Managing Overwhelm by Dan Scarrow, Director of Leadership Development

If you regularly feel overwhelmed by the realities of your life, you are not alone. Nearly every week I talk to kids, parents, teachers, managers, CEO’s, and pastors who are feeling the pressures of a life filled with too many demands for the time available. Webster defines it this way:


Past tense: overwhelmed; past participle: overwhelmed

·         bury or drown beneath a huge mass.

·         defeat completely.

·         give too much of a thing to (someone); inundate.

Being buried or drowning beneath a huge mass is a startlingly accurate description of how many people feel! Overwhelm has become the new normal. I’m writing on this topic today for two reasons. First, I want you to know that a significant portion of your overwhelm may not be your fault. Secondly, I want to offer you hope that there is the possibility of life that is not dominated by a crushing sense of never being able to get ahead.

Some of Your Overwhelm is not Your Fault

I want to be careful with this because some of you are overwhelmed because of your own choices, and I do not necessarily want to let you off the hook. If you are facing overwhelm because of procrastination, poor time management or poor energy management, then you are reaping what you have sown. Bluntly, your overwhelm may be a function of poor choices.

Having said that, many of us are facing overwhelm for reasons imposed upon us by our work, family, and culture. In some extreme cases, a sense of being overwhelmed becomes pervasive and systemic. In other words, we feel stressed and do not even know why. It becomes a regular feature of our life. For those of us feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis I want to draw your attention to three significant contributors of overwhelm in our modern society:

1.  Technology has changed the speed and breadth of our relational responsibility.

30 years ago none of us felt the burden to build and maintain relationships with our 5000 best friends. Healthy, productive relationships take a tremendous amount of energy and time to create and maintain. The advent of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, texting, Snapchat and dozens of other helpful apps has created an environment where two emotionally unhealthy things happen:

  • We feel compelled to share our lives with people we actually don’t have a relationship with (Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Facebook Live). I call this the emotional burden of pseudo-relationships. We become emotionally invested in the opinions and perspectives of people with whom we have fake relationships. This is psychologically unhealthy and overwhelming to our emotional journey.
  •  People have 24/7 access to us and expect instant connection. The advent of social media and texting has created expectations for the speed of interaction that is neither reasonable nor healthy. Additionally, many of us have become so conditioned to our technology that we feel it is appropriate to stop interacting with a real person (sitting in front of us) to interact with someone who has demanded our attention through technology. Ironically, if a real life flesh and blood person interrupted us the way our technology does we would think it was extremely rude. Whether you realize it or not, allowing technology to take precedence over reality is damaging to your relationships and your emotions. Some of your overwhelm is a byproduct of not managing the impact of technology on our relational capacity.

2.  Technology has inundated us with information.

  • Rothwell, Stavros, and Sullivan, in their latest book on leading transformation and change, suggest that in the last 30 years humanity has created and consumed more information than the combined total of the previous 5000 years. Researchers estimate that global information consumption exceeds 9.75 zettabytes per year. That is 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. If that doesn’t compute for you, imagine a stack of books stretching from Earth to Neptune 20 times (5.6 billion miles) and you will have an accurate picture of the amount of information that we currently create and experience in one year. How does this relate to overwhelm you might ask? Very simply, none of us are emotionally and mentally wired to sustain the information intake available to us in this modern age. Some of your overwhelm may be tied to the amount of web browsing, Facebook scanning and news watching (listening) that you do. I am a big fan of being globally engaged, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that this time in history also requires us to have thoughtful disciplines built around our information intake. I’ll explore this more in my next article.

3.  Our margin for restorative reflection and relational space is constantly assaulted.

  • Observations #1 and #2 above have contributed to lives that, for most of us, are increasingly devoid of deep self-awareness and appropriate restoration. God designed our minds and bodies for cyclical expressions of exertion and restoration. By constantly inundating ourselves in amusement instead of restoration and in pseudo relationships instead of deep and healthy relationships, we undermine our capacity to become people of balance.

Perhaps you resonate with some of the modern challenges we have discussed in this article and can see how they might be contributing to feelings of overwhelm in your life. While I will spend the majority of my next article describing a proven method for managing overwhelm in our lives, we can draw a few relevant conclusions today that you might find helpful. Warning: these suggestions will sound simplistic but remember that knowing something and doing it are two very different things. Most of the leaders I know who fail, do not do so because of a lack of knowledge (they know what to do) but because a lack of disciplined application of the knowledge they have.

  1. Intentionally withdraw from your pseudo relationships so that you can focus on building deep and healthy relationships. This is complicated and messy because people are complicated and messy. Do it anyway.
  2. Limit your information intake that does not help you grow as a person or help you invest in your circle of influence. We will explore this more fully in my next article.
  3. Build intentional time into each day for reflection, evaluation, and restoration. These three activities are the building blocks for emotional health and wisdom.

By Dan Scarrow, Director of Leadership Development