Feeling Overwhelmed? The Science of Being Too Busy

feeling overwhelmed

Another day is winding down. You look at your to do list and … sigh. Where has the time gone?

Calls and meetings. Endless fires to put out. And there’s always someone else who needs you — your staff, your customers, your spouse, your kids.

Sound familiar?

Like many executives and entrepreneurs, you get things done. You take care of everything and everyone, all the time.

The downside is that like many high performers, you may also find yourself feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up, let alone get ahead on the projects that matter most.

A lot of it boils down to being unable to say no. In fact, in the most insidious cases, we don’t even realize that saying no is an option.

Why We Can’t Say No

At some point in your 20s you figured out how to say no to staying out until 5am on Saturday night. To another drink. To getting calzones delivered for a third night in a row.

Congratulations. You’re off to a great start.

Here’s the rub: phase 2 of “Operation Healthy Boundaries” is going to be more subtle.

Really smart people have really smart justifications for their choices.

The church fundraising committee is so in line with your commitment to service. Go you, you do-gooder!!

That week in Florida with the in-laws every winter makes your wife so happy. Happy wife, happy life!!

That hockey team your kid plays on, the one that’s an hour-long drive three times a week, it’s the absolute best bonding time!!

Who can argue with that? Those are some defensible reasons—and as a result, we never stop to examine these choices, even if they’re costing us more dearly than we realize.

But our resistance to saying “No” runs deeper than that.

The Science Behind Saying “Yes”

In his book, The Compassionate Mind, renowned therapist Daniel Gilbert explains that your mind operates from one of three states.

The Threat Mind helps you survive.

It keeps an eye out for bombs going off, like your boss firing you or your spouse going ballistic.

The thread mind likes to play it safe. And, when confronted with a decision to make quickly, it’s always safer to say “yes” than to be confrontational.

Also known as the lizard brain, this is the oldest and most dominant part of your brain.

The Drive Mind helps you accumulate resources.

It’s the part of you that wants things, like a raise and a new car and all the options and granite countertops.

You’re hard-wired to strive for the highest status and best mate you can find, and for that you do need granite, it’s true.

Jokes aside, this part of your brain is what creates the human rat race, the quest for more, and the fear that saying “no” might cause you to miss out on something big.

The Compassionate Mind helps you connect to yourself and others.

It’s the only part of your mind that loves you just as you are. It’s the part that gives you permission to establish healthy boundaries in your life. To get your own needs met.

The compassionate mind is the state of mind necessary to say “no”. And, as anyone who’s ever stepped foot in Manhattan knows, society does not help you cultivate a compassionate mind.

Only you can cultivate the self-compassion necessary to say “No”.

The good news is that with practice, you can build the neural pathways that will make this easier over time.

The Fear of Loss and Saying “No”

Have you ever had a crush on someone that you were too afraid to reveal to their face?

Or avoided a difficult conversation for days, knowing you were making things worse?

This behavior is caused by our fear of loss: we’d rather be unsure about an outcome than take action knowing it might lead to losing the relationship, as irrational as this can be.

In a healthy relationship, you get your needs met while maintaining your self-respect.

It sounds simple.

But we’re often willing to abandon our needs in order to avoid the possibility of losing the relationship entirely.

Stop Feeling Overwhelmed: Do This Now

Answer these 6 questions to start establishing more healthy boundaries in your life.

  1. What are you currently saying “Yes” to that is unhealthy, unproductive or misaligned with your highest commitments? Make a quick list, then create a todo item to take action on each one.
  2. What in your life are you REALLY reluctant to say “No” to or believe you absolutely cannot say “No” to? This is an extension of question 1, designed to uproot your assumptions about what you “must” say yes to.
  3. What life goals are you failing at or struggling to achieve because you are saying “yes” to the wrong things? This question is meant to help you understand the true price of saying yes too much.
  4. How do you justify saying yes? And, what gratification do you get from saying yes? Think about the parent who indulges their kids to feel good in the moment but raises a spoiled kid. When you say yes, you’re getting some payoff—now is your chance to name it, e.g. avoiding confrontation, feeling important, feeling loved.
  5. Adding to no. 4, what is an alternative, more aligned and authentic way to get that need met?
  6. Is there a new “no” that you’re ready to establish? If so, what do you need to do or say to enact the necessary “No”?

When you finish, tell us in the comments: what are you going to say “No” to?

Scroll to Top