The last two years of my life were dynamic. Pretty dynamic. Overwhelmingly dynamic at times. In other words, there was so much to be done at any given moment, that it seemed impossible. I was a government advisor (1.5 years) and then helped organizing an election campaign (3 months).
I had so many tasks, so many emails, so many meetings, so many people to talk with, that it all felt overwhelming.
It wasn’t stressful — nothing bad would have happened if the tasks had not been done or if the emails had not been answered.
It wasn’t tiring — it didn’t lead to excessive sleep deprivation or too much mental strain.
It was just…too many things. Too many simple, little things —many of which individually would take around 10 minutes. Some would take longer, some would have to be dragged on for a while. But overall no task was insurmountable, no task was impossible to do even in a self-imposed deadline.
There were just too many things. Throughout the whole day. And they were overwhelming.
And this meant a lot of multitasking and context switching. Quickly get the context of this email and answer, while preparing for the meeting in half an hour, and read an important document on the way there, while rejecting a phone call from someone you’d have to meet the next day.
I kept all pending tasks in a “To do” list. Sometimes it grew out of control, but I kept it down and went through the items vigourously each day. Because of the nature of my advisory and volunteer work, none were “mandatory”, most were self-initiated. And I had to drop some of them — too much hassle for too little effect. Prioritization was important — based on effort-to-result ratio and based on timing.
But in order to even formulate tasks, I had to skim through emails and long documents, through legal texts even, and quickly come up with an actionable task. That alone is… a task. At least that’s an important skill to have.
Communication was a huge overhead. Dozens of direct messages. And none of them about smalltalk — all were actionable. Leaving a response and acting upon them is a great overwhelming distraction.
Was I efficient? Not as much as I wanted to be. I’m sure quality suffered. I’m sure my ability to concentrate suffered.
Multitasking is bad for you. It gives the sense of achievement; deleting all those “To do” items felt good, as if a lot of work is done. When I looked back that wasn’t necessarily the case. Answering an email is not actual work. Even though sometimes it requires a lot of context and a lot of thought and even research.
But being overwhelmed wasn’t bad because of reduced efficiency, tiredness or stress. I didn’t feel tired or stressed. It actually felt good.
But it was bad because it left no time for being focused doing something “on the side”. It left no cognitive power for reading long stories or a lot of materials on a particular topic of interest. If I had this multitasking routine 5 years ago, I would’ve never written an algorithmic music composer, I wouldn’t have written poetry and I wouldn’t have been able to learn and experiment with new technologies.
Now the overwhelming times have probably passed. They were a great experience, but now it’s time for less “To do” items and more time for each of them.
Being overwhelmed doesn’t mean being stressed or tired. It is a “mode of operation”. But I think it should not be permanent, as it disadvantages you in the long run.