How to Defeat the Feeling of Overwhelm when taking on Huge Projects with no End in Sight

April 20, 2021

Overwhelm is the enemy of execution.  It can leave you feeling paralyzed and helpless such that you procrastinate and ironically only make the situation worse.  

If you have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by large things like writing a dissertation, creating a new business, writing a book, giving up alcohol, studying for your degree or whatever it is for you, then realize that overwhelm is a consequence of ineffective thinking.   

You're thinking about your project in a way that proliferates the feeling of being overwhelmed.  A more useful perspective is quite often all that's needed to completely change your attitude and get you unstuck.

My Own Struggles with Overwhelm

I naturally have the tendency to feel overwhelmed when taking on large projects.  This has been especially problematic because our software company often takes on huge, complex and technical challenges that require months and months of planning and consistent effort to deliver.  

One recent project in particular literally took our team over 2 years to get right before we could release it.  It was one of the biggest marathon battles we've ever taken on.  Problems we hadn't foreseen kept appearing which meant going back to the drawing board to come up with new approaches.  And, then when we finally thought we were getting close, our initial user acceptance testing revealed so many issues that it felt like we were never going to get to a point where we could release something stable.

After years and endless rounds of testing. we finally did release it. Our customers were delighted with the product, and it put our company back on the map. 

It was one of my favorite victories for the company as a whole, but it was also a huge personal victory for me because not so long ago I just wouldn't have had the strength of mind to relentlessly stick with it on a daily basis and ship it.

It was a victory that reinforced how far I'd come on my own personal development journey.  And a reminder that these tools have had a huge difference in my personal effectiveness.

In this post I want to share with you the mindset tools that I've picked up to become more effective when taking on large and seemingly insurmountable tasks.

1. Focus the Mind on the Process instead of the Result

One of my favorite tools when working on huge projects is to shift my mindset from focusing on the end result (and often how far away it is), to simply focusing on the process of getting there.

This one manner of thinking alone is the 80/20 of dealing with overwhelm.

Let's say you're writing a book.  That's a huge task; most books are 50,000 words or so long and take years to write.  And that's just the writing.  You also have to do the research, get it published, market it and so on....  The list is daunting.  

If you spend time thinking along these lines, about how much work there is to do before your book is ready, then that's a catalyst for overwhelm and procrastination.

A better strategy is to simply focus on the daily actions that you must take to get to the end result 

Focus on the process and trust the result to take care of itself.  

So, practically this might mean setting yourself a daily goal of 2 hours writing per day. Each day, your only job is to write for 2 hours.  You don't worry about how much you write and you don't worry about how far away you are from your end goal. Your only goal, each day, is to hit that 2 hour mark.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step"

Psychologically, it's much easier to handle.  It's easy to sit down and write for 2 hours per day - anyone can do that.  The goal is small enough and immediate enough that your brain doesn't panick and sabotage you.

You string one day after another, try not to  break the chain, and you'll be absolutely amazed at the domino effect and what you can produce with consistent measured action.  

When dealing with huge projects in my software business, my goal is to do at least two hours of deep work per day on problem solving, analysis and specifications.  I've saved so much mental energy and produced so much more value for the company by focusing on this process oriented goal instead of ruminating about the end result and how much work it's going to take to get there.

2. Set Minimum Daily Commitments

Let's be honest, sometimes life gets in the way and even just sitting down to do 2 hours of work is too much for you to handle.

Be realistic, expect it, and plan for it.

So what can you do on days where you just can't bring yourself to do your daily habit?

The answer is to specify a minimum commitment.

This is a little mindset hack that I picked up from the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise

Plan in advance for contingency on days where things just aren't going your way. So on a bad day, instead of writing for 2 hours, perhaps you have a minimum commitment of writing just one paragraph.  

No matter what's going on in your life, you can always manage one paragraph, right?

Minimum commitments help you keep your daily chain of wins going and give you some breathing room for when things don't go as planned.

Main Takeaways from this post...

  • Realise that overwhelm is just a product of inefficient thinking and can be overcome with the right mental models
  • Become process oriented instead of results oriented.  
  • Break down what you need to achieve on a daily basis and focus on consistently achieving daily goals to create a domino effect
  • Plan for rough days.  They happen to everyone.  Set yourself a minimum commitment that you can easily achieve no matter what.
  • Focus on consistency - build a chain of successful days and you'll be amazed at how much work you can achieve through consistency.

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