If you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know that not long ago I discovered Seth Godin and his genius wisdom. At one point in his interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he talks about controlling your inputs in order to overcome a feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, not controlling your inputs can lead to overwhelm, stress, ignorance, dependency, and more, so I’d like to talk about this idea today.
Everything you read, hear, see, and do comes to you somehow as an input. The news you read in the morning, the stories your friends tell you, the tasks you choose to do at work, the art you choose to go see, these are all inputs that you engage with. But what happens when these inputs are too many, too time-consuming, or too demanding? We feel overwhelmed and stressed. What I’m about to discuss can apply equally to your work life as it can to your personal life, and I find that this is a problem I’ve faced while running the business side of my game development studio.
In Godin’s words, it’s a systems problem. We’re not controlling or managing the inputs we have in an efficient or effective way, and it leads to stress. The imagery he used (which I absolutely loved) was that “drinking from a firehose is a really bad way to get hydration. It’s a dumb choice to drink from a firehose,” even if it could hydrate you. I, of course, pictured someone grabbing a firehose, turning it on and carefully trying to get their lips in the stream only to have their face blown sideways by the ridiculously high pressure water over and over again. So how do we manage these systems?
Removing and Rebuilding Inputs
The first step toward diminishing stress from overwhelm is to remove all unnecessary inputs, to the best of your ability.
In Seth Godin’s case, he says that he doesn’t have a television, he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, and he doesn’t go to meetings. Not every input can be removed of course, but many of them can. When I say unnecessary inputs I mean anything that you have control over, even if it’s something you enjoy and feel that you need. Then, you can properly start from zero.
The next step is to add carefully picked inputs back into your life. By choosing the ones you care about most, you may realize that some of the things you do are done without you really wanting to. Again, I’m not talking about the things you don’t have a choice about, but rather the things that you do have a choice about but you might not realize it. Once this breakdown and rebuild of inputs is done, you will almost surely end up with less inputs than when you started.
Say No to More Things
In both business and in our personal lives, a lot of us (myself included) have trouble saying no. We think we’ll be missing opportunities or that we’ll offend someone, but I’ve found that saying no to things frees up my time and energy for much more useful things. I almost never miss much, and I’ve always found people to be more receptive to “no” than I thought they would be.
More specifically on the work side: do you really need to follow that business lead? How long will it take you to look into the new software they’re offering? Who told you about the software? How long will it take you to learn it if you do follow through with using it? For our company, I try to make sure that we choose the inputs we see when it comes to things like software. We don’t just open our ears to anyone selling us anything, we seek out a solution to a problem we have only if it’s an actual problem we actually have. Otherwise, I try to defend my team from the noise firmly and unapologetically.
Sometimes we feel like we just have too much to do. Maybe this concerns work, maybe it concerns our social lives, and maybe it concerns hobbies. We’re overwhelmed, and we don’t know where to start. I can think of two good ways to prioritize these inputs: starting small and pushing past discomfort.
Starting small is the best way to get past any kind of procrastination, and is an equally valuable strategy to get started when feeling like we have too much to do. When you look at a messy room with clothes everywhere, dust on shelves, and papers on a desk, you can start by choosing a small corner, working on it until it’s done, and moving along from there. This is an over-simplified situation, but it’s an example of a negative input that you didn’t choose and you need to deal with. In the past, I’ve written very brief outlines for documents I’ve had to prepare. This was as simple as starting a 90 slide presentation by writing six bullet points on a page. That was my first bit of work on the presentation, and that’s all I did on the task that day. From there I could go back another day and put more bullet points between the ones I had already created, and start moving along from there. The tiniest commitment to the start of a task can make a huge difference.
The second situation when prioritizing is to decide whether or not you have the energy to push past what might be a negative or difficult input. In Godin’s (paraphrased) words:
Do I care enough to experience discomfort to get to the other side? If I don’t, then I should turn off the input. Because sitting with an uncomfortable input when we don’t care enough to make things better is just a formula to be unhappy.
As I mentioned above, sometimes it’s not worth the effort to deal with the input. Oftentimes, the seemingly impossible-to-turn-off inputs can actually be turned off.
Control Your Inputs on Social Media
This one relates more to our personal lives, but could have applications in work as well. In our everyday lives, assuming you’re using social media, you’re being bombarded by ideas and thoughts and suggestions of what to do, where to go, how to dress, and what to think.
As much as Facebook’s algorithms are good at serving you information that you already want to see, you can’t stop there. If you do, you risk complacency and ignorance. Facebook, Google, etc. do not control your inputs, and I find that blaming them for your lack of balanced information is irresponsible. You actively choose to use their platforms to get your information, and even within those platforms if you stick to only the things that are being served to you, you will end up missing out on finding greater knowledge and truth.
Read opposing views of news stories that involve conflict between two sides, do the fact-checking on topics you’re going to consider sharing with others or being passionate about, stop spending time scrolling through your personalized news feed, stop falling into YouTube holes watching silly videos… these are all ways of reducing your inputs to things you actually control.
Seek Out Inputs, Don’t Let Them Seek You Out
To conclude, the common thread in this whole post is that you’ll be better off if you actively choose to seek out specific inputs. If you can avoid inputs that throw themselves at you and more purposefully seek out inputs, it can lead to less stress, less feelings of being overwhelmed, less time wasted, less ignorance, and less complacency. Generally speaking, this will create space and time for you to improve in the way you want to improve and live your own life, and not the life someone else tells you to live.