you temporarily give up on goal-setting and achievement so that you can focus your attention on what's most important right now.

The important word there is "temporarily." This isn't a permanent situation; at some point, work will calm down, and perhaps it'll be time to give your health 100% of your focus. Or, you'll decide that your health is just fine, but your marriage needs some work to take it to the next level, and that's what receives your focus.

Because we are never losing ground in Standby Mode, we can be confident that we will make steady, lasting improvement in every area of our life, getting everything we ever wanted...

...Just not all at once.

And so, Dear Reader, the next time YOU find it all to be too much, just ask yourself:

What can I put in Standby Mode?





A review with Chuck Klosterman about his recent book covering the 90's.

A quote that jumped out at me:

"It feels as though the 1990s weren’t just the last decade of the 20th century but sort of the last decade, period — the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own.

If you show someone an obscure film from 1965 and then an obscure film from 1995, anyone viewing those clips will be able to recognize which one is older. But I do not think that would be the case if you showed someone a movie from 1990 and a movie from now — the difference would seem much less. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to see something from, say, 2005 and get the sense that it was 15 or 16 years ago. Time seems to be microscoping."

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