Episode 87: The Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle

As we enter the season of planning and preparation for the new year, many of us find ourselves going back and forth between the excitement about all the things we want to create and the anxiety and overwhelm at thought of actually doing them. That’s the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle and today we’re talking about why it happens and what we can do to break the cycle.

87: The Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle

There's a common theme that I'm noticing among my clients, and also with myself. It's the tendency to vacillate between feeling really excited about everything that we could potentially create and feeling completely overwhelmed by all of the possibilities and opportunities.

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Show Notes

There's a common theme that I'm noticing among my clients, and also with myself.

It’s the tendency to vacillate between feeling really excited about everything that we could potentially create and feeling completely overwhelmed by all of the possibilities and opportunities.

That’s what I call the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle.

In this episode, I’m exploring the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle and how my thoughts and experiences with it have changed in the last couple of years. We’re going to talk about why it happens and what we can do to break the cycle.

I hope that this episode helps you guide your clients through their Opportunity-Overwhelm cycles and that you’ll find some gems that you can apply in your own life.

Topics covered

  • The phases of the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle
  • How “The Gap” pushes us toward overwhelm
  • Defining your product and process goals
  • The problem with Shiny Object Syndrome
  • How the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle keeps us safe
  • When our strengths become liabilities
  • Breaking free of the Opportunity-Overwhelm Cycle
  • Don Kelley and Daryl Conner’s Emotional Cycle of Change

Resources mentioned

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Well hello, my friend, and welcome to the Coach with Clarity Podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough, I'm your host. And I am going back in time for this week's episode, and this is something I encourage you to do as well if you are someone who is regularly creating content for your business. So whether that is blogging, podcasting, your social media posts, every so often, it's a good idea to go back in time and look at what you've created in the past. And ask yourself, whether this is something that is worth sharing again, whether as is or if it needs a little bit of updating. And that's something that I did recently, largely because we're coming up to that time of year where many of us, myself included, are starting to think about what we want to create for the next year. I am just beginning my planning for 2022. I've got some really exciting things coming up that I'll be sharing with you over the next several weeks. And my clients are also facing the planning and preparation time as well. And there's a common theme that I'm noticing among my clients, and yes, also with myself, which is the tendency to vacillate between feeling really excited about everything that we could potentially create, and feeling completely overwhelmed by all of the possibilities and opportunities. And as I was hearing this common theme come up, it reminded me that about four years ago, I wrote a blog post all about this topic. Now four years ago, Coach with Clarity didn't even exist, I was operating under what is now my formal LLC name of Caravelle Coaching, and I wasn't podcasting. I essentially had a baby blog, where every so often I would write an article, put it up there, and pray that someone would read it. Which is not the strategy I would suggest by the way, if you are looking to gain visibility in your field, we'll save that for another podcast episode. But suffice it to say, I had this blog post that I wrote and I thought it had, you know, some pretty good concepts. And yet I didn't really do anything with it, except maybe reference it when speaking with my clients, maybe I would share the link with them. Here I am now four years later, realizing just how important the concepts are that I wrote about, and how maybe I might even take it to the next level. I re-read this article and I thought, “There's some really good stuff here. And there are some concepts that I missed”. 

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So in today's episode, I am going to use that four year old blog post as a springboard and share with you some of my thoughts about what happens when we hit what I call the “opportunity-overwhelm cycle”. Now, when I wrote this blog post four years ago, I actually called it the “opportunity-overwhelm border”. And I was really interested in what happens when we shift from being really excited about all of this opportunity, to feeling completely overwhelmed by it. And I called it the opportunity-overwhelm border because I felt like a lot of my clients and yes, myself, were getting stuck in this territory of feeling paralyzed between all of the things we wanted to create and all of the anxiety and overwhelm we were feeling when we thought about actually doing so. Over the last few years I've thought about this idea. And now as I've refined it, I realized that we're really talking more about a cycle of behaviors. So this opportunity-overwhelm border is something that tends to happen over and over again. And I'm really interested in exploring it as a cycle, and then talking about why it happens, and what we can do to break the cycle. So that is what we are going to be diving into during today's episode. I hope that this episode serves you on two levels. Number one, I hope that you discover a new way of speaking about this so that when you're coaching your clients, you can guide them through their own opportunity-overwhelm cycle. And number two, if this is something that resonates with you personally, then hopefully you'll find some gems in today's episode that you can apply to your own life so that the next time you find yourself getting caught up in the cycle, you know what to do about it. I want to begin by describing the cycle the very way I described it four years ago when I published this blog post, and what I noticed was that it tends to be a three phase cycle. So phase one is where you get a fantastic idea. And I bet you know what I'm talking about. It's that idea that the minute it enters your mind, you get so excited, you can pretty much envision everything that will result once you bring it to life, you are fired up, maybe there's even a bit of an adrenaline rush. I mean, you are just so excited about this idea, you can hardly stand it. That's phase one, the idea is born. And you see all of the opportunities that can come from it. Phase two is typically the work phase. This is where you take that great idea and you get to work. You start planning, you start writing, you start putting it into action. And this can be a very productive time, I find that this phase tends to vary in length based on the idea itself, and also on the person. Some people will take weeks and weeks in this work phase. Other people it may be a matter of days, or even hours. So the length of time for this phase can vary. But know that phase two is about taking action on that great idea. Then we move into phase Three. And this is the overwhelm phase. This is where we start to get anxious, we start to feel uncertain about our ability to really follow through on this idea and bring it to life. And we start getting in our own way. This is the point at which many people abandon the idea. They stop working on it, they get stuck, they procrastinate, they move on to something else. And when they move on to something else, the cycle repeats. We go right back to phase one, which is the birth of a new idea, we get to work on it in phase two. And then phase three sets in and we start doubting our ability to follow through. So you can see that not only is this a cycle, but it's a rather vicious cycle. Because if we allow the cycle to play out over and over again, we never bring our great ideas to their fullest fruition. We have a backlog of half finished projects and concepts that we've never seen all the way through. Now there is a bit of a caveat to the cycle. Sometimes I see maybe what I'll call phase four, which winds up being a blend of phases two and three. So you get to phase three, you're feeling overwhelmed, you're feeling stuck. Phase four, then becomes the “grit your teeth and bear it” phase, where you do get back to work on your idea. So that's the phase two piece, you decide to go back to work on it. But rather than working on it from that place of excitement, and joy, and opportunity, it's more about just getting through it, finishing it so that you don't have yet another unfinished product in your repertoire. And so maybe you do reach the end of that project, but it has felt like a complete and total slog. You haven't enjoyed it, the energy that you once held for it is pretty much absent. And when you're done, yes, you can check the box, you can say you finished, but it doesn't have nearly that same vibrancy or impact that you wanted for it at the beginning. So that phase four piece, I actually did not write about that in my original blog post four years ago. I really kept it to phase one, two, and three, and then we start the cycle over again. But honestly, what I've noticed over the last four years since I wrote that blog post is that it's not typically as simple as phase one, phase two, phase three repeat. That to have a business means following through. Because if we don't follow through, and we never take action, then our business doesn't get off the ground. And so we do follow through, we do take action, but the spirit in which we take that action can feel really heavy, it can feel like an obligation. And it just isn't infused with that level of joy that phase one really brings forth in us. So I've modified my cycle a bit to talk about how sometimes we do go into phase four, and then once we've completed the project, then the cycle starts over again. So those are the three, maybe four phases that we see in the opportunity-overwhelm cycle. Let's spend a couple minutes now talking about why this happens. And in my blog post, I noticed three common reasons why this creative burst can lead to a sense of overwhelm. And even now, four years later, I feel like these are still pretty accurate. Now the first reason is because we have a tendency to get drawn into, what I call “the gap”. And it's the gap between where we are now and where we want to be. One of the things I find with people who tend to be very creative and innovative is that they are able to establish a very clear vision of what is possible. So when they get an idea, they immediately see what the finished product could be like, and what the impact could be. On one hand, this is a huge benefit, because it gives us a very clear goal to work towards. But on the other hand, it also shows us just how far away we are from that finished product. And we start seeing how much time, effort, energy, and work it's going to take to get from point A to point B. And that's the gap. That is that huge expanse between today and tomorrow, between our present circumstances and our ideal future. And when we get sucked into that gap, that's when the sense of overwhelm can set in. And we start to wonder if we even have what it takes to see this through. If it's really even that great of an idea, if anyone's going to be interested in it, we can absolutely second guess ourselves. So that's the first thing that happens, we get sucked into the gap between where we are now, and where we want to be with this idea. The second thing that happens is that we can get very easily attached to the outcome. And again, I think this is a by-product of being a highly visionary person. If you are able to see the ideal end result and its impact on the people you serve, on your own business, in your life, what happens is that we get that idealized future in our mind and we grasp onto it tightly. We get super attached to making sure that everything we do works in such a way that we achieve that outcome. And so we get hyper attached to it. And our work becomes more about the product than the process. I think it's very helpful when we are setting goals to have a clear differentiation between product goals and process goals. Product goals are defined by the end product, when I do something, I will have this at the end. And everything we do is very much focused on that end result. Whereas when we have process goals, it's well as the name would suggest, more about the process. So here's an example, a product goal might be, “I will publish my next book by the end of 2022”. So that's very much about the book itself, it's the product. Whereas a process goal might be, “I will carve out two hours a week to work on my book”. That goal is more about the process of writing. And over time, what happens is that if we commit to and meet that process goal, the end result will be that we hit the product goal, but we're not centering the end result, we are centering the process. But when we get too attached to an outcome, we tend to bypass those process goals and go straight to the product goal. And that's where we can get ourselves into trouble. Because if we feel like we're not doing enough, or things are moving too slowly, then we can move ourselves right into phase three. Which is that phase where we're feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and we get stuck. So that's one thing we tend to do, we tend to get attached, or even overly attached, to the outcome. And then finally, the other thing that tends to happen is that we get distracted by a new idea when the cycle repeats. And we go back to phase one, because we have this incredible idea that we want to take action on. Many of you are probably familiar with this, you may have heard it described as “shiny object syndrome”, or SOS. And I feel like it's one of the most deceptive practices that we fall victim to. Because even though we have all of these incredible bright and shiny new ideas, the end result is that if we continue to follow each and every new idea we get, then we're less likely to follow through on the existing ideas. And that leads us right into this endless cycle of inspiration, inactivity, and overwhelm. So just to sum up, the three reasons why I believe we get trapped in this opportunity-overwhelm cycle is because we get drawn into the gap of where we are versus where we want to be, we get overly attached to the outcome, and we get distracted by our new ideas. Now when I wrote the blog post, I focused in on one reason why I thought this was happening. And looking back at my focus at the time, it makes a lot of sense why I honed in on this one reason. I was positioning myself as a mindset coach. I was very interested in the intersection between mindset and mindfulness. And so that is the angle I used when I wrote this blog post, I came from the perspective that when we successfully accomplish whatever it is that bright, shiny idea wants us to do, well that's going to generate success, it's going to generate higher visibility. And on some level that may feel unsafe to our mind. We've talked on previous episodes of this podcast about how on some level, our mind serves as a safety monitor, it wants to make sure we stay safe no matter what. And anytime we put ourselves out there, or we accomplish something big, or we share a big idea or new way of doing something,8 that may feel inherently unsafe to our mind. Because when we put ourselves out there, we do make ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to backlash, all sorts of things. And the mind is like, “Whoa, that's not safe. What do you think you're doing? Come on back where it’s safe”. And it will do whatever it needs to do to make sure we do that. It will put all sorts of obstacles and blocks in our way so that we procrastinate, or so that we don't follow through, on whatever this idea is. Now, I still think that is a fair explanation about why some of us have experienced this opportunity-overwhelm cycle. It is protective, it keeps us safe. Yes, it may keep us small, but we're still going to be safe. However, I don't think that is the only explanation for why some of us fall into this opportunity-overwhelm cycle. In fact, I think some of us fall into it because it is one of our strengths gone overboard. Now over the last several years I've heard the phrase, “multi-passionate”, or “multi-passionate entrepreneur” so many times. And really, this is describing someone who has more than one interest or more than one passion. So it stands to reason that if you are someone who is multi-passionate, you are probably going to have a lot of really great ideas that you want to take action on. And I would say that being able to come up with all of these really great, exciting ideas is absolutely a strength. And if you're able to follow through on all of these ideas without falling into this cycle, even better. But for many of us, we get new idea after new idea, before we've had a chance to really see some of our good ideas all the way through to the end. And so then, that's where being multi-passionate stops being an asset and starts to become a liability. What I would say is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being multi-passionate. And there is nothing inherently wrong about having access to so many great ideas. But as with any strength, we need to understand how best to harness it so it can serve us. Because any strength can become a liability if we have too much of it, or if we don't know how to use it properly. So that's one thing I didn't talk about in the article that I think is really important to mention here. That some people are simply wired to be multi-passionate, to have all of these ideas. And that is not in itself problematic. It's how we follow up on these ideas and whether we're able to see them through or not. Well, that's where if we're not careful, we can fall into the opportunity-overwhelm cycle. The other thing I didn't explicitly talk about in the article is that it's also possible that this cycle may simply have become a habit. And as many of us know, when we are entrenched in a habit, it can be very difficult to break ourselves free from it. So regardless of why we fall into the opportunity-overwhelm cycle, if this is something that we do over and over and over again, it becomes not just a learned behavior, but even an automatic behavior. And so some of this may be habitual, which is why it is so important to develop a strategy to break free from this cycle. And that's exactly what we're going to talk about now. So let's start by talking about what we can do if we find ourselves in phase three, where we're feeling overwhelmed, stuck, and we're just not sure if we have what it takes to see this idea through to the end. The first thing we need to do is raise our own awareness that this is happening. This means calling it out when we see it. For me, it's often having a little conversation with myself and saying, “Oh look, I've fallen into the cycle”. So that when I'm starting to feel overwhelmed or anxious, I don't make it about me, and I don't make it mean that there's something wrong or that I'm bad, I simply call it out from a relatively neutral objective stance, maybe with a little bit of humor to to defuse the situation. And I don't make it mean anything about me personally. So that's the first step, is to notice that it's happening, to raise our awareness around it, and to do so in a way that is neutral, objective, and more about the cycle itself than about who we are as a person, or what we make it mean if we are experiencing overwhelm. Then the next step is to notice where we are in the emotional cycle of change. The emotional cycle of change is a concept from the 70’s. It was developed by Don Kelley and Daryl Conner. And I find it to be a very helpful system to use when I find myself getting caught up in those feelings of overwhelm. So let me walk you through the emotional cycle of change. Step one is what they call “uninformed optimism”. So that's basically like the same thing as my phase one in the opportunity-overwhelm cycle, that's where you have this great idea, you're feeling really good about it, we actually haven't done any research or taking any action on it, hence the uninformed part of their definition. But we are really thinking this could be something big. So we start at a place of uninformed optimism, then as we start to take action on it, which is phase two of my cycle, we move into their second step, which they call “informed pessimism”. So as the name suggests, because we have done some research, because we're doing some work, we are now much more informed about the idea. And we start seeing just how difficult it could be to bring this idea to life. That's the pessimism piece of it. It's during this time, where we may fall into what they also have called the “valley of despair”, where we are at our lowest, we don't know if we have what it takes to see this idea through. This correlates with my phase three of feeling absolutely overwhelmed. And so common behaviors during this time might be to procrastinate, to check out, and sometimes even abandon the idea. So you can just see how our enthusiasm and our optimism plummet. Visually, it looks like a dip. And this makes me think of Seth Godin’s outstanding book called “The Dip”. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It's a very short book. But there's so much wisdom packed in there about how we can navigate through these dips, through these low moments. Because once we navigate through them, then we move into Kelley and Conner's third stage in the emotional cycle of change, which is “hopeful realism”. So we're no longer looking at it from the perspective of blind optimism nor are we caught up in complete pessimism. But instead, we're taking honest, objective stock of our idea of what's possible and what it will take to bring it to life. And we're approaching it from a place of realistic hopefulness, we start to believe again that it is possible, that we really can do this. So we return to taking action from that place of hopeful realism. And that leads into their fourth phase, which is “informed optimism”. Because as we do the work, and as we start to see more success, we then become more optimistic that this idea really has legs, that we can take it to where we want it to go. We're building momentum. And as that momentum grows, so too, does our optimism, our joy, and our enthusiasm. And then we can kind of ride that wave and see it through to their final phase, which is “completion”, where we bring that idea to its fullest fruition, we've seen it through and we've done it in such a way where we feel really good about the process. So when I am feeling stuck in that anxiety phase, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, it is so helpful to think about the emotional cycle of change and to recognize that maybe I have fallen into the informed pessimism stage. Maybe I'm even in the valley of despair. And I can acknowledge that while this doesn't feel good at all, it is part of the process, and the process does not have to end here. It is possible to move into a phase of hopeful realism. And the best way to do that is by taking action. So those are two things that we can do when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. Number one is simply to raise our own awareness and to catch ourselves in the act. And then number two, is to place it into context, when we think about the emotional cycle of change, as a way of normalizing our experience, and reminding ourselves that this too shall pass, and the way we can help it pass is to continue to take action. Now, what do we do though, if we find ourselves in phase one with that bright and shiny new idea that wants our attention, and that we really do want to take action on? Well first things first, we need to assess this idea from an objective place. When I get a great idea, I will typically write it down, just a quick sentence or two to kind of encapsulate what I'm thinking and the energy behind it, and then, depending on where I am in my own work process, sometimes I'll just kind of let it sit there and returned to what I'm working on. Or sometimes I will give myself a set period of time to really explore this new idea. This is where having a brain release, or that's my nice way of saying a brain dump, it can be really helpful to just get out all of your ideas out of your head and onto the page. So if you've got this incredible new idea, go ahead and give yourself a defined period of time to explore it, it may look like writing everything down, it may look like a little bit of research. But again, make sure you have parameters around your exploration so that you don't get too carried away. Then once you've done that, I strongly suggest you wait, you press pause, you put that idea on the shelf, just for a little bit of time, and then come back to it. Maybe you come back to it in a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks. But come back to it after you've had a little bit of distance. And after that initial adrenaline rush that comes with the excitement of a new idea, after it's settled down a bit, that will also help you take objective stock as to, first, is this really such a great idea? And second, is this such a great idea for me right now? You may find that yes, it is still a great idea. But no, it is not the right time for me to take action on it. At that point, you may want to go ahead and look at your calendar, look at your big picture plan, and decide when it would be a good time to take action. And then go ahead and put it in your calendar. Give yourself a start date. And it's okay if you need to flex that date. But by giving yourself a start date, you're honoring that idea and you're creating space for it. So you can still feel excited and enthusiastic about it. But you know that you're going to take action at a time when it best serves you and your business. I am going to talk much more about this concept in a few episodes coming up when we explore how to start planning for your new year. So this is an idea that we will be returning to as part of our year-end planning. So more to come on that. But for now, why don't we head into this week's Clarity in Action Moment. 
So my friends, for this week's Clarity in Action Moment, I actually have a twofer for you. One is if you are currently in the overwhelm part of the cycle, I want you to come up with a phrase or an image that you can call on the next time you start to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps you want to personify your overwhelm, maybe you want to give it a name. It can be something really silly like, “Oh, it's Overwhelm Olaf again”. Or maybe it's just a simple phrase like, “Ugh, there I go again, it's my overwhelm cycle and action”. Whatever it is, it's just a simple phrase, or maybe an image if you tend to be more visually oriented, but something to help remind yourself of what's happening, of why it's happening, and then it can spur you to take action accordingly. It's just a quick, simple brain hack to help you increase your awareness and help you move into your desired response a little faster. So that's something you can do if you are in the overwhelm part of the cycle. But, what about if you're in the opportunity part of the cycle? What if you continually have all of these great ideas and you don't want to lose them, you want to capitalize on that energy? Well, this is where I am going to encourage you to give yourself permission to explore these ideas, but to do so with some clear parameters. So maybe you start off every day with 20 minutes of free writing. And in those 20 minutes, you can explore whatever new ideas you're coming up with. You can continue to develop a new idea that might be sitting on the shelf. Whatever that looks like for you, give yourself permission and some structured time to honor those ideas and the energy that accompanies it. And then when that time is done, it's done. Then you move back to the projects and the concepts that you are currently putting into place. So it's not about either or, it's not either I work on my existing project, or I explored this new idea. We can create room for both. But we need to be very intentional and structured with how we do so so that we don't get pulled away by shiny object syndrome. So your task then is to think about what that might look like for you. Does it look like a 20 minute free writing session in the morning? Does it look like recording voice memos while you're going for your afternoon run? Feel free to try out different techniques and see what works best for you. And that, my friends, is our deep dive into what four years ago I talked about as the opportunity-overwhelm border, and what I now prefer to think of as a cycle. I hope that you have found today's episode helpful that there are some key pieces in there that you can apply both with your own clients, and maybe with yourself too. And I want to know what you think about this. So come find me over on Instagram @CoachwithClarity, you can drop me a DM or you can leave a comment on the post about today's episode. And let me know your thoughts. Do you find that you tend to get caught up in the opportunity-overwhelm cycle? If so, what helps you break free from it? Or what strategies have you used with your clients that have served them? Let's continue the discussion over on Instagram @CoachwithClarity. And we will definitely continue this discussion when we move into our future episodes about planning for the new year. I'm really excited to share some ideas and some processes that you may want to incorporate into your planning time. So if you're not already following this podcast, be sure to do so, that way you won't miss any upcoming episodes. So wherever you listen to your podcasts, there is likely a button that either says follow or subscribe, make sure you click that button and then you can be assured that future episodes of the Coach with Clarity Podcast will automatically show up in your feed. I can't wait to connect with you next week in a brand new episode of the show. But until then, my name is Lee Chaix McDonough, reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.

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