The Surprising Benefit of Overwhelm

What I’m hearing most right now is how OVERWHELMED business owners are feeling. It can immobilize us, especially in times of uncertainty. 

Change and overwhelm go together. Whether it’s a change foisted upon us or one we intentionally choose, there’s a part of our brain that wants to resist it. Because change = danger to the primitive part of our brain responsible for survival. To keep us safe, it sends signals of overwhelm, which leads to confusion and inaction. The result is we don’t change.

Staying the same is the most dangerous thing we can do.

As Darwin said, “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment.” In business, we must change, we must adapt and evolve, in order to survive.

Although the news reinforces daily that we are in a “bad” situation right now, and we are bombarded with negative stories about public health, the economy, politics, and the environment, we get to decide what we make it all mean. We have complete agency over ourselves and we can choose what we want to think, feel and do. 

What if the current situation is exactly what we need to motivate us to change?

For example, to make changes in your business you’ve been avoiding. To create that new product or service, to develop that solution that will scale, to add that recurring revenue component to your business model. We’ve had a run of economic prosperity for more than a decade, and there is plenty more ahead in the future. However, when things are good, we tend to just keep doing more of the same. We’re not motivated to change. But in business, what got you here, won’t get you to the next level. We have to evolve. We have to change. Uncertain situations like the one we’re in now, while they may create feelings of overwhelm, can also motivate us to take action.

There’s another important principle at play – the pace of change itself is increasing. I first learned about the concept of accelerated change from Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor, futurist, author and Director of Engineering at Google. It’s hard for us to grasp the impact of accelerated change – our minds are not built for it.

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Our ancestors expected the future to be pretty much the same as their present, which was just a version of their past. Even today, most of us think tomorrow will be a (slightly better) version of today – in other words, we expect linear continuous progress. But the future will be completely different than we expect: because the rate of change itself is growing exponentially – not linearly. The wedge between what we think is happening and what is actually happening is the domain of uncertainty.

This is where both risk and opportunity exist! 

As we approach the upper limit of what we believe we can handle, we start to anticipate (and look for) negative outcomes. Our thoughts loop on everything that could go wrong – it’s a natural reaction to fixate on risk. Our brain is wired that way by default. However, we can override this negativity bias and choose our thoughts on purpose. In other words, once we are aware of our thoughts we can change them, and focus on what we want to create.

The combination of accelerated change and perceived risk can lead us to feel overwhelmed. The challenge for entrepreneurs is not to succumb to it. Feeling overwhelmed is natural but remaining in overwhelm is not inevitable. When you realize that overwhelm is not caused by external events and circumstances, but instead by thoughts in your mind – by your interpretations of those events, you see that overwhelm is optional. Even if it doesn’t seem that way.

The amount of change we can handle increases as we grow.

Think back to the first time one of your clients cancelled a contract or an employee quit unexpectedly and the thoughts you had about it. Did you feel betrayed, frustrated, or rejected? Someone else in the same circumstance might just experience a mild surprise, especially if they’ve been through it before. The same situation but different experience. The only difference is their thoughts about what it means.

The next time you feel overwhelmed, decide to recognize it as a signal for growth.

Say thank you to the primitive part of your brain for trying to keep you safe and then choose to adapt, evolve, and look for opportunity. Get out of overwhelm by using your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for planning and decision-making.  Put it to work for you to choose clear goals, constrain your focus, create a plan, measure results and iterate.  That’s how you’ll evolve as a leader. It’s also how your business will evolve and thrive no matter what the circumstances.

Love your business, but run it like you plan to sell it. Increase the value of your business and have the confidence of knowing you own an asset you can sell in the future: 6 Steps to Turn Your Business Into an Asset

 

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