Overwhelm, This or That, Spoon Theory and More

Today on the podcast I want to talk a little bit about the limitations that we all have on our time, on our energy and how we handle that. 

The majority of the people that I work with cite overwhelm as their biggest hurdle. There isn’t enough time. There is too much on their plate. As a result of their stress, it can hinder their efficiency so everything takes longer and can be harder. Stress can lead to chronic fatigue, illness (physical or mental) and more. 

Overwhelm is intense. It can feel like an elephant on your chest, or the floor sinking beneath your feet. 

There are times when I’ve gotten up and my child has been up multiple times in the night and I feel like a zombie and EVERYTHING is harder. You get less done even though the to-do list is a mile long. 

I came across Spoon Theory via social media, and it originated from this post by Christine Miserandino as a way of explaining what it’s like to live with a chronic illness to her friend. Miserandino lives with lupus, which makes everything more challenging. The spoons represent a unit of energy that you apply to an activity. You start the day with ‘x’ number of spoons and there is no replenishing the supply until the next day. You go for a shower? That’s a spoon. You drive to work? That’s a spoon. 

Now, I want to be super clear that it was meant as a metaphor for living with a chronic illness, yet I know so many people who find the metaphor helpful for their daily life. So, I don’t want to offend anyone who is living with a chronic illness and feels like I’m trying to take something away or use my privilege. Like I said, I’ve lived with mental illness and I know the impact it made on doing everyday things and how much harder it was compared to a healthy individual. 

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That said, if it’s a metaphor that helps you regardless of your health, use it. As with any metaphor, theory, advice or program, take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. 

I’m going to use the spoon theory as a way to talk about overwhelm and all the things you want/need to get done in a day. 

The to-do list never ends. It just doesn’t. In a single day we can only get done so much, and our number of spoons will not be identical to that of anyone else. 

Let’s say you start the day with ten spoons. For you, one spoon might be getting in movement, or eating a healthy meal or attending a work meeting. For someone else a spoon may be simply getting out of bed. You have to interpret the units of energy as make most sense for you. 

We have to make choices. If you have a limited amount of spoons, how do you use them? What makes the biggest impact on your day? What is critical? 

It comes down to this or that for most of us. For many of us, we CAN actually do it all, just not in a single day, or a week, or even a year or a decade. 

Say for example I have a looming work deadline, my kids are sick, I’m trying to stay fit and I’m in desperate need of a date night with my husband. 

Well, the spoons are going to have to be spent taking care of my kids and maybe doing some work while they nap/sleep. This has been my real life choice. You cancel/postpone the meeting and date night. You maybe do a home workout OR you rest up because you know you’re about to get whatever nasty bug your kids have. 

What happens when it feels like you’re behind on EVERYTHING. This still happens to me. Just yesterday, I woke up feeling overwhelmed because I had competing deadlines from freelance clients, I was prepping for Stress Less in 90 Days (ironic…), I’m working on my physical health and more. 

Only so many spoons. Only so many choices. This or that. 

I believe you can get more spoons… by borrowing from others. I asked my husband for help. Even though I work from home, we pretended that I worked out of the home and I was able to plough through an extra two hours of work to catch up without kids interrupting me. I also used a spoon to go swimming and bring down some of the pent up anxiety. 

You might look at my day and have said, “hey if you didn’t go swimming you could have finished your work faster.” Maybe. But It’s also about the process. Swimming meant that I was able to process, reframe, burn off energy and come into the afternoon of work with a mindset that made me more productive and efficient. 

I’m probably messing up spoon theory for any of you spoonies listening/reading, but this is how I interpret and use spoon theory on an average day. 

We cannot do it all in a 24 hour cycle. I can’t tackle my finances, my health, my career, my family and more in a single day. I can make incremental progress in some of those areas each day, but it’s probably so small I don’t notice it in the moment. 

Zoom out. Small hinges swing big doors. 

My son spent his first birthday in the hospital with RSV. At the time I had to take a full week off of work to be with him. And I felt guilty about missing so much work. Ridiculous that I felt guilt when I had a critically ill child, but I think most of us feel bad to put extra work on others. 

Looking back… yeah, I had to rearrange everything, I had to prioritize and I was with my child holding him every moment he needed me. 

Do I regret taking that time off work and do I feel guilty now? Not for a second. In the moment – I definitely did. 

What feels like a big deal now, won’t necessarily down the line. Perspective is everything and it rarely happens in real time. 

Overwhelm is huge, but you tackle it by putting one foot in front of the other, even if those feet are leading you to bed – rest up! 

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