The Focus Course

Check Engine Light for Your Life

For six weeks, my car has been telling me to change the oil.

I finally got around to changing it, and now the tire pressure warning won’t stop beeping. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

In the busyness of life, things have a way of sneaking up on us. While the little warning message from my car may be annoying, these warnings are ultimately helpful.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, like our cars, there was a check engine light for life? One minute you’re careening down the fast lane of life, the next you’re on the side of the road wondering what happened.

It would be nice if something like this existed for our life, but of course one of the great challenges with such a device is how vastly unique we are as individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all tool to diagnose what needs our attention.

But if we look a little closer, there are signs for all of us that point toward a general sense of health or a lack thereof. These signs may not appear in the form of an actual check engine light, but rather symptoms that give insight to the wellness of our mind and body.

Let’s take a look.


Talk to any runner long enough and they’ll probably have a story or two of an injury at some point in their running career. For me, fall 2017 was a lesson in listening to my body. Having done a fair amount of running earlier in the year, I decided to make a big push of training toward a fall marathon.

The reality is I did too much too soon and ended up with a minor tendon strain and plantar fasciitis three weeks out from my race.

And while it seemed to pop up suddenly, had I known what to look for there were signs well before the injury that could have saved me. Pain is the body’s way of saying, “Hey! Something ain’t right!” As a runner, you get comfortable with discomfort and I had written off the soreness in my calf for so long, that eventually it strained the tendon in my foot, resulting in injury.

But symptoms don’t always mean something is wrong. Sometimes they can point to the fact that things are going great! A good night’s sleep, fresh energy and focus. Overload of ideas. Space on the calendar.

Just as there are symptoms to tell us when things are headed south, there are also signs to tell us when things are going well.

The Good

Let’s start with the good symptoms. When these are present, it means there’s a measure of margin present. Life has a bit of breathing room to it.

Now, it’s not to say that life is free of stress or challenges. These positive symptoms can co-exist with a life riddled with stress. But the presence of those positive symptoms are pointing to the fact that you’ve found a way to care for your soul amidst life’s challenges. We should not merely chase these symptoms, but recognize that they are a sign of health and wellness.

I asked some friends what signs are present when life has a bit of breathing room to it.

Symptoms of Life with Breathing Room

  • Not needing an alarm clock (have no trouble going to bed on time and it’s easy to get up in the morning).
  • Exercising regularly (working out is easy).
  • Eating healthier (more greens, vegetables, etc. — less fast food, eating out).
  • Reading is easy (when I’m stressed, I tend to go to the phone — but that just makes it worse!)
  • When I have no issue getting to sleep and sleeping at normal hours, things are probably going well.
  • When I feel inclined to game, I’m probably doing well.
  • When I have margin, ideas flow.
  • I usually feel more like myself both at home and out with friends — carefree, happy, and spontaneous.
  • Especially able to think of or carve out fun ideas with the kids.
  • I’ll allow myself time to do a carefree activity like reading — JUST FOR FUN!

The Bad

Now that we have an idea of what life looks like when we’re operating with a measure of margin, let’s look at what life feels like when we’re overwhelmed.

It seems like a couple times a year life silently slips offtrack. Things were humming along perfectly fine until they weren’t. Whether it was hosting guests for a few days, a random few extra evening commitments that piled up, or coming back from vacation. Some seem more obvious than others, but I’m realizing more and more that day to day life feels like a delicate experiment of dominoes. One false move sets off a chain event of tumbling. It usually catches me by surprise, and it can take days or weeks to get back on track. But, the sooner I can stop the domino affect, the sooner I can restore a sense of order and normalcy to life.

Symptoms of Overwhelm

  • Hard time coming up with ideas (too stressed on what’s wrong to think outside the box).
  • Focusing on myself instead of others (when I have margin, I tend to “see” others more. When I’m stressed, I’m focused on how I feel).
  • I tend to be very hard on other people when I’m at my max.
  • Feelings of guilt over being less present and sturdy for those around me.
  • When things are not going well, it usually manifests in a more skittish, unfocused state of mind, poorer sleep and exercise habits, or an inability to absorb media,
  • I’ll find myself with my mind swirling all the time.
  • I’ll find myself feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, usually feeling as though I can’t catch a break on anything.

Sorting Things Out

As much as I’d love to offer a simple solution to minimize the negative symptoms and forever live in the sweet spot, it’s not that simple.

When the check engine light comes on in my car, I can drive to a nearby automotive store and they can plug in their little diagnostic tool that spits out exactly what’s failing on my vehicle. It’d be great if 1) such a light would pop on when life was feeling overwhelming (wouldn’t that be nice). And 2) it’d be even better if we could plug in a little tool that diagnosed exactly what needs to be fixed.

A two-minute conversation with any human reveals just how complex our lives are. The antidote that moves me from feeling overwhelmed to haveing breathing room could have the opposite affect for you, and vice versa.

Now, as we’ve noticed, there are symptoms that pop up when life is feeling overwhelming, and those act as a sort of check engine light for us. I do not, however, have any simple tool that will quickly provide a prognosis of helping you move from overwhelm to margin in three simple steps.

But here are some thoughts.

When things are going well

When you notice symptoms of a life with breathing room, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Take note of what’s working. There is likely a reason you’re experiencing signs of margin. Because I can assure you, margin does not happen on accident. (Global pandemics aside)

Be present. Let’s be honest, this could go for any time, but there are often moments that slip by and I find myself completely distracted or disconnected. I need constant reminding to remain in the moment. Be it a conversation, interaction with one of my kids, or quiet moment to myself.

Resist the urge to compare. Of course, one of the quickest ways to extinguish any positive momentum in our life is to compare to others. It’s one thing to be inspired by others, but another altogether to measure ourselves to a perceived measure of success.

When feeling overwhelmed

Try these on, but don’t feel pressure to do all of them. Maybe a combination of a few of these will help you get re-oriented and reset.

Give yourself time to think. Often when I start feeling overwhelmed, a quick reflection on the previous day(s) reveals I haven’t spent any time alone with my thoughts. We all need time and space to process the events of life and how that impacts our emotional self. Sometimes I just need 15 minutes. Other times maybe an hour or two. It’s amazing what retreating and carving out space to think can do for your soul.

Limit inputs. In a similar vein, when feeling stressed one of the things that helps slow the bleeding (so to speak) is limiting the amount of mental stimulation I’m subjecting myself to and what type of inputs I’m consuming. Low quality inputs (social feeds in particular) will typically only add to the level of anxiety I’m feeling, not reduce it. But even higher quality inputs (podcasts or music) I find myself limiting. Driving in silence, allowing myself to be bored in a transitional moment instead of turning to one of these alternatives.

Do a minimum version. When we feel overwhelmed, one of the first things to go out the window are the intentional practices in our life that actually keep us on track to begin with, which can further add to the negative spiral. Truthfully, these practices can feel unattainable when we’re feeling overwhelmed. While we may not be able to do our normal version of these practices, allow yourself to do the bare minimum.

  • You may not have the motivation to meal plan for your ideal dietary goals, but what’s a minimum version that would be better than defaulting to junk food?

  • The very thought of exercise may induce anxiety, but what’s the simplest version of working out that is better than nothing?

  • You may not have time or capacity to carve out a lunch date with a friend, but what’s a simple way you could connect relationally?

  • You may not feel inspired to create or work on a passion project, but what’s something you love doing and fuels your soul?

Prioritize sleep. Our bodies and our minds need sleep to recover and regenerate. As best you can, make sleep non-negotiable when feeling overwhelmed. See if you can string together a few nights of quality rest.

Brain dump to-dos and tasks. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed can be related to an insurmountable list of tasks and to-dos, in which case I’ve found it helpful to get everything out on the table by listing everything that needs doing. This is something I picked up from Chris Bowler.

* * *

It’s normal to go through cycles of feeling overwhelmed, but that’s no way to live everyday life. Our fast-paced culture has made living on the edge of burnout seem normal or even synonymous with success. Perpetually redlining in every area of life is a recipe for disaster. It’d be great if that little check engine light could pop up to remind us of a necessary oil change. As I’ve come to realize, that check engine light comes in many forms. I just need to know what to look for.

Hero image by Alejandro Ortiz via Unsplash.

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