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  • Writer's pictureChristian Elliot

How to Overcome a Lack of Motivation: Part 4 - The Best Way to Beat Overwhelm

Overwhelm is a powerful foe.

Who us has not felt the suffocating emotions of...

  • Another project added to your plate at work or at home

  • A feeling of being so far behind that catching up feels impossible

  • Feeling like you don't have all the required skills for the task at hand

  • A sudden recognition of how complicated a problem will be to solve

  • An awareness of the emotional ramifications your actions will have on others

  • A recognition of how much longer a project will take than desired or expected

  • A feeling of being pulled in too many directions both personally and professionally

The emotion of overwhelm tests even the most mentally tough among us.

It has the power to turn off your motivation like a light switch.

The heaviness of it not only paralyzes your motivation, it can break your will to ever try again.

Yet, moments of overwhelm are also an opportunity to get scrappy and think bigger thoughts.

They are the moment when leaders are made--both at home and at work.


When we feel the gut-punch of overwhelm, we crave three things:

  1. Simplicity

  2. Certainty

  3. Clarity

Today I want to give you some tools to help you grow into an unflappable leader who can bring yourself (and others) more of all three, and thereby diffuse storms of overwhelm.

Let's start with the easy stuff.


It may sound overly simple, but the fastest way to ride out a wave of overwhelm is with your breath.

A few, slow, deep breaths through the nose has a quick calming effect on any stressful situation--i.e. it tells your body you're in control.

It also delivers more oxygen to your brain to help you start thinking clearly.

While breathing doesn't do anything to address the work that remains in front of you, F.M.R.I. machines have shown that controlling your breathing help you switch from reacting emotionally, to reacting rationally.

Next time you start feeling overwhelmed, remember this simple place to start.

Now let's go from taking overwhelm's best punch, to delivering one right back.


With your rational brain back in control, next we need to zoom out.

While I'm sure there are many helpful ways to deal with overwhelm, let me give you a window into how I've learned to face that emotion both personally, and when helping clients.

The process goes something like this...

Write down every detail of what's stressing you out. Keep asking yourself "what else" and don't stop writing until nothing new comes to mind.

One you have done that, you can face the biggest challenge in front of you with these four steps.

  1. Confirm you are indeed focused on the right mission.

  2. Break down the major tasks at hand. Shelf what is not immediately important.

  3. Organize a realistic timeline.

  4. Choose the next step.


My most recent episode of feeling overwhelmed came as we began working on the newest addition to our personal coaching program--the Healthy-Lifestyle Reset: Family Edition.

As with other recent additions we've made to our program, I know between the research, content creation, and marketing, it will be at least 120 hours of extra work to bring to life.

No big deal right?

I told myself..."It's only three, 40-hour work weeks." big deal...except that I still have...

  • My regular work to do

  • My wife (currently 3 weeks postpartum) and kids who need my attention

  • My health habits to practice

  • A move to a new city and state

  • A new community to plug into

  • A new home to set up

  • A 5th child who was just born, and the interrupted sleep schedule that's inevitable

  • Friends and family that have scheduled visits

  • And of course, it's tax season...ugh

Add to the above mix that I'm a "recovering perfectionist"--i.e. I don't like to put my "art" into the world if it doesn't overdeliver.

You get the picture.


As it started to sink in how much work there will be to create this new (I believe timely), family-focused addition to our program, I started to feel my motivation plummet.

Wait, what?

Why did a project I'm genuinely excited about, feel completely un-motivating to work on?

I had to sit with that question for a while.

Eventually, I realized I could barely focus on building any aspect the program because no matter where I aimed myself I had this nagging sense that I might be neglecting something that's possibly more important.

In short, I realized I was feeling overwhelmed because I hadn't sequentially done the steps I listed above--ask "what else," confirm, break down, organize, focus.

(Turns out us coaches are not exempt from seeing our own blind spots too.)

The mistake I made was I jumped to steps four and five too early.

In other words, I hadn't spent enough time on steps one through three, and thus, even a blinking cursor felt overwhelming.


As Nina and I talked it through, the big questions we asked ourselves revolved around step two above--confirm.

That meant reaffirming if this family-program project needed to happen at all--i.e. we needed to seriously evaluate the "opportunity cost" of building the program vs. other places we could put our creative energy.

After confirming we still believe strongly in the mission of the project, we could then turn to important questions of scope and timing.

Wrestling with the high-level questions is really where we started to break overwhelm's grip.

As our conversation continued, we realized a few things.

  1. We didn't have a clear picture of the scope.

  2. We didn't have a clear picture of all the major tasks that needed to be done.

  3. We couldn't picture when the interrelated tasks needed to be completed.

Did you noticed the recurring word in all three sentences above?

What we were missing was a way to create a clear picture.

I was stuck (and leaking motivation) because my mind didn't know (couldn't picture) the steps to take to engineer success.

Don't miss the importance of that point.

Lack of specificity (i.e. lack of something you can see in your mind's eye) is the reason most goals are never realized.

For example, generic "goals" like:

  • Lose weight

  • Stop pain

  • Feel better

  • Make more money

  • Improve my relationships

  • Give generously

  • Have more energy

  • Heal my body

  • Tone my muscles

...are great results, but they don't give your mind anything specific to focus on to get there--

In a nutshell, that was my problem.

I could see the end state, but the steps to get there were too fuzzy so nothing I was working on was filled with confidence I had chosen that action wisely.

That's why I felt conflicted and unmotivated every time I sat down to work.

I had a bunch of gaps in my thinking.

When the mind can't picture 1) a complete narrative and 2) where you are in the story, motivation can't gain a foothold because the mind doesn't know if what you're doing matters.


What Nina and I needed was a way to represent scope, timing, and task list in one picture.

We needed to envision how all the moving parts fit together.

Word documents and spiral notebooks only took us so far, so we found a way to create a picture.

This DIY whiteboard (which cost less than $80 by the way) did two important things:

  1. It solved the big problem of helping us see the interrelated parts.

  2. It answered the timing questions.

As soon as we had just the whiteboard concept, we knew we needed to adjust our timeline.

This visual counterpunch to overwhelm wasn't enough to knock him out, but it allowed us to get off the ropes and stop playing defense.

The next big win came from breaking down the major tasks by months, weeks, and days.

Mapping out the big picture in great detail also:

  1. Brought clarity on the major milestones we needed to set and when.

  2. Helped us recalibrate expectations and adjust our tasks lists with greater clarity.

One of the things we teach in our annual Planning Intensive (and reinforce throughout the year) is the power of breaking down big goals into smaller and smaller milestones.

But...overwhelm still has another trick up his sleeve.


Once you have developed a solid plan, another way overwhelm can creep back in is to remind you of how far you still have to go.

It can feel daunting when you look at all the steps in front of you.

The trick, is to not get fixated on the steps you've not taken.

The beauty of a detailed plan is, if done well, it lets you forget about the rest of the steps.

In other words, it lets you stay focused on the next step in front of you.

To be successful today, all you have to do today is take one step.

Tomorrow all you have to do is take another.

You to that, and overwhelm is no longer an issue.


We've found that a roughly, once-a-week rhythm of stepping back and relooking at the whiteboard (the big, overall plan) helps in a couple key ways.

  1. It helps us check in to see if we're on track. Indeed, realizing that we are on track fuels us with a deeper sense of motivation.

  2. In instances where we have fallen behind or drifted, we can evaluate what knocked us off course and use that information to set up the week ahead.

The key point is that in either instance above, that zoom-in, zoom-out rhythm helps us avoid feeling overwhelmed.

For me, I've found that protecting at least a couple hours of "open thinking time" (usually on Friday afternoon)--where I have no agenda--provides a natural opportunity to zoom out, reflect on the big picture, and plan the week ahead.

During that time I get to glance at the big staircase, see how I'm doing, refocus myself, adjust if needed, and then forget about the rest of the staircase.

When I'm diligent at that simple practice, overwhelm can't get his foothold back.


If overwhelm has you on the ropes, consider this...

What is regularly the worst part of your day?

In other words, bring to mind whatever is the biggest source of stress right now.

With that in mind, ponder these questions...

  1. Is the thing you're currently entangled in worth the stress?

  2. Is there a part of the project you can let delegate, cut, or outsource?

  3. If not, can you adjust something about the timing or your level of involvement?

Essentially, what we're trying to get at is clarity about the big picture and what it would take to unentangle from the feeling of overwhelm?

Other mental "rabbits" (sometimes) worth chasing are the "wild-hare" ideas...i.e. can you envision an alternate universe where you perhaps...

  • Live somewhere different

  • Call in a favor from a friend

  • Begin (or end) a relationship

  • Take a different job, or build your own

  • Learn something from a completely different industry

  • Creatively finance something that will alleviate (not eventually add more) stress


Overwhelm is going to come in life.

Anytime you try something meaningful, overwhelm will eventually show up ('s one way to know if you're working on something important).

When it shows up, it will do his best to knock you down.

Learn to embrace overwhelm as an opportunity to realize you are...

  1. On the verge of being stretched in a meaningful way.

  2. Taking on too much and need to reevaluate priorities.

In either instance, overwhelm loses, and motivation returns.

Overwhelm isn't fun, but when you know it's weakness, you can defeat it.


The formula for beating overwhelm (as far as I can tell) is these "simple" steps.

  1. Take a few, slow, calming breaths through the nose.

  2. Ask "what else" and keep writing until you're done.

  3. Confirm you're focused on the right mission.

  4. Break down the major tasks at hand.

  5. Organize a realistic timeline.

  6. Choose the next step.

After you've done those steps, zoom out at least weekly to assess your progress.

Use the above as a framework and you'll be able to put overwhelm into submission whenever it shows up.

You got this.

And, if you want some help, I'm here for you. Write me at

(Oh, and if you want to stay updated about our upcoming family program, click here.)

Until next time,


PS. If you need a good sounding board to help you push back against overwhelm (especially with health goals), we should chat. I'll get you back on terra firma in about 45 minutes.

PPS. If you're curious how your avoidance patterns and stress responses play into your health goals, you might appreciate our Health-Transformation-Type Quiz. It'll help you know yourself better.

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