Busy, busy, busy? How to go from overwhelmed to calm

Burnout series: Is there any need to be constantly busy? Write yourself a Calm Manifesto instead

Calm is the absence of disturbance of any kind – physical, mental, emotional or spiritual

Calm is the absence of disturbance of any kind – physical, mental, emotional or spiritual


This is part of series on the subject of burnout which continues next week in The Irish Times and on irishtimes.com. We would like to hear from readers who have suffered burnout. What is your experience?  Email us at magazine@irishtimes.com with ‘Burnout’ in the subject line, and include your name, a contact number and your story in less than 300 words. 

We all feel overwhelmed at times. Justifiably or not, we feel like we have too much on our plate. Bump into someone and ask how they are. “Oh, crazy busy!” Busyness is a badge. We wear it with pride. Crazy with busyness. Our worth connected to our accomplishments. Human beings redefined as human doings.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great problem to have, too much to do. It means choice. Imagine the opposite. Still, amid this craziness, how can we achieve calm? A sense of contentedness? An overall peace of mind from a life well-lived? How can we become well, beings?

Before we talk about calm and contentedness, we should define them.

Contentedness is a state of satisfaction, as opposed to, and pervading, temporary rushes of joy or pain we experience and over which we have little control. Contentedness is not the constant presence of joyous moments (that is not possible) but an underlying long-term sense of peace with our world.

Calm is the absence of disturbance of any kind – physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. The feeling that, at any moment, we are doing the right thing and behaving the right way.

James Parnell of TheWellBeing Gym
James Parnell of TheWellBeing Gym

Fundamentally, calm is a choice. And thankfully, it’s the path of least resistance. That is not to play down the problems many of us face. But in the direst of circumstance there is hope knowing we are capable of demonstrating our strength of character. That is the choice that can never be taken from us.

Going from overwhelmed to calm

Given that definition, how can we move along the continuum from overwhelmed to calm?

Let’s look at the elements of a contented, well-lived life. Think of calm, contented people you know – not necessarily rich, maybe not successful by traditional definition, not necessarily famous. What kind of character are they? What do they do? What do they not do?

Think of those moments when you are most calm. Everyone has their personal place. The cup of tea in the garden in Cavan, the meditation by the Atlantic, the hike in the Mourne mountains, the cycle along the new Greenway or the afternoon snooze away from work.

I finally hung a hammock in the garden this week (the irony). Today, after lunch, I felt tired. I had a deadline – this article in fact. I lay in the hammock, closed my eyes, stuck on the headphones. My entire body relaxed. The world drifted away. At that moment I had a deep sense of calm. I knew that what I was doing at that moment was the right thing – among all the things. I was aligning with my energy.

The opposite of calm

Take the contrary view. What is the opposite of calm? What are the things that disturb you? Thinking this way allowed me to create my Calm Manifesto: while it’s easy to default to the emotions on the right, we can decide to choose the things on the left.

  1. Clarity: Knowing who you are and what is important over confusion (uneasiness, comparison, jealousy).
  2. Confidence: Comfort in you skin over doubt, fear, anxiousness, inadequacy.
  3. Response: Ability, action and growth over helplessness, apathy and being s stuck in a rut.
  4. Connection: Over isolation.
  5. Order: Simplicity over chaos (clutter).
  6. Alignment: Congruence, flow over conflict.
  7. Acceptance, tolerance: Over intolerance, annoyance, anger.
  8. Enough/Gratitude: Over inadequacy, greed, scarcity.

So, let’s talk about clarity

Consider again those (damn) calm people you know. What characteristics do they exhibit? They know who they are and what matters to them. You can trust them because they are consistent. What you see is what you get. They are not putting on a show. They are comfortable in their own skin because they rarely wear anything else. They are consistent because they have clarity. Like “essentialists”, they have figured out what’s important to them and stripped away what is not.

How can you do this? It requires self-awareness – simply asking yourself a few questions now and then. Accept that the answers are never final. They don’t even have to be correct. Often, the value is in asking. So, at any point, seek clarity to the big questions.

The Big Questions

Happiness: What is your definition of happiness? What are you doing? Who are you with? Consider everything you’re grateful for. For most, there are more reasons to be grateful than not. Or ask yourself, “what annoys me?”. Often we try to add more things to make us happy but often happiness might be much more simple, the absence of annoy. People with clarity know what makes them happy, what they care about and let go of the rest.

Meaning: Clarity is knowing our purpose – why you do what you do. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gives you a sense of mission? It may not give you pleasure but it allows you to strive. Paul Dolan, author of Happiness by Design, talks of happiness comprising of both pleasure and purpose. The pendulum can swing too far one way towards hedonism or the opposite meaning we are off balance. People with clarity have a purpose. They know why they do what they do.

Attention: Consider your life as a whole – not just career, not just family, not just health. What are the areas of your life which deserve your attention? There is a difference between caring about something and taking care of something. the latter includes action. Don’t just talk the talk. If it needs attention, take action. People with clarity know what areas need attention and attend to those areas.

Principles: What are your values or your principles? What is important to you? What motivates the decisions you make every day? It might be personal or financial security, teamwork, achievement, contribution, making a difference, family, friendship, personal growth or wellbeing. People with clarity know how they want to be and behave according to their values.

Strengths: What are the positive parts of your character? What do other people say compliment you on? Don’t forget to improve and develop but don’t get hung up on weaknesses. Use your character strengths. People with clarity know what they’re good at and use their character to contribute.

People with clarity have a MAP – mission, attention and principles. The answers to the above questions form your Life Canvas. When you introduce yourself, this helps summarise who you are.

We all need an internal compass to contribute to our peace of mind. We need to be clear inside to deal with the craziness outside. These are big questions, scary for some. But they don’t get any smaller by ignoring them.

  • James Parnell is the founder of The WellBeing Gym, which provides offline and online workplace wellness, performance and innovation programmes and personal life design coaching; james-parnell.com.Read the next chapter in the Busy Person’s Guide to Calm in Health + Living next week.
  • If you feel you are suffering from burnout, discuss the problem with your GP. The charity Aware (1800 80 48 48) provides support on mental health issues
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