45/300: Overwhelmed is Choice

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately. I’ve got big projects at work, big expectations at home and it seems every time I put my head down, I raise it back up to find more fires that need to be put out.

We’ve all been there. It’s a part of modern life. It’s probably been a part of life for as long as life has been around. And I find myself being affected by it, when I know I shouldn’t. I find myself feeling tense and short, my attitude and temper triggers get shorter the more threatened I feel.

But what I realize now that I might not have in previous years is that the attitude, my response to stress is a choice. It’s a choice to feel overwhelmed, a choice to feel threatened or penned it. For many of us, especially those people built like me, it’s an unconscious choice. It’s System 1, fight or flight thinking. We can be set off by stress, we can let the real and imagined pressures of obligation in our lives define how we face the world. We let falling behind keep us behind, we allow the things we want to do to become the things we have to do.

I’ve caught myself thinking that way lately. I’ve caught myself feeling like a victim of my own to-do list and, sadly, I’ve caught myself taking it out on others who don’t always deserve it. I’ve been tired. I’ve been cranky. I’ve lost sight of why I want to do things and can only focus on the things I have to do.

It’s a slippery slope. It’s a dangerous course. It’s how a person becomes bitter and unlikeable. It’s how agency is lost and people become instinctive victims.

But it’s a path that can be turned, a course that can be corrected.

I was reminded of this last night when I was watching my younger son play basketball. It had been a long day in the middle of an epically long week. I hadn’t been completing my list – the things I iterate toward every day – and I was, probably, feeling a bit bitter about that. My friend Jason, whose son in on of my son’s closest friends, came and sat next to me. He told me how he went to school that day and had lunch with his son, my son and another friend of theirs.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I’d never done that before, not with any of my kids.” He has older children as well. “I never took the time. I was so focused on work that I never took the time to experience anything like that.”

A few months back, Jason made a job change that meant he worked from home. And at first, the transition was uncomfortable. He admitted that he would get up early, put on khakis and a dress shirt – the same outfit he might have worm at his old job in an office. He maintained the rigor, even though the situation had changed. It took him time to adjust, to change his habits, to adjust to the new schedule, new way of working, new experience of work.

The conversation was short, but, for me at least, it was profound. Jason has, after decades of focusing on the what and how of work, discovered the why. Taking time to go to school and have lunch with the kids grounded his motive, it added some perspective he hadn’t taken the time to see before.

I didn’t fully appreciate the value of that insight until just now, eleven minutes ago when I sat down to write this post. I realized that I had become a victim of my own list and that feeling of being overwhelmed by expectation and obligation lead to a kind of myopia, a short-sightedness. I needed to remind myself why I work as hard as I do, why I’m taking on the projects I have this year.

I got an email welcoming the Class of 2029 to kindergarten registration. That’s my daughter’s class. I want to be there, healthy and fit to see her walk across the graduation stage. I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. So I ran this morning.

I flipped through my iPhoto and saw pictures of my wife and kids on a California beach. I want more moments like that, so I showed up to work today.

I thought of the stories sitting in my notebook and pictured an evening in the not-too-distant future when I’ll let my sons stay up late to read them in bed. So I’m finding the time to write today.

I’m choosing to focus on the why, not the what; to focus on the goal, not the list; to focus on being the person they need me to be, not to simply do what has to be done.

Feeling overwhelmed and overwrought is a choice made in less than a blink of an eye. But choosing to see past that feeling is one made with effort every day and over time. I don’t want to let a reaction dictate my future self. I’m choosing to see past the frustration and to focus on the outcome, not the input.


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