When’s the last time you were overwhelmed? It might have been a few minutes ago. It’s common today for a variety of reasons. Busyness. Responsibilities. Character issues or good old-fashioned disobedience. Mixed messages and confusion. Disappointment. Fear. Quick pace. Perfectionism.

Children can become overwhelmed very quickly for a variety of reasons as well. For some, one homework assignment is one too many. For others, it takes three or four responsibilities or activities in one night to make them feel overwhelmed. Are you concerned about this as the new school year gets underway?

How do you respond when you’re overwhelmed? What about your kids? Many report feeling paralyzed and doing nothing. I can be guilty of this, at times, especially if I’m tired on top of being overwhelmed. Now accomplishing little or nothing adds to my being overwhelmed. It’s a vicious cycle. Maybe you’re in a different cycle.

What can we do about it?

Recently, I met with a friend who would like to write more. In between bites of fabulous barbecue, she shared some of her interests and concerns with me. I asked her why she’s not writing more. She answered with something like, “When I read what I write, it feels like I dumped a large puzzle on the table, cardboard crumbs and all. I don’t know what to do with it.”

We both chuckled and I assured her that I knew how that felt. Then I asked her how she finishes a puzzle. Without hesitating, she said she finds the corners and straight edges first. Exactly!

We then talked about how we might also group the inside pieces by color. For example, we might identify which pieces are part of the sky and which might be a part of a brick building. We might also group pieces by shape.

But, we usually don’t wait to connect pieces until they’re all sorted. Rather, we connect those that we see obviously go together. We complete the border and then move to the inside. We connect one piece at a time, keeping the big picture in mind. We expect to make progress and the more pieces we put into place, the clearer the design becomes.

We then talked about how to approach her writing in this “divide and conquer” way. She can critique whether her verbs are active and her adjectives are vivid. She can critique her paragraph organization and the flow of the piece. She can decide if the readers will take away what she hoped they would. She can ask if she wrote with the right perspective or purpose – to inform, instruct, inspire, persuade, or something else.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this divide and conquer puzzle analogy can help me. I can use it for more than my writing. I sometimes look at my to do list and am overwhelmed by how much is there. Or, I stand in my kitchen and become acutely aware of all I need to do.  I’m paralyzed from starting rather than motivated to accomplish something. That is far from ideal.

I’m now looking for the equivalent of corner pieces and straight edges and beginning with those. Then I tackle more details while I brush the “cardboard crumbs” out of the way so they don’t distract me. Progress happens one task or piece at a time.

Maybe you could gather your family, get a puzzle, and dump the pieces out onto a table. Talk with your children about similarities between finishing a puzzle and finishing tasks that have them overwhelmed. Talk about connecting one piece or doing one thing at a time while keeping the big picture in mind. Then, keep this language alive, using the puzzle analogy when you or your kids experience being overwhelmed. “Just one more piece.” “Look for a corner piece.” “What goes with that piece?”

Let me know how it goes. I’d love to know.