Is your overwhelm just a really bad habit?

Before reading the blog post below, it might be worth flicking through this Slideshare presentation first. It acts as a bit of a primer:


Now let’s talk about how we tackle overwhelm in the long term

I’ve just finished reading The Power of Habit and it’s been a borderline life-changing experience.

My one big takeaway? The fact it’s highlighted for me how much my behaviour is driven by cravings. (And it’s not cravings of the ‘chocolate biscuit’ variety I’m talking about here!)

To understand where cravings come into the picture, I first need to give a quick run down on how habits are formed. At the core of every habit (good and bad) is a simple three part loop:

So let’s look at a good habit – me going for a run every morning.

  • My cue for this habit is getting my running gear on.
  • Which triggers the routine of ‘walking out the door’.
  • Which ultimately leads to the reward of ‘getting an endorphin hit/feeling good about myself’.

Now, you’d think all you need for the creation of a habit (good or bad) is a strong enough cue and reward but as Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, these two things by themselves aren’t enough. It’s only when:

“your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”

This explains why my running habit is something that’s never been truly automated. Each morning I have to consciously remind myself ‘there is a reward’ for going for a run because the craving I have for that endorphin hit/sense of accomplishment is simply not triggered by the action of lacing up my running shoes.

There is something in my life however that is very automated.

There is something I do a lot to satisfy a craving of mine.

And that is, I over-commit myself.

What craving am I satisfying when I over-commit myself? The craving to hear someone say:

“Wow Kelly, you’re amazing/no one has ever done this thing as well as you/given me as good service as you/been as fast as you to do this.”

Perhaps it’s the people-pleaser in me. Perhaps it’s because ‘acts of service’ is my love language. But the need to hear these words from people goes deep to my core.

That’s why, when someone is asking me to do something that, rationally, I know is going to tip me into overwhelm, I often hear the words ‘yes, I can do that for you’ coming out of my mouth.

For me, overwhelm is a very bad habit.

So how do I re-shape this bad habit?

Duhigg proposes this framework:

Identify the routine > Experiment with rewards > Isolate the cue > Have a plan

The first three steps above are all about really getting to the bottom of the craving that is driving the bad habit. It’s worth reading about the process in more detail here.

For me however, I’ve already identified the craving: my need for everyone who comes in contact with me to think I’m awesome.

Why do I want people to think I’m awesome? Because people thinking I’m awesome makes me feel good about myself. So really, the thing I’m craving is affirmation.

Duhigg says:

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop … you can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behaviour that delivers the reward you are craving. What you need is a plan.

So where can I get the affirmation I crave without it leading to overwhelm? (And look, don’t try to tell me ‘why do you even need affirmation from other people?’ We ALL need affirmation.)

Well ironically, I already do get plenty of affirmation from other places. I get it from the people who read my blog and follow me on social media. I get it from my friends and family. I get it from the people I work for and with.

It’s clear then that I do not need to be getting it from Every. Single. Person. I come into contact with.

So step one in my plan is reminding myself to stop trying to perform acts of service for the world because when I do that, the people who most end up missing out are the people closest to me … and myself!

And step two is very simple – it’s something I mentioned here. Every time someone makes a request of me, I’m going to buy myself some time.

  • If they ask via email/Facebook message etc, instead of replying instantly like I usually do, I’m going to wait at least a few hours.
  • Is they ask to my face, I will say ‘let me come back to you about that.’

The thing that’s always gotten me in trouble is the knee-jerk ‘yes’ – especially if the person who’s doing the asking is someone I admire. I figure if I can remove the knee-jerk ‘yes’ from my routine, then I can be a lot more considered with regard to what I say yes to. I can also be more considered about the timelines involved if I do say ‘yes’.

And actually – the above is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years.

What I’ve noticed is that when life is going well, it’s easy to arrest that knee-jerk ‘yes’. In much the same way that when life is going well, it’s easier to eat just one chocolate biscuit. But when I’m under pressure/feeling emotional, I almost immediately revert to my old behaviour patterns. And the loathing I feel for myself at falling into overwhelm AGAIN is the same loathing I’d feel if I ate the whole packet of chocolate biscuits in one sitting.

Which brings me to you.

I reckon if you’re a chronic sufferer of overwhelm, then it’s likely you have a bad habit that underpins that.

My bad habit is ‘saying yes’. Your bad habit might be:

  • An addiction to ‘busy’
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • An addiction to drama
  • Unrealistic expectations of yourself
  • Fear of missing out
  • Fear of disappointing others

So here’s my plan for you:

  1. Clear some space in your schedule.
  2. Work through the steps outlined here to identify the craving underlying the bad habit that is causing your overwhelm.
  3. Change your routine to one that doesn’t lead you down the path of overwhelm.

From someone who’s done it (and didn’t have the benefit of the above so took forever to get there!), trust me when I tell you it’s worth it!

Is there a bad habit behind your overwhelm?