Until I found effective ways to master HSP “complexity overwhelm”, the demands of contemporary life were making me wish I lived in a cave. Here are four tools I’ve drawn on from the business world that have helped me not only in my business but in “the business of life.”

I’ve noticed a troubling pattern in recent years. Even the most grounded, organized people I know are busy fighting off “complexity overwhelm”. We are all dealing, day and day out, with a level of life complexity that is historically unprecedented. This onslaught can quickly lead to overwhelm, and all the more so if you are highly sensitive.

I ponder this issue every time I comb through my list of passwords—four pages of them, single-spaced. I fantasize about life in a simpler time.  But inevitably, as I fill in the details of this imagined life in the “olden days”, the glow fades. No running water. No antibiotics. And worst of all, no central heating.

Again and again, I’ve landed with a thud back in the present, in my delightfully climate-controlled office. And, again and again, I’ve asked myself, “How can I master the overwhelm caused by all this complexity?”

I struggled for years to answer this question. I observed my habits. I analyzed when and why I got overwhelmed. I created and evaluated systems and structures to prevent overwhelm. And over the years, a truth emerged: I feel and function best when I treat myself like a business. 

You are your own most important resource

I first learned about productivity, systems, and sustainability in service of my solo business. But I quickly realized how much this knowledge could improve every area of my life. Three points became clear to me:

  1. Each of us is, like it or not, engaging in “the business of life”
  2. When you view your yourself from this business point of view, you quickly grasp that you are your own most important resource.
  3. When you see yourself as your most important resource, you begin to ask yourself a new set of questions, such as—

“What do I need to feel and perform my best?”

“How am I using my resources of energy, time, and money? Are my choices in line with my values?”

“If I saw myself as my single most important resource, how would I treat myself? Are there changes I would make in my life, my habits, my attitude?”

To answer these questions, I found myself turning towards three of my favorite business books. I highly recommend these books to you, whether your business is an official one or the less official “business of life”. But if you are already struggling to master complexity overwhelm, the idea of one more book to read may not be appealing.

So I’ve distilled from these three authors the four principles and systems that have most helped me master my case of HSP “complexity overwhelm”. Like the four canoes in my photo above (taken during our Stratford trip), these four resources get me “from here to there” as I navigate the complex waters of life in the digital age. (Note: In this blog, I only recommend resources I’ve used myself. And I don’t use affiliate links or receive any commissions.)

1— “Sharpen the saw”

You may well own one of the 25 million existing copies of Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If so, I suggest you pull it out and review the seventh habit. It is called “sharpen the saw.” Covey describes the four dimensions or “motivations” of self-renewal—mental, physical, social/emotional, and spiritual—that form the basis of a sustainable life. He comments,

Sharpen the saw” basically means expressing all four motivations. It means exercising all four dimensions of our nature, regularly and consistently in wise and balanced ways….To do this, we must be proactive.

The italics are mine: I’ve learned proactivity is an essential element of sensitive self-care. If you have not yet experimented with a proactive self-care approach in which you systematically include Covey’s “four motivations”, try it. Such a shift can transform your life. If you are already proactive, continue to revisit Covey’s principles. Even the best productivity-management tools, like the two I will explore next, cannot overcome the effects of a shaky self-care infrastructure.

2—Understand the concept of importance versus urgency

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you’ll also find the deceptively simple table.  Stephen Covey calls it “the time management matrix”. I cannot think of a tool that has done more to move my life away from episodic overwhelm and towards calm, consistency, and effectiveness.

With this tool, Covey teaches you how to discern important tasks from those that are merely urgent. My personalized version is here. Thanks to the insights I gained from creating and studying this table, I now spend much more time on activities that are important but not urgent. And as a result, I spend much less time putting out the kind of fires that used to send me into overwhelm.

3—Set up an airtight organizational system

Sensitive people get overwhelmed when we try to track too many things at once. And because we are so conscientious by nature, our fear of dropping one of the many balls we are juggling only increases our complexity overwhelm. So we need to have an effective productivity system in place.

Old productivity models simply told you to “do the most important stuff first”. Now, we need more flexible and sophisticated tools to manage our time and our projects. In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen lays out an elegant, comprehensive approach ideally suited to keep overwhelm at bay. He explains,

Most often, the reason something is “on your mind” is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

    • You haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is
    • You haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or
    • You haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

The book offers detailed solutions to close these “open loops”, freeing your mind for creative thinking. But even if you only have time to read the above paragraph and implement simple steps to address each point, your complexity overwhelm will begin to drop.

4—Define your responsibilities

My fourth “canoe” comes from Michael Gerber. His book, The E-Myth Revisited: why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It,  is a fable about a woman with who owns a pie shop. Gerber has a gift for making complex business concepts—in this case, franchise systematization—easily accessible. And that’s a good thing for you and for me, because the systems he teaches us to set up are a direct antidote to complexity overwhelm.

Here’s the gist of Gerber’s argument: small businesses don’t fail because their owners lack drive or devotion. They fail because the owners don’t grasp the extent of the responsibilities they take on when they go into business for themselves. When you work for someone else, you wear only one “hat”: you are the technician—the one with the skills. Working for yourself, you must take on two additional roles: manager and visionary.

If you think of your sensitive self as a small business, you’ll quickly grasp how important it is to recognize and take responsibility for each of these three roles in your life.  You’ll instantly perceive which roles come easily for you. And you’ll see which roles you tend to avoid. In your daily life, you need to be a technician and get things done. But you also to be a visionary, stepping back and clarifying your vision for your life. And you need to serve as a manager, creating and implementing systems to serve that vision.

Do you need to master HSP complexity overwhelm?

I know of no shortcuts to a sustainable sensitive life. But if you define your vision and channel your inner manager to study and implement these four resources, or equivalent versions that resonate with you, your life will become more and more manageable. These “four canoes” —Covey’s “sharpen the saw” and his urgency/importance matrix; David Allen’s productivity approach; and Gerber’s effort-saving systems— will take where you want to go, in a sustainable, enjoyable way.

Image ©2019 Emily Agnew