Developer Tea

Dealing With Overwhelm

Episode Summary

You have a lot to do and sometimes it feels like life can't get any more stressful, until it does. So what do you do when faces with overwhelm?

Episode Notes

Life gets overwhelming. In today's episode we'll talk about facing overwhelm and how can we focus on the things that matter the most and avoid crippling our progress when we're overwhelmed.

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Episode Transcription

You already have a lot to do. You're sitting at your desk and you have alerts, pinging, left and right. No matter how many times you try to silence them, they seem to keep finding their way onto your desktop and your phone. You might have somebody tapping you on the shoulder asking for your attention, maybe a phone call, and maybe even things happening in your personal life. And it feels like this is the high point that it could never get any more stressful than this. But then it does. The server goes down or someone leaves a really negative review on one of your PRs and asks you to basically redo all of your work. You've already been feeling self-conscious about your work recently and you have an upcoming meeting with your manager. Performance review. This is obviously overwhelming, but it's also not that inconceivable. This probably describes a lot of people's actual experience, their real life. And nothing that we mentioned in this list is even that extraordinary. There's not very serious problems happening. It's just a lot of small things that add up ultimately overwhelm you. So what do you do in the face of this sense of overwhelm? And more specifically, how can you focus on the things that matter the most without being ridden with anxiety and crippled to the point of not being able to work well? My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in your careers. Before we talk about what we can do about overwhelm, let's talk about kind of the theory or the science of what it means to get overwhelmed. Let's start with a fundamental fact about our brains. Our brains are a part of our bodies. They are a physical part of our bodies. It's easy to forget this and even though it sounds obvious, sometimes we treat our brains as if they are some kind of always on computer. And the reality is very different. So imagine that you were asked to go to the gym and step on the treadmill. And for the first part of your time on the treadmill, you're walking and you might walk for a long time, let's say an hour or two hours. In fact, you could almost walk all day. Now, eventually you'll tire out, but most people are able to walk for a pretty extended periods of time and the main reason that they wouldn't do that is because it's a little bit boring to walk that long, at least on a treadmill. Now imagine that you're jogging. The amount of time that a given person can jog is significantly lower than the amount of time that someone can walk and much, much lower for sprinting. And so if you were to try to sustain a sprint even as long as you could jog or even half as long as you could jog, your muscles are probably going to give out. They're physically fatigued and your brain is not incredibly different from this. Of course, it's different mechanisms that play and we won't get into the specifics of the science of how your brain becomes fatigued, but ultimately our brains do become fatigued over time. And this is particularly true if we are taxing our brains, if we're thinking really hard about a particular subject. If you've ever felt the sense that your brain is fried or that you can't fit another single task in your mind, that is your brain becoming fatigued. And we often use the word overwhelmed because we kind of think about this similar to a computer that processes things, as we already said before. And we imagine that we are throwing too much at the computer to process. Instead, it might make sense for us to shift our mental model of the brain as a kind of black box computer in our heads to more like a thinking muscle. The brain already has so many jobs, but if we can imagine our brains as some kind of muscle that can wear out when taxed really heavily, then these working sessions that we try to put ourselves through, we can see those like those sprints, those extended level sprints. So what can we do to deal with this overwhelm? Well, I have two answers to that. We're going to talk about those answers right after we talk about today's sponsor, Linode. Today's episode is sponsored by Linode. With Linode, you can deploy a server in the Linode Cloud in just a few minutes. Linode offers cloud computing plans for every workload from simple web hosting to CPU intensive needs like video encoding or machine learning. Linode offers a balance of power and price for every customer. Linode has just recently launched brand new data centers in Toronto and Mumbai. They have 10 worldwide data centers. Latency, both on the disk itself and across the network is very low. It's because Linode uses only SSD storage and they have a 40 gigabit internal network and the industry's fastest processors. That makes Linode excellent for a brand new feature that they're rolling out very soon. The Linode Kubernetes engine. With Linode, you pay for what you use with hourly billing across all plans and one price add-on services. And on top of that, you're going to get a $20 credit just for becoming a new customer. Over to slash Developer Tea and use the code Developer Tea2019. That's Developer Tea 2019 all one word and check out. That's $20 worth of credit by going to slash Developer Tea. Thanks again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So what should you do when you are feeling overwhelmed and more specifically for today's episode? I want to talk about something that has helped me prepare for a stressful event, a specific stressful event that is happening when I'm feeling overwhelmed. And it should be noted here that sometimes the stressful events are enough to make us feel overwhelmed. Our brains are trying to process so much information. Oftentimes we're trying to predict the future. This is where we start to feel strong senses of anxiety because we can't predict the future. And we talked about it on the show before, but one thing that is incredibly helpful to me when I'm facing a stressful event, when I'm facing that event, especially when I'm overwhelmed, is to imagine that the worst has just occurred. So fast forward to the end of that terrible meeting that you're about to have or whatever it is. And then imagine doing something incredibly mundane. For me, a mental picture that I can use is going and getting a good cup of coffee. This is a very simple physical act that I can connect to and that I can feel a sense of regularity and safety when I think about it. And so returning to the fact that physically you will be safe, no matter how bad that meeting goes, no matter what happens right after that meeting is done, you will still be safe. Things are going to be okay. When you can remind your brain of this reality, then a lot of that kind of ongoing prediction of what might happen, at least for me, it tends to worry less. It tends to not worry so much about whether this meeting is going to go terribly or wonderfully. So that's recommendation number one. Imagine doing something very simple, something very mundane. Another example of this might be if you have a regular workout routine. Imagine going to that workout routine right after this meeting is done, right after this stressful event is complete. The second piece of advice is actually a whole bunch of pieces of advice rolled into one. When you're feeling overwhelmed, as far as your brain is concerned, the main cause for this is that you're having to think about and process too many things. And so if there are ways that you can reduce the number of things that you have to process, it'll help. Now, the interesting thing is that a lot of people don't realize that they are processing things kind of in the background. We're still using that prefrontal cortex, the really high level processing engine in our heads, but it may not be the thing that's at the top of our mind. If you've ever tried meditating, which I highly recommend, then you know that your brain just naturally jumps from one topic to the other. You don't prompt your brain to do that. It kind of happens on its own. And so if you have a bunch of unresolved concepts or problems in your head, things that are swirling around in some way, maybe you're thinking about your schedule and you're thinking about your tasks, the things that you have to do at home, all of the things that we listed at the beginning of the episode, all of those things can kind of take turns occupying our mental space. And what ends up happening is we don't have enough downtime. So even if we don't think that we are kind of actively processing something, we aren't really thinking very hard. A lot of these things that are swirling around in our head space, they can cause that same kind of overthinking and you can ultimately feel overwhelmed by it. So if you can reduce the number of things that are swirling around, you're much more likely to have a little bit more open head space. And so how can you do this? Well, that's an exercise that'll leave mostly to you. But one example of this is the mind dump. This is a practice that you'll find more in depth. If you read the book, getting things done, you can also Google this. It's a very simple practice. Sometimes it's called the mind sweep. Basically, you're going to try to write down everything that is swirling around. Every time one of those thoughts comes around and you might even pair this with a kind of meditation exercise so that you can allow those things to bubble up on their own rather than you trying to go through that list, you know, actively. But as those things come to mind, write them down. Now, when you're writing these things down, try to make it an active letting go of that topic. This might sound a little bit pseudo-scientific, but once you can signal to yourself in some way that that thing is resolved for now, that you don't need to think about that thing, then when it does come around in your consciousness, you may be quicker to dismiss it, to let it go until later. Similarly, overwhelm happens to all of us at some point, and it's incredibly important that you take the time to rest. Not only physically, but to give your mind an opportunity to rest. And this isn't something that you just do as a luxury. Resting your mind is critical for health. It's critical for you to be able to do your job as a developer well. Not just today, but tomorrow and on into the future. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to today's sponsor, Lynneaued, head over to slash Developer Tea, to get $20 worth of credit right now. This episode and every other episode of Developer Teacan be found at Thank you to today's wonderful producer, Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, and until next time, enjoy your tea.