Getting Control of Overwhelm

November 2, 2019

Today I want to talk about a problem that’s endemic to the dog training community: Overwhelm.

I suspect you know what I’m talking about: So many sports to explore! So many classes to take! So much foundation work to do before I can do anything else! Help!

Overwhelm is at least in part the product of the internet explosion of dog training options, which is actually a really awesome problem to have. When I first started training, I was limited to working with whomever was local to me. Or to learning from books. Both were great options, but limited in scope. Life was simple as a result: I would have to choose between taking an Obedience class and an Agility class (and, early on, Agility didn’t exist so it was just Obedience or… Obedience), and my decision was typically made based on which one fit best into my schedule.

Today we face pandemonium. Every two months, for example, FDSA releases around 40 different classes across more than a dozen sports and topics. That’s over 240 courses a year, just at this one school. Given the number of on-line dog trainers there are now, we can now choose from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of on-line training classes.

As for sports? Oh my! Wikipedia currently lists over 65 different dog sports to choose from, and no doubt that list will keep growing.

Local classes are also multiplying, as dog sports are becoming more popular. And then, of course, there are all the fabulous seminars, clinics, and other in-person learning opportunities available at a short (or not so short drive).

If I don’t want you to run screaming from your screen, I’d best not even get started on all the options for competing.

Couple the above with the explosion of other on-line learning opportunities (Udemy! Masterclass! Let’s learn ALL THE THINGS!!!), and ridiculously busy social and work lives, it’s no surprise that we often get stuck in overwhelm paralysis. And the result? We don’t focus, we don’t train, and we don’t meet our goals.

Recall our model for making sense of what’s going on in our brains:

Facts: 1000 on-line courses / 65+ dog sports / 247 seminars within an 8 hour drive next weekend / 1,947,328.5 different foundations skills to master before you can do anything else

Thought: I am so overwhelmed! I will never be able to learn / do all this

Feeling: Exhaustion. Anxiety. Confusion. Overwhelm.

Action: Hang out on Facebook, share memes, get into long debates about training theory

Result: You spin in place, and don’t make progress with your training

Don’t despair my friend! The above is actually GOOD news!

Why? Because notice where “overwhelm” sits. It’s a feeling, not a fact. And where do feelings come from? From thoughts!

And we can control our thoughts, and the feelings, actions, and results they produce.

Let me repeat this critical point: Overwhelm is the result of our thoughts about the facts, not of the facts themselves. Which makes feeling overwhelmed a choice. This means you can choose to feel overwhelmed, or you can choose not to.

Stick with me here: I have 11 dogs, sheep, miles of trails, a room full of exercise equipment, most elements of an agility field, and probably close to 100 on-line courses and webinars in my digital library. I know overwhelm.

Recognizing that I have full control over whether or not I feel overwhelmed has been life changing for me. In fact, I have not felt overwhelmed once since understanding how it works. Because I choose not to.

Try it right now. Think of all the things you want to get done this weekend. Make a quick list in your head. Feeling overwhelmed yet? Feeling that urge to hop on social media or curl up in front of Netflix? Uh-huh. I thought so.

Now, from that list, what is THE most important thing you NEED to get done? How long will it take? When are you going to do it? Pick a day and a time. Put it in your calendar. Commit to getting it done then. Let everything else take care of itself. You’ll get to those things when you decide to schedule them. Until then, fogetaboutit.

There. Feel better? That’s all you have to do. It’s called exercising constraint. As emotionally mature adults, it’s a skill we need to master.

Yes, constraint is a skill and it takes practice and discipline to master. I know, because I’ve been working hard at it for a long time, and I still struggle.

Here’s what constraint looks like for me these days. Right now, being autumn, my focus is on ONE sport: herding. ‘Tis the season, as my lambs are big enough to work, the footing is good, the cool weather is ideal for intense work, and I have set my schedule such that I can break most afternoons to get out and train.

I train a maximum of four dogs a day. I work them in pairs for about 10 minute each, with at least an hour break in between the pairs. While I am capable of training more, my effectiveness diminishes dramatically if I do. So I don’t. Quality over quantity.

I focus on those four dogs for a week, while the others get a daily hike. Next week, I will switch groups and intensely train the other four.

I thought about training each group every other day, but that’s too much decision making and too much energy trying to remember what I’m working on with each dog. So I choose to batch their training by week. I think the dogs do well with this approach. I know I do.

I train Monday through Friday, and take weekends off (I see training as part of my job, and treat it as such. You may have a different approach, depending on your lifestyle and goals).

The result? My dogs and I are making progress by leaps and bounds.

Training ten minutes a day consistently will advance your dog’s skills way more than training two hours once a week. In fact, training two minutes a day consistently will be also move you along faster than two hours once a week. I’ve run quite a few 2-minute challenges in my (free) 28 Days to Better Dog Training Habits group, and we are alway amazed by how much we can accomplish through this exercise in constraint

(if this sounds like something you need or would like to try, click the link above and join the fun! We’ll be doing some more challenge work this month)

Before signing off I want to give you a couple of tips that will help you eliminate overwhelm once and for all from your dog training (and your life in general!)

1. Anytime you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that it is just a thought. And a choice. You can choose to feel otherwise, simply by changing your thoughts. Look at the thought(s) you are having that are making you feel this way, and pick new ones. Yes, it really is that simple.

2. FOMO (fear of missing out): Yes, I know. The struggle is real. Here’s some advice that I came across years ago, and that I have found to be true: If you need to know it, it will cross your path again.

Nothing that is important to learn will be only available once and then vanish forever. If you need to know it, it will come back to you. In fact, it will keep coming back to you until you learn it. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the laws of the universe. So, if it’s not what you have chosen to prioritize, let it go for now.

3. Everything has a season. Right now, for me, it’s herding season. So, that is my focus. When winter hits, we will move most of our training indoors, and then it will be fitness and foundation season. Next spring, while I wait for my sheep to raise their lambs? Agility. And so on.

Focus on one thing now, knowing you can shift gears tomorrow, in a week, a month, a season, a year. None of this information is going anywhere; it will all be there when you choose to explore it. Emphasis on CHOICE.

Ok, that’s it for today! Give this practice a try over the weekend if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, and let me know if it helps.

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