Wind swept tree in a grassy field

The unexpected effects of being too busy and how to regain your focus

I reflect on my own experience of stress overload, and try to offer some steps to re-enable creative thinking in your brain.

Parts of 2020 and 2021 were an interesting time in my life. Like everyone else, we were dealing with the dramatic and unexpected events caused by COVID-19. I’m sure COVID played a part in those years, but for me it was actually a project at work that overshadows my memories of that time. Overly ambitious and with unexpected consequences for many staff, this project was a painful experience that I don’t care to repeat. After having some time to normalize and reflect since then, I wanted to write this as a PSA-of-sorts about the dangers of being too busy.

First, I want to define what I mean by being “too busy.” In general, I think being busy most days (i.e., plenty of work to do) is a good thing. It forces you to prioritize and work efficiently. But there is a limit. That limit might be a little different for you than it is for me. I’m defining “too busy” as when you’re over your limit for far too long. Not just a day or a few days, but multiple days and weeks in a row. It’s a limit that’s not sustainable.

Being busy is a form of stress. Stress is not an inherently bad thing, although we humans naturally try to avoid it. Too much for too long is when it’s a problem. Taking time off can provide some short-term relief, but it’s not a long-term solution. You must treat the root cause, or burnout will happen eventually. Unfortunately this happened with some of my colleagues, and those consequences can be quite serious. The absence of key people can be felt for months later.

Another symptom of being too busy is cognitive overload. Cognitive overload happens when your brain has too many inputs to process. This can happen gradually. Finding a bug here, an unexpected issue there, new requirements, more of this, more of that, more, more, more, more, more… Yikes! That sentence was even stressful.

When your brain is overloaded, it doesn’t mean you can’t operate. You’d be surprised how much your brain can operate on routine and just dealing with whatever is directly in front of you at the time. It works… but not well. In this state, your brain will not be making new connections and thinking creatively. If you’re losing sleep, over-eating, abusing alcohol, or finding other ways to cope with stress – that only makes creative thinking harder to achieve.

So what’s the solution?

Well, my first recommendation would be to first take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Take time to take care of those things first. Then, you can move ahead with next steps.

You must find a way to change the cycle you are in. Talk to your supervisor and consider looking for other work if needed. For me, I stuck things out at work and I believe it was the right decision. Consider all your options and don’t make a rash decision, but accept that this cycle has to change for you to live your best life.

If you’re still feeling overloaded, try to focus your own thoughts on just the things you can actually control. There are a lot of things that can happen around us and to us that cause stress. But only a few of those things are under your direct control. So try to focus only on those things, and try not to waste mental energy on anything outside of that.

This next tip seems obvious, but in practice isn’t always easy. Say ‘no’ to new things. Notice I did put ‘no’ in quotes. You don’t always have to literally say no. You can say, ‘not now, maybe later.’ Remember you’re already over your limit. Ruthlessly prioritize what’s on your plate. You can only have one top priority at a time, so force the choice.

As you begin to recover your time and your stress levels begin to normalize, take some preventative and beneficial steps. Start by blocking out time to focus on deep work – any work that will require some thought and concentration over a period of time. Also block out time for unstructured, free thinking. This may sound like just lying around and “chillin’,” but actually you do want to focus during this time. You could take a walk, sketch, or find a comfortable space to focus in.

It’s critical that during these focus periods you block out all distractions. This includes turning off your notifications and using your device’s “do not disturb” features. Don’t allow yourself to check email or social media at this time. Focus time is just for focusing on your focus! You may have to experiment to figure out the best time and place for this to happen optimally. Treat this as a must-do activity. Sometimes unexpected things and true emergencies happen. But usually those are rare. People will find a way to get a hold of you if that situation happens.

Another tip is to jot down thoughts quickly when they come up at unexpected times. Like when you’re in the shower, or driving, or cooking supper. Figure out what works for you. Keep a small notebook nearby. Or use a “quick note” on your phone to quickly capture these ideas. Our brains are a bit weird and sometimes the good ideas come when you’re not ready for them.

My last piece of advice is that the art of focus and thinking will take practice, so treat it like any other activity that requires practice. Do it repeatedly. There will be days where things happen and you can’t fit in a focus session. This is a long game. You may also find that you have trouble focusing and having the clarity of mind to think when you first start. That’s expected – you are in the process of retraining your brain!

Good luck out there. Practice, and don’t give up!

Brian Hoops
Brian Hoops

Slow thinker.

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