A Sunny Focus

What you focus your attention on matters

How to win the battle against overwhelm

The tiny monsters speech

Are you easily overwhelmed? There is plenty of information to be found about why overwhelm occurs, but when you’re experiencing it, the why’s don’t really matter. While knowing the reasons might help you avoid overwhelm in certain situations, once you are overwhelmed it is much more important to know how to get out of it.

I am very easily overwhelmed (ADHD combined with perfectionism), to the point that I often need to be talked down out of my tree. My husband, a project manager by profession, has helped me with the following analogy: “There are no big monsters — only tiny monsters pretending.” When I find myself spinning up about a situation, I often call or text him and ask for the Little Monster Speech.

There’s no such thing as a big monster.  Everything that looks like a big monster is really a pile of little monsters trying to look scary.  Take each little monster one at a time and defeat it.  Pick one thing you can do, and do it immediately.  Then pick another one.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the absolutely best thing you could choose to do.  Doing something is better than being paralyzed by fear of the “big monster” and doing nothing.  Keep on picking little things that you can do.  As the little monsters fall, you start to see the illusion of the big monster as the reality made up of little monsters.  The little monsters fear YOU because you can defeat each one easily.  They gather together in fear to try to scare you instead in order to survive.  Don’t let them.

The Tiny Monsters Speech, courtesy of my favorite project manager

I have provided you with the speech in its entirety, but I’m going to break it up into its various parts, in order to clarify it, emphasize it, and, ideally, help it sink into your awareness so that when you need it, it comes to you instantly. (If you like visuals, imagine a the “big monster” as a humongous pile of clean laundry that you have avoided folding because it’s Just That Big.)

There’s no such thing as a big monster.

Rule # 1, Tiny Monsters Speech

There’s no such thing as a big monster. Internalize this rule. Make it part of your overwhelm-fighting vocabulary. Let it become a mantra. Let it become a shield around your mind, protecting you from the fear of failure generated by the idea (or illusion) of a large task.

Everything that looks like a big monster is really a pile of little monsters trying to look scary.

Rule # 1, clause 1, Tiny Monsters Speech

If rule one is your shield, clause 1 of rule one is your fiery weapon in the battle of overwhelm. When you are convinced that you are facing a big monster, and rule one is not convincing you otherwise, it’s time to unsheathe the clause (see what I did there?) and remind yourself that it only looks like a big monster because the little monsters (individual items of clothing in the laundry pile) have gathered together and thus look bigger than they really are. You don’t have to say the whole clause to yourself (or out loud — I’m not ashamed to reveal that I’ve talked straight to the monsters when I need extra oomph). All you need to say is, “Tiny monsters.” It helps.

Unsheathed claws modeled by Pood Bork

Take each little monster one at a time and defeat it. Pick one thing you can do, and do it immediately.

Rule # 2, Tiny Monsters Speech

I’m going to get a little science-y on you for a moment. If you’re not into science, don’t worry. I spent my college years studying voice, not physics, despite how “phun” physics is. If you are into science, please excuse the crudity of this model.

Your big monster (which, don’t forget, is actually a pile of tiny monsters) has inertia. “What is inertia,” you might ask (if you’re not science-y). Do not worry! I have prepared for just such an occasion.

Inertia as defined by my favorite online dictionary, merriam-webster.com:

noun
in·​er·​tia | \ i-ˈnər-shə , -shē-ə\
Definition of inertia
1a : a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force
b : an analogous property of other physical quantities (such as electricity)
2 : indisposition to motion, exertion, or change : INERTNESS

In this case, the matter in question is our monster. It is either at rest, as in a closet full of boxes, the contents of which have been long since forgotten, or it is in motion, as in the mold breeding in that container of yogurt in the back of your fridge. If you want any situation to change, you need for it to be “acted upon by some external force.” I will not deny that a stray bolt of lightning could handle either or both examples above, but a much more certain (and less destructive) course of action is to become the force yourself. If it helps, you can even imagine yourself as a Jedi master.

When you remove a tiny monster, you might feel as though you haven’t made a change in the state of things, but you have. You have begun. Even if you can’t see that progress has been made, progress has, in fact, been made.

Then pick another one.

Rule # 2, clause 1, Tiny Monsters Speech

Clause one is as important as, and in some ways, even more important than, rule two. The more actions you take at a time, the more momentum you build. The more momentum you have, the easier it is to overcome the inertia of the monster. (I’m going to do the science* again, but not right here. You can find it near the bottom of the page, if you want it.)

It doesn’t matter if it’s the absolutely best thing you could choose to do.

Rule #3, Tiny Monsters Speech

This rule is the holy grail for those who, like I, get paralyzed by perfectionism. Let’s break this down into a simple word problem. (Math AND science! Again, I studied voice.) If Sandra has fifteen things to do, one of which is the absolute best thing she could choose, and Sandra folds the laundry, which might not have been the absolute best thing she could choose, how many things has Sandra done? One! Sure, we could throw in a lot of variables, such as how long does each task take, how much energy does each task require, blah, blah, blah, but why complicate this? (I’m talking to you, my fellow perfectionists! Why complicate this? Don’t! Do. Not.) The bottom line of this word problem is best explained by the following clause:

Doing something is better than being paralyzed by fear of the “big monster” and doing nothing.

Rule # 3, clause 1

You can factor in all the variable you could possibly imagine and the math still works out like this: If Sandra had done nothing because the thing she was willing and able to start with wasn’t (or might not have been) the ABSOLUTE best thing, she would still have fifteen things on her to-do list. That’s ALL THE THINGS. If any action item is taken off the list, even if it’s the least and littlest, the list is, by definition, smaller than it was when you started.

Keep on picking little things that you can do.

This is essentially Rule #2, clause 1, repeated for emphasis

I would like to take this moment to say that while it is easier to do one thing followed by another, by another, thus building your momentum, the actual amount of work** involved is the same even if you do the first thing right after breakfast and the second thing well after lunch.

As the little monsters fall, you start to see the illusion of the big monster as the reality made up of little monsters.

Excerpt, Tiny Monsters Speech

This excerpt, while not really a rule, is the portion of the speech that describes the revelation you will have if you keep chipping away at what you have started. Do what you can, when you can, but keep going and you will start to see the illusion fall away.

The little monsters fear YOU because you can defeat each one easily. They gather together in fear to try to scare you instead in order to survive. Don’t let them.

Culmination, Tiny Monsters Speech

Okay, perhaps this is personifying (monsterifying?) the individual parts of a task too much. I happen to find it useful in that I gain more satisfaction from conquering an opposing force than I do from simply ticking a box on my list of things to do. I also love the rah-rah effect it has on me. “Don’t let them.” YEAH! Do you hear that monsters? We’re not going to let you scare us!

Even for the most pacific among us, when it comes to winning the battle of overwhelm, we know what is good in life — To crush your enemies; see them driven before you; and hear the lamentation of the little monsters.

Brightest blessings, Cona…I mean, Sunny

*When you take your first action against your monster, that is force (F), which occurs over a period of time (delta t). When you multiply force times delta t, you get impulse (J), which is the same as the change in momentum (delta p).

**The following notice is strictly in the interests of preventing irate physicists from bombarding me with hate mail, (and also in case this post is reviewed for my hypothetical application to Cal Berkeley,) so if you’re not fussed with physics terms and don’t want to be confused by the basic English definition of “work” vs. the physics definition of “work,” just skip over it.

>> Notice to any potentially irate physicists and/or boards of review of any universities: Please don’t write to me about the physics of work. I do know that if you pick up an item from the floor and put it down on the floor five feet away, assuming no slope to the floor, no work has been done, in the scientific definition of work. Just don’t go there.<<

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