There’s a difference between being busy and being overwhelmed; just like there’s a difference between being bored and feeling listless. One is a mild state that may cause some discomfort but not distress; while the other can be painful and even harmful if it continues for too long.
Like with many things, gradual changes are the hardest to notice. But if you’ve ever swung rapidly from drowning in work to having nothing to do – or visa versa – you may have already realized that either extreme can be unhealthy, but somewhere in the middle there is – there must be – a Goldilocks zone where everything is in balance.
Level of Engagement
What I like to call “level of engagement” is the sum of everything you currently have on your plate. That includes all your responsibilities, projects, upcoming events, as well as everything else demanding your attention like your relationships and social engagements. Each of those items has it’s own “weight” based on factors like: how interesting you find it, or how complex or difficult it is. Add that all together and each person is carrying around a different mental load.
Each person has a different capacity for engagement, just like each person has a different capacity for living heavy things. And just like with lifting, that base capacity can depend on things like skill, age, and disability. If you go far beyond your capacity for a short time you might get injured or become exhausted and need time to recover. But go over your capacity for a long time and that injury can become permanent.
What’s perhaps harder to imagine – especially in this weightlifting metaphor – is that everyone also has a lower limit for engagement, or a minimum weight they need to carry to feel grounded. This minimum will also depend on things like age and disability. Have too little engagement for a short time and you might feel bored or restless and seek out stimulation or distraction. But have too little engagement for a long period of time and you might start to feel aimless, lose self-confidence, and even become depressed.
We humans like to be active, to play, to learn, to explore, to engage. Many people manage to spend most of their lives in a happy middle-ground and never experience much of the extremes. But as our society demands more and more from us while dismissing some of us entirely, many of us are still stuck at either extreme.
What an Ideal Level of Engagement Looks Like
Some call it a “flow state,” where our abilities are at their highest and things feel effortless. Some call it “the zone,” where focus is at it’s sharpest and the rest of the world melts away. Reaching that balance of an ideal level of engagement means that we are functioning at our natural best and can sustain that for an extended period of time.
On a small scale, this might look like focusing on a project or task and being absorbed in it without feeling bored or overwhelmed. On a larger scale, this could look like confidence and feeling in control of everything going on in your life such as your roles, projects, and day to day tasks.
If you want to learn more about “flow state” check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work.
This knowledge and understanding is powerful because we can use it to make adjustments in our lives and spend as much time as possible in that ideal “Goldilocks zone” where we work best.
On the day to day level that could mean managing your engagement focus by making adjustments to your tasks or your environment to help you focus and maintain that focus for longer.
In the longer term, that means creating a balanced lifestyle for yourself that is full enough, but not too full.