It turns out that I am excellent at overwhelm. I do it brilliantly, and sometimes it can be thoroughly paralysing. That feeling of, there is so much to do, it’s so overwhelming, I CAN’T DO ANYTHING.
That has meant I have also learned over the years, the many ways to NOT DO OVERWHELM. Quite helpful I’ve found.
Lately I’ve worked with a number of clients who are also excellent at overwhelm, one of them just yesterday, so it seemed pertinent to capture some of the key strategies for getting out of overwhelm, taking control and regaining ones sanity.
All hail the sanity.
As I’m sure you (the intelligent, astute reader) are well aware, overwhelm is not a friend of productivity or sanity. It usually means things take longer, that they’re not necessarily done in an ideal order of priority, or that they don’t get done on time, if at all. Overwhelm often triggers the stress response so that your amazing brain becomes quite addled and custard-like, sometimes at the most inopportune times.
To tackle this, we want to instill some PERSPECTIVE on everything that needs to be done (and get out of that ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ feeling. We want to look at how to do ONE TASK AT A TIME – which the research on this area tells us is FAR more productive. And to use technology and time to REGAIN CONTROL of your schedule and priorities.
Whether you’re a business owner, leader, just starting out in your career, or somewhere in-between, these are strategies that will serve you well throughout your career – and help you not only do your job well, but totally rock the house doing it. After all, you are a STAR.
Let’s start with reclaiming the big picture …
Recover the big picture
In the case of my client yesterday, and I think it’s pretty common, she felt on the hamster wheel, scrambling to get done what she could but feeling a never-ending tidal wave of things coming at her with no time to come up for breath. Exhausting.
When this happens it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and what we’re actually meant to be achieving. So the first thing we did was step back from it all and looked at her key responsibilities/area of focus in her role. This gives context as to what to prioritise, what actually matters, and how to start ‘chunking’ time in the week for key tasks so they actually get done. [More on chunking shortly.]
What are your key areas of focus or key responsibilities? And are you spending time on each of these?
As a business owner my key areas of responsibility are client delivery, business planning/strategy, course design, overseeing my (very small) team, marketing and some admin. For someone working inside an organisation their role might include Strategy/long term planning, Project delivery, People management, Admin. You get the idea.
How much of your week needs to be dedicated to each of these areas? My client broke this down into the number of hours each area needs per week. Work this out for yourself. Then you’ll end up with a list of areas, # of hours and these will translate into ‘chunks’ of time – and portions of your overall role. Here’s what I mean…
Perhaps People Management requires about 5 hours a week of your time to stay on top of everyone’s needs, make sure things are delegated well, etc. That’s a percentage of your overall role – and your overall week (of a 32.5 hour week – 40 hours with breaks – that’s 15%). Once you split this out for each key area of your role, you quickly get a clear picture of how much of your week you need to be spending on each area. Put these portions into a pie chart to get a snapshot of these key areas. This helps you then ‘helicopter up’ to the big picture more easily. Here’s an example:
So, if you are getting buried in the minutiae of day to day demands, not taking enough time for your team members or not getting to important non-urgent planning activities, then make YOUR OWN VERSION of this pie chart (or whatever picture/model you like).
Put it on your wall. Let it be a reminder of what to focus on when your inbox is looking overcrowded and the hamster wheel is winning out.
Get off that hamster wheel!
Those who accelerate in their career progression are often those who are getting the core or most strategic aspects of their role achieved. Those who do well in business are not those getting caught up in day to day urgent but not so important issues, they rise above that regularly and make sure the overall strategy is in motion.
That means CLAIMING TIME in your diary for each of these areas, REGULARLY, and not spending a whole weekend trying to get the planning for next year done because the Board meeting is next week.
That leads on to my next point … take control of your diary.
Take control of your diary – claim your time
I notice a lot of people feel at the mercy of other people’s schedules, what’s being delegated to them, etc etc. Despite what it might look like in your workplace or family, it is absolutely reasonable and appropriate to have control over your time. In fact, to do well in life, having control over how you spend your time is ESSENTIAL. A common but generally not talked about source of stress is not having control over how you structure your time and your day – even more so if you are someone who prefers to be planned in advance. [Parents this is also true for children, especially as they get a bit older.]
For example, it is perfectly reasonable to DECIDE when you want to complete certain activities, when you (don’t) want to be available for random drop-ins, and to have a regular time by which you wish to finish work each day.
If you find you’re not doing these things, check out for yourself why that might be. What beliefs and perceptions could be driving this, either in yourself or in your environment? I often challenge those in leadership positions who feel they must be available to people 100% of the time. Not true. The trick is ensuring people know WHEN you are available and when you’re not. That way they can work with it in most cases.
Let’s talk about CHUNKING.
Chunking your time and tasks is the next step – so you can put them into your diary and CLAIM TIME for each of them. Break up tasks and role areas into smaller chunks. If you have a Board Report to write and it includes a 12-month plan you haven’t written yet, chunk it down into each task so that if the plan will take 2 hours, you know to schedule 2 hours for that ‘chunk’ of the task. This avoids the scenario where some time is booked out for writing the Board Report but you end up running out of time because of all the bits needed to be done to go with it.
If you need to spend 6 hours in your week on marketing activity, that would ideally be scheduled into your diary in chunks (of say two 3-hour sessions for example – whatever chunk of time works for you). If you are scheduling a single activity such as ‘QPR Client Meeting’ allow for travel time, prep time, follow up work, etc also. The meeting is unlikely to take only the one hour it is scheduled for.
Choose the best time of day for tasks. If you work better on creative activities in the afternoon, schedule it for then. If you have several admin tasks that need to be done every week, CLAIM TIME for those in say two mornings a week.
Using an electronic diary for this makes a big difference because you can then put some of these tasks in as RECURRING events. I dragged myself kicking and screaming to an electronic diary two years ago (and for me it was two months of hell) and it has been followed by invaluable efficiency and flexibility that I can’t imagine living without now. I highly recommended this – especially if you are part of a team where others have access to your diary. Put all of your activities in there so that for instance if they want to set a meeting with you, they can see you’re generally not available on Tuesday mornings because that’s when you work from home on your business planning.
Don’t get railroaded by the EXCEPTIONS.
There will always be the odd exception to these plans. For example, you may have to come in for an important client meeting on a Tuesday morning at some stage. That’s fine – but make it the exception, not the rule. I see a lot of people letting their diary be run by all the exceptions, instead of creating some structure, claiming time for key tasks, and taking control of their time.
3 Things: Managing your daily priorities
One of the fastest ways to combat overwhelm and make genuine headway with your top priorities is to start your day with a clear idea of the three key things you want to achieve in your day.
Sure, you’re going to have a longer list than this I expect,but what are the three things, that if you did those today it would make the biggest difference to you and the organisation? What would you want to achieve today that mean you left work feeling pretty damn stoked with what you’ve done? Yes, those things.
I recommend putting those three things on a post-it note. Keep it tight and simple. Do this at the end of your work day, ready for tomorrow. Then as you start work in the morning you already have those three things mapped out and you can simply START.
PLUS – do one of these tasks BEFORE you open your Inbox. Let your TO-DO LIST DRIVE YOUR DAY, not your Inbox.
Let me know how this goes for you, and here is part two on beating overwhelm at work.