How to Not Be Overwhelmed

Neil StraussAdvice

The other day I was talking to someone who was completely overwhelmed with her email.

She told me that she was constantly receiving emails ALL the time, and this took away her time from everything else in life.

I asked her…

Do you have any boundaries around your email?

She wasn’t sure what I meant, so we drilled a bit deeper.

It turns out she always responded to everybody right away, to get it done and so that they knew she was responsible and attentive.

That’s true, I responded. But you’re also training people that it’s okay to contact you at any hour and expect a reply right away.

And if you don’t reply right away…

Well, people are going to get upset, feel like something’s wrong, or even feel like you’re being irresponsible.

So your work problem, I told her, bluntly, is absolutely your fault.

Behavior psychologists call this “The Law Of Effect,” and it’s defined as:

The events that follow an action will strengthen the likelihood that it will occur again.

So what’s the solution? To retrain people.

The idea is: People don’t need a response, they need reliability. So you don’t have to handle everything yourself right away. People just need to trust that it will be handled in time.

For example, when I’m on a book deadline, I use Freedom to lock myself off the Internet except for two hours each day (usually 5pm – 6pm and 11am – midnight). I also give my phone to someone else to hold for most of the day.

If I just did that without communicating to anyone I worked with, that would be irresponsible.

So what I do instead is create a bounceback email that let’s people know that I’m on deadline, and will only be checking messages at those hours.

Emergencies do come up, so I also let them know that if it’s time-sensitive, they can contact someone else. Then I give them an email of an assistant or a friend who’s keeping me accountable. Or, if I don’t have anyone and I feel something will come up, I give them a number of a disposable flip phone I have.

Here’s what’s interesting: Never, ever—not even once—has anything important come up where someone needed to contact me at my emergency email or number.

Two people have contacted me there, and they were totally frivolous wastes of time, so I ended up cutting those people out of my professional life.

That’s how a system works. Those who don’t respect it can’t be part of it.

Here’s the side effect: Not only was I much more productive and much happier, but most people figured I was working on something important, so I raised in their estimation by being less available.

And, as a great side effect, there were fewer messages to deal with at 5pm. In fact, message load was reduced by as much as ninety percent each day. This is because:

1. People figured out answers to their questions without me.

2. I wasn’t engaging in a long back and forth.

This overwhelm problem is just one symptom of a much larger issue.

It’s the issue of being unhappy with the way people treat you, without understanding why they treat you like this.

It’s the issue of becoming a victim to the compulsive, habit-forming addictions of messaging and social media.

It’s the issue of being unable to accept responsibility for the results in your life.

Here’s the deal:

If one person is treating you a certain way, it’s usually their problem.

But if everyone is treating you a certain way…

It’s your problem.

Let’s look at another example that is all too common in relationships.

Many people complain of “not being respected” by their partner.

The first question that comes to mind is:

When did you give your respect away?

Was it when you did something to please your partner, even when you didn’t agree?

When did you accept unacceptable behavior, even if it was just to avoid upsetting or losing your partner?

By avoiding disagreements with others, what we often create instead is resentment toward them.

This sounds like a completely different issue, but it’s not. The solution is the same: boundaries


You are training people how to treat you at all times, whether consciously or unconsciously.

But it’s not just about communicating boundaries. That’s easy to do.

The challenge is keeping your own boundaries. So if you are going to only respond to email at the end of the day, but you start responding to someone’s email in the morning or afternoon, then guess what?

You’re not only training them to expect special treatment from you for their emails, but you’re also teaching them that the boundaries you communicate are not real.

You’re teaching them to trample all over your boundaries by doing it yourself. You’re leading by example!

So my suggestion for today is to take a quick look at the themes in your life:

How are people treating you?

How are people treating your time?

Whether it’s socially, professionally, intellectually, spiritually, sexually, or romantically?

Is there a certain issue that repeatedly comes up with multiple people?

Once you identify the themes and accept responsibility for them, you can start ‘showing up’ differently and noticing the different results you get in life.

Of course, there are situations where for work, you need to be available at all hours. Or someone you’re in a relationship with doesn’t respect your time boundaries.

Then you still get to make a choice: Which is more important to you.

Here’s a simple thought that will save you more time than perhaps anything I’ve ever said: You can choose to end any relationship at any time – and you will be just fine!

Yes, you will. Really.


You are the source of most of the problems in your life.

Even if it’s a completely external problem, you are still the source of how you choose to interpret it and emotionally respond to it.

And if it’s something that’s affecting you and you really can’t control it, then your boundary can be a WALL – and you can just wall that person or situation off.

It takes the strong to do this. But guess what? People don’t respect the weak.

We’re not talking about the fake alpha male idea of strength, but the strength that comes from your convictions, from keeping your word, and from doing what’s right for your highest self.

What you put out, is what you get back.

Now go do important things!

By the way, as long as we’re on the subject of strength, for those who missed the Superhuman Intensive, a/k/a the Adrenaline Intensive, here are a few highlights.

We went to battle against those purveyors of evil, who are against everything we stand for, the Fixed Mindset League (a/k/a FML):

And yes, we won. A growth mindset will beat a fixed mindset every time.