If You’re Overwhelmed With Too Many Priorities, Ask Yourself This Question
The world is full of possibilities, and you want to do it all.
You want to take that course, start that project, read that book, learn that skill, all while making time for your day job, hobbies, spiritual practice, friends and family—and all in the next month or two.
It always happens in cycles: you get excited about a bunch of (genuinely interesting!) things, and you fill your schedule to the brim. Some people can make it all work, so why wouldn’t you?
At first it feels exciting, but eventually it gets overwhelming.
You know you need to prioritize, but everything seems so important that you don’t know what to drop. And then the worst happens: you get so obsessed about choosing the right thing and taking the most effective step possible that you end up paralyzed.
So you procrastinate. Then, as time goes by and deadlines approach, you are forced to choose the urgent over the important. You feel disappointed with your results, and you lack clarity and focus on what to do next. Inevitably, you always end up asking yourself: Why do I keep choosing the wrong things? Why didn’t I start things earlier? How can I plan better next time?
The answer: ask yourself a different question.
The Question You Need To Ask Yourself
A few years ago when I quit my job and decided to change my life, I had a long list of things I wanted to do: start a Youtube channel about relationships, work as a live performing artist, start my own blog, find remote freelance gigs, become a life coach, learn meditation and yoga and travel the world and many other things.
As surprising as it may seem, I started by doing most of those things, all at the same time.
Obviously, that didn’t go very well.
I quickly became overwhelmed. I never had time to relax; I felt guilt and FOMO whenever I worked on one thing because that meant neglecting something else; I felt that my life lacked coherence and focus, and instead everything seemed like a messy collage of activities and habits that didn’t make sense together and instead of fulfilling me only scattered my energy, attention, and happiness.
And that’s when it hit me: I had to look beyond the surface.
When we get too busy or lack clarity or focus, our first instinct is to try and find new systems and solutions. We try that new productivity software, we read a new book, we change our to-do lists and goal setting strategies, but we forget to look at the most important component: our very human needs that made us want those things in the first place.
So I simply asked myself:
“What do I really need?”
What was behind my drive to pursue all those dreams, tasks, projects, and habits? What holes was I trying to fill in my heart and soul? What was the purpose of all that?
When we were babies, we were very aware of our own needs: we cried when we needed food or love or sleep, and we laughed when we were covered for fun, intimacy, or contentment. As we grew older, things got more complex as we discovered needs such as appreciation, learning, personal growth, or emotional closeness. But the truth is, as human beings, we still function in the exact same way: we can’t be happy if our needs aren’t met (and our needs are usually much simpler than we think).
As I shifted my thinking from “what should I do” to “what do I need”, things started becoming clearer.
I noticed more obvious needs such as financial stability and creative expression, mixed with less obvious ones such as the need for spirituality, community, and independence. I discovered a strong need for freedom that translated into wanting to work for myself, along with a need to help others, contribute, and collaborate.
Every task or project or possibility had a very strong, deeply rooted reason to be on my mind or in my calendar—I just had never thought to look at it before.
Gradually, I came to understand that I didn’t necessarily have to keep my Youtube channel (which I didn’t enjoy so much anymore), or spend so much time doing freelance work just to pay the bills. As long as I met my need to be seen and appreciated, to be creative, to have fun, to have a positive impact in the world and to sustain myself financially while being free to travel, I would be happy with pretty much any professional occupation. It turned out that starting a blog was the answer.
I invite you to make a list of all the tasks, habits, and projects in your life (present, future, or just hypothetical), and then ask yourself: “What are the needs that make me want to do those things in the first place?”
You might realize that your strong desire to keep taking different courses comes from a deep need for learning and discovery. And you can go deeper: so why is it that you feel overwhelmed with so much “knowledge”? You might want to balance your need to learn with your need for creativity. Or maybe you just don’t feel stimulated enough by the things you’re studying, and you need a change. Or you might realize that the only reason you’re studying is because you just don’t know what else to do and your real need is to find purpose and meaning.
In the process of discovering your needs, you might also find some hard truths. For example, you might realize that you took a job offer just to please your parents, or that you’re pursuing certain goals in a desperate attempt to become someone that you’re not. In those cases, keep asking until you find the source: why do I worry so much about what others think? Why do I struggle to accept myself? In what other ways can I bring my parents happiness? How can I heal this relationship?
Another question you can ask yourself is: “What other needs do I have that I am not currently meeting?”
To answer this question, it might help to look at moments or interactions in your life when you feel unhappy or less than proud of your behavior (such as procrastination, conflict with others, or feeling confused).
You can be surprised by the answers. Think of needs you don’t usually consider: do you have enough personal space? Accomplishment in your work? Time to rest? Time to play? Authenticity in your relationships? Sexual expression? Opportunities to practice compassion? Safety and stability?
Now, take into account that no matter how many needs you find, your time is limited. This is why you need to prioritize. The question to ask here is: “How can I optimize my actions so that each of them meets as many of my needs as possible?”
For example, consider meeting your friends for a walk instead of a coffee place so that you can meet your need for companionship and physical movement at the same time. Find an occupation that satiates your curious and creative nature while providing you the financial stability you need. Leave your mark in the world in a way that is both fun, fulfilling, challenging, and helpful to others.
When you have enough clarity around your needs—what’s been missing, why you choose the things you choose, and why you get overwhelmed—then it might be time to consider new options.
Just to liberate yourself from all the ideas you were stuck with before, leave them aside for a moment. Instead, ask yourself: “What are the craziest things I could do to meet my needs?”
For example, I often consider possibilities such as leaving everything behind and learning meditation in a cave in the Thai jungle, give away everything I own, start a new business from scratch, shave my head, or stop everything I’m doing and just write a novel. More often than not they stay in my imagination, but considering them helps me broaden my perspective, and once in a while there is a great idea among them that I actually follow.
That’s me when I shaved my head a few years ago.
Sometimes, all we need is a bit of perspective.
Sometimes, in order to understand what to do next or what to let go of, you just need to look from a higher point of view so you can see the whole path. If you don’t reflect on your deepest needs and consider them when you make decisions, it’s very unlikely that you will ever be happy or satisfied.
It’s okay to not know what to do. It’s okay to be confused and overwhelmed. That, too, is a sign of a need unmet. When it happens to me, it’s usually a cry for stillness and clarity, and in order to meet it I love taking time to be in silence. I go to the forest on my own, sit by the ocean, or simply look out the window. Very often, this is enough—that’s how simple it gets when you identify the right needs.
Perhaps, if you find yourself needing clarity and stillness right now, this might be a good next step for you too. Spend a moment on your own, maybe in nature, without social media, without distractions or external stimuli. Maybe you take your journal with you. Maybe use it to get in touch with your deep, real, human needs.
If you want, here’s a free fill-in printable with all the questions in this article plus a few extra ones that will help you reflect and better understand your needs and, therefore, make better decisions and regain the clarity you’ve been craving: