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Consumer Behavior

Overwhelmed Much?

Here are 9 reasons most of us are more overwhelmed than we should be.

CollegeDegrees360/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0
Source: CollegeDegrees360/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Two Scenarios:

Scenario #1: You wake up to the birds chirping and the morning sun on your face. You emerge from your hut and greet some early-risers. Your children are still fast asleep. You stretch your legs and walk around the village, socializing and discussing plans for the day.

After a while you get some folks together, and head out to gather some roots, nuts, and berries, singing, talking, and playing as you go. Two hours later (though you would never speak in such precise terms), your foraging party returns with plenty of food and firewood for the whole tribe. You set it down and play with the children a bit. After a short nap you craft for awhile, and then help prepare the big meal. After dinner people gather around the fire to sing, dance, play, and talk about plans for the next day.

How overwhelming does that sound?

Scenario #2 is your own life. You’ll have to describe that to yourself. And when you do, be sure to include as much detail as you can.

Include all the errands you have to run, all the things you have to do for work or school, all the steps of hygiene you have to do to be minimally presentable, all the chores you must do to make your home minimally presentable on the inside and on the outside, all the activities to which you must drive the children, all the regulations to follow, all the bills to pay, all the television shows to keep up with, all the friends to see, all the global issues to worry about, all the tragedies to be sad about, all the Joneses to keep up with, all the temptations to resist, all the bad habits you’re having trouble kicking, all the good habits you’re having trouble starting, all the decisions to make, all the parts of your body to feel inferior about, all the items on your bucket list that you’re afraid you’ll never get to.

How overwhelming does your own life feel?

A Cultural/Biological Mismatch

The biological underpinnings of our minds (both body and brain) were built to handle life in the first scenario, not the second. That’s because, when the hardware of our minds was being formed, life was much more like the first scenario than the second.

That’s not to say that our minds are just hardware. Cultural and conceptual innovations have vastly expanded the power and function of our minds. But that’s part of the problem. Relentless cultural innovation, while promising to give us more power and freedom, is also pressing our hardware to its limits. We have only so much attention to give, only so many neurotransmitters and stress hormones to burn through in a day, and only so much memory available to manage different relationships and contexts. And the demands on those systems have been increasing.

We can usually muddle through, but often just barely. Even so, it’s far from optimal, and leaves us feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and unfulfilled. It’s kind of like trying to play a video game on a system that can barely handle it. The game runs, but there are too many glitches, lags, and crashes to make it much fun.

Let’s look at some of the ways society has changed since our slower paced days on the savanna. And then we’ll consider what can be done about the mismatch between our biology and our culture.

9 reasons we are more overwhelmed than we used to be

1. We compare ourselves to more people.

On the savanna our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have lived in tribes of 50-150 people. And they might have encountered only 1000 people in their whole lives. [1]

When they compared themselves to others, there were plenty of reasons to feel good about themselves. With thousands of things to be good at, it was even likely that they were the best in the whole known world at something. They were the go-to person for some skill, or the ideal exemplar for some attribute. They might even have been the best looking or strongest person in “the world”.

The problem with wanting to be the best at something in the modern world is that, in the modern world, we are connected to 7 billion people. And mass media is always there to show us the best of the best. Instead of comparing our physical attributes to those of the 150 people in our tribe, we compare our physical attributes to the top 150 people out of 7 billion people. No matter which attribute we choose, we always find ourselves coming up short. Pick any skill we’re good at, and, chances are, we can find someone on YouTube who performs that skill far better than we do.

All of this leaves us overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, and obsessed with finding ways to boost our self-esteem.

Notable culprits: Youtube, movies, magazine covers.

2. We have more anxiety about what’s going on in the world.

On the savanna, if something bad happened to one of the members of your tribe, you would hear about it. Most days, though, not much bad happened.

In the modern world there are 7 billion chances for something bad to happen to someone. And our communication systems ensure that, wherever that bad news happens, we will hear about it. A tragedy that might happen once per year in a tribe of 150 will happen many times a minute in a tribe of 7 billion.

The irony is that, while the world is safer than ever, we feel like it’s more dangerous than ever. Our ancestors were much more likely to die of violence or infection, than we are today. But our perception is the reverse.

This adds to our overwhelm in two ways. First, it causes us to overestimate the danger lurking in our own neighborhoods. Second, while our psychologies are built to process trauma maybe a few times a year, now we have to do so several times per day.

Notable culprits: the nightly news; online news feeds.

3. Personal communication is more complicated.

Personal communication takes more work these days. But it’s not because we have more relationships to manage than our ancestors did (we don’t actually have that many more personal relationships). Instead it’s the way we have to manage those relationships that makes things more difficult.

The problem is that we must compartmentalize more. On the savanna everyone knew each other, and everyone shared the same context. Today we travel in different circles. We have work friends, school friends, family, church friends, and so on.

Most of the people in one circle don’t know the people in the other circles. And this presents us with a communication challenge. Facts taken for granted in one circle must be explained in another. And sometimes that can be very difficult. For instance, those who work in specialized fields might find it very difficult to explain to friends and family what it is they are studying in school or doing for a living.

That communication challenge is part of what leads us to develop different personas for interacting in different circles. The personas help us keep straight which facts can be taken for granted in a given situation, and which ones need explaining. But the more personas we have, the more disjointed we can feel, and the more work we have to do to keep things straight.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it contributes some of the burden to our overwhelmed minds.

Notable culprits: cosmopolitan cities, specialization, universities.

4. Managing values is more complicated.

While discussing facts has become a little more complicated, discussing values has become vastly more complicated.

On the savanna everyone shared the same religion, and there were no political ideologies. Today most of us have friends and acquaintances representing many different religious views, many different political ideologies, and many different ideas about what makes for a good society and a life well-lived.

Diversity brings many benefits. Diverse societies are more inventive. And people who embrace diversity can learn to see life from many different perspectives. But diversity imposes psychological costs as well.

If you grow up in a religious family, go away to college, and then lose your religion, you might feel like you have to choose between hiding your opinions and dealing with low-level conflict for years. And you might wind up doing both. If you are a conservative working among progressives (or vice versa), you will likely have to choose many times per month whether you’re in the mood for conflict or prefer to bite your tongue when political topics are raised.

Today our minds are far more occupied with normative matters. We must spend more time working out what our own opinions are, and we have to spend more time figuring out how we are going to deal with the people in our lives with whom we disagree. Do we live in the closet, live in a bubble, try to make everyone happy, avoid certain topics altogether, or put on our combat gear?

Notable culprits: cosmopolitan societies, the internet.

5. We have more aspirations and bigger bucket lists.

What did people aspire to on the savanna? I don’t know. Let’s speculate. Some might have aspired to lead the tribe, or have ten children, or become the best berry-picker, clothing maker or spear-maker in the tribe. Some might have aspired to climb “that mountain”, or be one of the few brave enough to wrestle a crocodile. Who knows?

It’s a good guess, though, that they were exposed to fewer large, time-consuming aspirations than most of us are exposed to today. They had fewer aspirations because fewer things were possible.

They didn’t aspire to visit all 50 states, or all 7 wonders of the world. They didn’t aspire to learn 7 different languages or master 5 different instruments. They didn’t aspire to found 3 different tech firms, make ten million dollars, or finish off the “perfect” kitchen with granite counter tops.

But we do aspire to things like these. These “bucket list” items tend to be very big projects and are often put in our heads by other people almost at random. We read an article titled: “100 movies you must see before you die” and we oblige ourselves to see them all. And then we either suffer through 70 boring movies to see 30 good ones, or we feel guilty for not doing so. Either way, it adds to our burden.

Technology has delivered us an embarrassment of riches. There are too many neat places to visit and cool things we can accomplish. And our minds are built to want to do them all. But trying to do them all is an overwhelming fool’s errand.

Notable culprits: technology (giving us more things to aspire to), marketing (making us feel like we should aspire to them).

6. We have more temptations.

In order to have temptation you need two things. One part of your mind wants to follow a rule (either consciously or unconsciously), and another part of your mind wants to break the rule.

Modern life hits us from both sides. Modern media gives us more instruction to resist our biological urges, and it also gives us more invitations to satisfy our biological urges. The result is that we have to wrestle against more temptation.

Modern media tells us over and over that we need to watch what we eat, so we can have a perfect body. And modern marketing also barrages us with carefully crafted images and videos of hot pizza, decadent cheese cake, and juicy burgers.

Modern media drills into our heads the importance of being industrious and productive, so we can make more money. And modern marketing also shows us a thousand fun things we could be doing instead of working.

Notable culprits: marketing, technology.

7. We have more distractions.

Smart phones and social media are great. They add a lot of value to many people’s lives. But doesn’t something seem a little off when people can’t drive their cars for ten minutes without checking for text messages?

We are constantly marketing ourselves on social media and checking to see if our efforts are working. We text others and then check obsessively to see if they texted back.

It’s hard to focus on important tasks because we’ve opened ourselves up to more interruptions than ever. And these interruptions are coming from both the inside and the outside, from our own minds, and from other people.

And we’re not just allowing more interruptions during our free time. It’s happening at work as well. In a study conducted by Gloria Mark people were interrupted at work several times per day, and it took an average of 23 minutes to get back on task after a full interruption. Yet people were still getting most of (but not all of) their work done. How? They worked faster and longer to make up for the interruptions. [2]

This is a good indication that knowledge work, at least, is much more stressful than it used to be.

Notable Culprits: smart phones, social media, social expectations.

8. We have more social expectations.

On the savanna parents let their kids run around the village and might have trained them in their own area of relative expertise. Today parents shuttle kids around all weekend, worry about their academic success, create conflict with coaches over playing time, and help them with school projects to make sure the child’s work is good enough to compete with the other kids (whose parents are also helping them).

On the savanna we might have been teased for leaving our crafting tools lie at the entrance to our hut. Today we get (or fear we will get) dirty looks from the neighbors if we don’t spend hours each week watering, mowing, fertilizing, trimming, power washing, blowing, and spraying our front yards (or paying someone else to do it).

On the savanna we displayed hand-made crafts in our huts and might have spent 5 minutes per week tidying things up a bit. Today we have to make sure the furniture matches the paint, the 12 rooms of the house form a coherent theme, we upgrade to stainless appliances and granite countertops when we are able, and that the house (all 12 rooms of it) is always spic and span.

On the savanna we bathed once in a while and might have done something fancy with our hair from time to time. Today we spend an hour or more getting ready every morning. We must shower, brush our teeth, take our vitamins, apply our makeup, exfoliate our skin, put on moisturizer, shave, and put together a stunning outfit.

And so on. There are simply too many expectations these days for anyone to satisfy them all. And that means most people are walking around today both overwhelmed and feeling like they are shirking their duty in some way.

Notable Culprits: social norms, HGTV, too many ways to “keep up with the Joneses”.

9. We have more stuff.

Have you heard the one about the hunter-gatherer who asked her friend to help her move her stuff to a hut across the village? Her friend said “sure” and they were done in ten minutes.

We have more stuff than ever. Our small children get something like 75 new toys each year. We have old computers and phones piling up on shelves and in drawers, and we park cars on the street because our 3-car garage has room for only one car.

There are many statistics about how much stuff we have floating around on the internet. Some seem exaggerated (like the claim that the average household has 300,000 items in it), but many seem quite plausible (like the claim that US children own 40% of the world’s toys).[3]

Regardless of what the exact numbers are, most of us know we have too much stuff. And the more stuff we have, the more stuff we can lose track of, the more stuff we have to keep clean, the more stuff we have to protect, and the harder it is to get friends to help us move.

Notable Culprits: consumerism, abundance, marketing, social norms.

What Now?

So what can we do about all this? Do we just have to give in to despair and prepare for an eventual breakdown?

Before we do that, let’s first remind ourselves that life in the modern world is not all doom and gloom. Of all the times we could have been alive, now is not really as bad as many people believe. We have many advantages. We have vaccines, antibiotics, sanitation, hot tubs, video games, and much more knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. We have a lower chance of dying from violence or infection than in the past. And there are some exciting technologies coming down the pipeline that should make life even more interesting and abundant.

Even the parts that complicate our lives aren’t all bad. Normative diversity is often a good thing. Specialization can be a good thing. Living in a cosmopolitan society is a good thing. And it’s fun to see people do cool things on Youtube, even if it does leave us feeling inadequate at times.

That said, the world is more overwhelming than it needs to be.

And here are the three approaches to dealing with it that I think hold some promise:

First, we can work it from the inside. We can take inventory of all the things cluttering up our minds, get rid of much of it, and find better ways to organize the rest of it. This free course will walk you through that process.

Second, we can work on the outside. We can take inventory of all the things cluttering up our homes and workspaces, get rid of much of it, and find better ways to organize the rest of it. Here’s a pretty good guide for doing that.

Third, we can change our habits, goals, and lifestyle so that we don’t accumulate as much stuff and mental baggage.

We live in exciting times. If we can figure out how to manage the downsides of our progress, we might be able to have our cake and eat it, too.


[1] That’s a back-of-the-envelope number arrived at using Dunbar’s Number .

[2] These figures come from Gloria Mark's interview with Fastcompany.

[3] This is an interesting collection of statistics about stuff. (though I had trouble finding primary sources for many of the statistics)

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