The “One Thing” I learned about overwhelm from my brother’s death

And how it applies to all areas of life

Jorge Giraldo
4 min readJul 2, 2021
Photo by Olivia Stevens on Unsplash

Recently my brother died from complications related to Covid-19. It all happened very fast and left our family and friends in a state of shock and disbelief.

Among the most prevalent emotions that I had while he was in the hospital was fear, followed by sadness and a deep sense of loss after his death. And throughout the whole process, underlying these feelings, was one of impending overwhelm, which fortunately never came about.

I now believe that I avoided getting into a state of overwhelm because I had clear priorities, which guided my decisions and behavior during this difficult experience.

I avoided getting into a state of overwhelm because I had clear priorities.

Looking back, I see two areas of potential overwhelm that could have come up for me and those closest to my brother under these circumstances: emotional and work-related.

From an emotional perspective, I knew from my professional coaching practice and mindfulness training that just being present and letting people be with their emotions is extremely powerful. You don’t even have to say much, your presence alone will be beneficial.

Just being present and letting people be with their emotions is extremely powerful.

My parents were most vulnerable out of the whole family under these circumstances, and taking care of them became my priority. So my sister and I decided to spend time with our parents every day for about a week. My wife and my two daughters who live overseas joined us as well. We talked a lot, we remembered, we cried, we laughed and we were often silent. We were together. It was good for all of us. At the same time, we received calls and messages from extended family and friends. They were being present for us, even if briefly and from far away.

In hindsight, just being together, being present, was enough to minimize episodes of emotional overwhelm, allowing everyone to handle the shock and denial stage of grief in a loving, graceful, and almost peaceful way.

From a work-related perspective, I was aware that things could easily get out of hand and lead to major overwhelm if I tried to deal with all of my business responsibilities and commitments while I tried to be fully present with my family. My intuition told me that it was going to be one thing or the other, so I said YES to my family and NO to my business.

I said YES to my family and NO to my business.

Had I tried to juggle work meetings with being truly present with my family I would have probably done a poor job in both areas, I would have felt really bad and that’s precisely the point: trying to do everything at the same time is one of the behaviors that can get you to the state of overwhelm that is so prevalent today among those working from home, and especially among parents with young kids. There are no boundaries between work and personal life. Everything seems to be equally important. There is no clarity, there is no control.

Trying to do everything at the same time is one of the behaviors that can get you to a state of overwhelm.

Indeed, most of us have often felt overwhelmed throughout our lives, so it is no surprise that this is one of the most common issues that my coaching clients want to work on. When I ask them how they define it, the answer is usually something like “it’s what I feel when too many things are going on at the same time, and I feel that I can’t handle them all”; “it’s a sense of total lack of control, a feeling of helplessness”. It is a state of paralysis, in which it’s almost impossible to make rational decisions.

Regardless of any formal definition of overwhelm, each of us knows what we are talking about from personal experience. It is one of those states that we easily feel in our bodies, even if we can not rationalize it. One way to identify it is when the emotional intensity coming from one or more areas in our life — work, relationships, finances, school — outmatches our ability to manage it. Overwhelm produces stress, which can ultimately lead to burnout.

You may think that I was able to leave my business aside for a while because I work for myself. However, when I was a people manager at Google, I often asked my team what was the “One Thing”, “One Outcome” or “One Message” that they wanted to achieve from any important meeting or presentation (this is before Gary Keller and Jay Papasan published their great book, The One Thing). The mindset provoked by these questions helped us to focus on fundamentals every day and in most situations. It also led to less “busy work”, minimizing the probability of work-related overwhelm.

The “One Thing” mindset helped us to focus on fundamentals every day and in most situations.

So the “One Thing” I learned from my brother’s death regarding overwhelm is about the importance of having clarity about our priorities when critical, confusing, or unexpected situations arise. Priorities allow us to focus mostly on what matters, both personally and at work, minimizing the possibility of getting into the helpless state of trying to do it all that we call overwhelm.

--

--

Jorge Giraldo

Executive, life, and business coach. Ex people manager at Google. Helping turn the unexpected into a positive transformation. jorgegiraldocoaching.com