What I do when I feel overwhelmed

first Google Image search result for "overwhelmed" from hbr.org

Something is going around lately with me, several associates, and other people I care about. People are changing jobs, our market has changed, processes that have been predictable have been disrupted, and people are having to step out of their comfort zones, adapt, grow, and figure out how to meet expectations with scarcer resources. We're feeling overwhelmed.

It's especially painful for people with a strong sense of responsibility. Getting overwhelmed feels like it is your fault for not doing a better job delegating, elevating others, and managing your time and priorities. Like: oh, yet another thing I am not doing that I should be. I sympathize.

Here's what I do when it gets bad, and I hope it helps.

1. List everything

I start by listing everything I'm working on, thinking about working on, expected to be working on, and all my responsibilities, including regular meetings. (I have also read about this exercise in Getting Things Done and heard of professional/leadership coaches doing the same.)

If you haven't done this before, try it, because it feels good. It lightens your mental load because you are no longer using your brain to keep track of responsibilities, worrying about what you might forget or neglect.

2. Categorize in helpful ways

After that, I enrich the list with additional data to inform decisions about what to do next. Here are some of my go-to classifications:

  • Do I own the task, or am I just a contributor? As somebody who feels a natural sense of responsibility when I'm involved, this categorization provides immense relief. I'm not driving some of these things, just helping as needed. I can opt not to take action items related to them or ease off for a little while.
  • Is it a one-time task or recurring? Minimizing recurring tasks, like recurring expenses, has an outsized benefit.
  • Is it time-bound? If not, delaying may have a low cost.
  • How valuable is it, and to whom? Does it represent a large opportunity with a customer, or is it a pet project that interests me alone?
  • Is it a bottleneck for others who are not able to be productive with their time while they wait?

Some other ideas that may help: Does it contribute to long-term goals? How much of a typical week does it require of my time? Would it provide clarity about how other time could be spent effectively?

3. Analyze

Next, I dig into the list and start to consider possible actions.

  • Does it need to be done at all? Based on the information above, some things are probably already jumping out that I can clearly put on the backlog. I can stop thinking about them, do nothing, and it won't matter.
  • Does it need to be done in its current form? Would a simpler or lower quality version still provide most of the value? Are we overthinking something, planning to create a solution not commensurate with the value, or supporting a solution that no longer fits the need?
  • Who else should do it, could do it, or might even benefit from doing it? Am I the right person or did I take responsibility for something more appropriate for someone else to do? Would it provide a growth experience for somebody else? Is it in alignment with somebody's goals? Could I delegate it if I documented the process? This will likely set you down a path with other benefits: To effectively delegate, it requires some succession planning, which is a good skill to practice. Maybe somebody could shadow you to better enable them to do it in the future. You can at least start down that path instead of finding yourself in the same place months later, no closer to being able to hand it off. ("The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.")
  • What parts of it could somebody else do? Maybe a task can't be fully delegated and must still be done in part by me, but that doesn't mean the entire thing must be done by me. Don't overlook this option. Even complex projects have some basic steps.
  • What could be automated, or what parts could be automated? Okay, this is a stretch, for me, for now. We're working with RPA internally and for our customers, but I haven't integrated it into my personal responsibilities yet.

4. Prioritize elective time/do something to completion

Beyond the things I must do, how will I spend the remaining time? You can allocate it across as many or few tasks as you like. For me, few -- or even one -- is better.

Making meaningful progress on several tasks simultaneously is challenging, but not rewarding. I would rather focus on a singular top priority and bring it to completion than get many things partially done, providing little value in a partially completed state and making myself less efficient from juggling more.

So: pick the single most important thing to you, drag it to the top of the list, and make that the singular priority for elective time. This visual makes it easier for my brain to grasp that I have made a deliberate, strategic decision to work on item 1 and not feel guilt that I am neglecting items 2 through n. When you look back on how you spent your time, you're more likely to be able to point to an accomplishment than only being able to say you "worked on" x, y, and z. And it feels good to finish things.

5. Give up

Lastly, accept that I will never, ever do everything on this list. All I can do is try to prioritize effectively in order to work on the right things. 

You will never accomplish as much as you would like to do. There isn't enough time, and you don't have enough energy. You'll stop caring about some of these items before you ever get to them. Other people will end up doing some of them, independent of you. They will organically become less important. And the odds are that it will not matter. 

Also, if you are feeling really overwhelmed, please talk to somebody. But tell them first whether you would like their help or just their ears.

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