Since February, my work life has been filled with hundreds of tasks needing to be done on hard (political) deadlines with not enough resources or time to do them. While I put lots of boundaries around my personal life so that my work life doesn’t intrude, one’s life is a whole unit and there were several times when I was doing more work during my “personal” time than I wanted.
As a project manager, I’ve had to actively manage two large projects and supervise two large other projects. Supervise means to publish status on, do financials for, prepare decks for executive working groups, and make sure the projects stays on track. That means I’m in the email loop, working closely with the project manager, and watching what is happening.
I’m not in that overwhelm situation any more. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, there are still times when the hours are long, but I’m personally in a much better place.
Now, I’m not going to give you “5 cool tips to reduce your overwhelm,” but there are a few tactics I did that really helped in the long run.
Everyone’s way of getting out of overwhelm is different — mostly depending on how you handle stress — so all of these tactics may not apply to you. But they might. Give them a try and see how well they work for you.
Let’s take a look…
I fixed my mindset
If you think about stressful times in your life, it’s easy to sink yourself into a hole and easy to keep on digging. One of the hardest pieces of getting out of overwhelm is getting your mindset into a position where you know you need to live with ambiguity. Maybe for quite a while. That you know you won’t get everything done. That what you are dealing with is what I call a blob – this mass of things all balled up and seemingly cannot be penetrated. A blob that feels as though it can’t be organized. A blob that when you jump into it reveals even more stuff you didn’t know you need to do.
The mindset piece is to recognize both the blob and the overwhelm feeling and, with the recognition, be okay with it. It is where you are.
Of course, this is not easy. But recognize it every day and soon you will put a little distance from it, gather a little perspective, and from that perspective, gain a bit more control.
How well do you deal with ambiguity? Yeah, that’s the good question.
Do one proactive thing a day
I have this rule: if you want to get out of firefighting mode, you need to do at least one proactive thing a day. One thing that will help fix what is causing the fire in the first place. It doesn’t need to be a big proactive action; it just needs to be a proactive action to move your situation along.
Maybe it is something simple like finding all of your invoices associated with your current monthly finances and finally knowing where all the hidden invoices are located in systems so the next time you look you’ll immediately capture them. Maybe it is taking the extra two hours out of your day to provide context to the work your new contractor is going to do to help that person ramp up faster.
Essentially, by doing one proactive thing a day, you’re solving some sort of problem every day. Rather than reacting to the problem today, then reacting to the same problem a week from now, you solve the problem today so it doesn’t come up next week in the first place.
In an overwhelm mode, I’ve never been able to do more than one proactive thing in a day — sometimes none in a day. But if you can fix your mindset and do one proactive action a day, you’ll start to take chunks out of that blob you’re facing so you can start to organize it and figure it out.
Figure out the most important thing to work on and get it to completion
There is the “urgent” quadrant and the “important” quadrant. Urgent needs handling, but what I’m talking about here is the “important” stuff.
Important stuff varies depending on where you are on the continuum and what the demands are. Just think of it as this: If I don’t start this now and get it done soon, later on (next week, next month) this will blow up in my face. Yes, it’s self-defense. That’s okay.
Here was an important thing to work on in my case: what are all of the components of the blob that need to get done? I started listing them. Once I got done listing them, I put each of the items into groups. Let’s say your work is to build out a Windows 10 global package and all that goes with it (I did this 3-years ago). Well, you have to set up some servers. You have to decide what software will be included in the base package for everyone (e.g., Microsoft Office). You have to decide encryption method, what web sites people can visit, what devices they can use, what base rights they will have and…the list goes on quite a long while.
The important part is get the list out of your head and into paper or pixels. Then categorize the components in the list. It came out like this: base infrastructure, hardware, security, administration, and two more.
With that, you can now talk to what needs doing by category. And what each of the components that need doing in each category. Then tasks that need doing for each of the components. Now all of a sudden you’ve broken the blob. It’s still a ton of work — but at least you know what the work is that needs doing! That’s important.
Work uninterrupted for hours at a time to complete the important thing.
In Deep Work, the case is made that one needs to work — uninterrupted — for several hours to get to the level of thinking and analysis necessary to complete important tasks.
I won’t go into all of the reasons disruptions of any sort — drive by’s to your cube, interruptions on Skype/Slack/Teams, going back to check your email, checking your phone — all of it breaks your ability to concentrate and complete tasks.
I also don’t need the research: from my experience, it is entirely true.
Once I identified an important piece to get done — breaking down the blob in the example above — I went someplace else besides my cube. I have few notifications in the first place — how do people stand it when Outlook slides in the latest email breaking their concentration??? — but I turn them all off. I quit Skype, Teams, close my email…zip. And I go to the other building if I’m in the office or work from home. Anywhere where I won’t get drive-by’s and electronically I look like I’m off line.
Hard to do when everything is swirling around you. But I’ll tell you, three hours of uninterrupted work time on one important thing to get it to completion is priceless.
Oh. AND you get this great feeling of accomplishment because — finally!! — something you knew was important got done. Plus, the important thing is undoubtedly also proactive! Win win, so the saying goes…
Process emails — don’t read them and leave them
I am sooo guilty of this. Especially when you are overwhelmed, your tendency is to quick check your email to see if something (like a crisis) has come to visit your inbox. At one point, I was getting over 150 emails a day and it was incredibly easy to check email once an hour…quick read 15 emails and…leave them as read in your inbox. That means you need to process your email again…decide what to do with the information in the email again and then actually do something with it.
I ended up with close to 1000 unread emails in my inbox. Each of those emails represented the potential to blow up in my face because inside them — even though I quickly read them — were deadlines, unrecorded tasks, and requests for support. Let them go long enough and, yes, they will blow up hurting your business reputation.
The only way I can handle this is to consciously say to myself that I am “processing email.” Not answering it, not getting emotional about it, but just processing it. Is there an action here I need to take? No — then delete it. Yes? Put it as a task in my task management system. Might need this? Put the email in my reference area. Then, when done processing your email, go to your task management system and start working what needs doing.
This is more complicated than the above (e.g., you need to correctly write a task out so that when you go to your system, you can immediately look at the task and know what needs doing), but the idea is to get the email, meeting notes, Slack, Skype message out of that inbox and put it into a central task system.
Have a good task management system
I’m a big proponent of task management systems. I know that because I change how I manage my tasks like the seasons change during the year. I change tools all the time. I mostly follow Getting Things Done, but I also like Free to Focus, different ways of “moving the needle” and changing perspectives. During my overwhelm period what I determined was this: I had a zero effective task management system.
And guess what? I’m still not happy with my system.
But the intent of a good task management system, regardless if you follow some methodology, is get all of your tasks out of all of your inboxes — email, Slack, Teams, meeting notes, instant messages, hallway conversations — and get them into a central place so you can look at your tasks and then start doing them.
In theory: see the email, determine your task if you have one, create the task in your task management system (and move the email to the task so you can respond via email back) and then delete or archive the email from your inbox. Email stays down, tasks are centralized, fewer places to start working from. Rinse and repeat from your other inputs.
I still react way too often to the email/Team/meeting stuff without working exclusively from my task list. I need to get there.
Get rid of many tasks
The other problem for those of us who follow a productivity methodology — we have too many tasks. Task management tools are exceptionally good at capturing something (or, if you’re good, a real, actionable task) and storing it forever.
My 150 emails a day? If I diligently went through those emails and created tasks I could do from them, I could easily add 25-tasks to my task management system. That’s after doing something else with the other 125 emails, such as deleting them or putting them in some reference area. In a five day week — 125 new tasks.
No one can do 125 tasks in a week. Or 250 in two weeks. It’s not possible, I don’t care how good you are.
So don’t agree to do so many tasks. Boundaries are good things. Forcing priorities is a good thing.
Email, Slack, instant messaging and all those other inputs essentially allows anyone on the planet (in my case) to add their priorities to my to-do list whether I want it or not. It becomes someone else’s delegation list that you are supposed to now do — despite your performance goals, regardless of your life balance, ignoring your manager’s needs or your manager ignoring your needs.
Boundaries. It’s a concept. It’s hard. But get rid of enough tasks by not taking them on so you have something manageable to work for you.
Organize your work — file system, SharePoint, Tasks, reference material
You do this for one big reason: You can find stuff faster. Easier.
Take a look at how long it takes you to find something when you’re not set up right between tasks, your file system, and your reference material. It is creating resistance every hour of every day.
I even consider this one of my “important” proactive things to get done. At a certain point on a project, you just need to stop, look at how the project material is organized, and change it to fit the project and the way it is going now.
This is NOT organizing your work to organize your work to organize your work.
This is understanding you are meeting resistance to finding things and it is causing stress and needs to be remediated.
Figure out how to status or report your work
The purpose of this: being able to report your progress to yourself, your manager, and your stakeholders. If you can’t tell how you are making progress on the work, how is anyone else going to be able to figure it out? Answer: they won’t.
Plus, you’ll stay overwhelmed because you can’t even see you’re in a tunnel, much less seeing a light at the end of one.
What activities will you track? What numbers will you use to show progress? What categories will you report?
Figure that feedback loop out for yourself and you’ll feel progress when you track it. It’s even one of those “important” tasks to do.
Overwhelm is tough — but you can overcome it
This is hard, but hopefully some of these techniques can help you face the blob, the work, the unrelenting email and help you organize it, proactively solve problems along the way, and gradually beat down the overwhelm into something you can manage.
How have you handled overwhelm?