Handbook for the Recently Overwhelmed

It's 6:30 pm and your spouse is calling you on your cell phone.  You look up to realize that you should have left work over an hour and a half ago, but your big account MUST get this project delivered by the end of the week.  You look across your desk and you see piles of other things waiting for you.  There are bills that got dropped off waiting for your approval.  You have a handful of notes from others in your building sitting there waiting to be answered.  Your trashcan is overflowing because you simply haven't had time to clean around your office.  On top of all this, you have about 60 unread messages in your inbox and what looks like 5 unchecked voice messages on your phone.  At the end of the day you feel useless and tired as a pile of other priorities wait on you to attend to them the next day.  As you motion to start packing up for the day, you realize your son's birthday is tomorrow and you haven't even made any plans or bought him a gift.

Handbook for the recently overwhelmed

Does any of this sound familiar?  This can happen to any of us, especially those of us that deal in project based work.  It's not a condition left solely for the unorganized or the lazy.  You simply have too much to do.  There isn't enough time to handle all of the things being thrown your way.  It's a stressful situation and you begin to wonder if it'll ever end, if you'll ever be able to take a vacation or just get some rest.  

Would it help you to know that this is a scenario that plagues a lot of people just like you and that you're not alone? Well, guess what?  You're not alone.  There's been tons of surveys on this exact topic.  In fact, ABC news completed one recently using a pool over around 1,000 workers in the US.  The study concluded that over 29% of this group felt consistently overwhelmed and that 70% of this group wished they had a different job.  The question is, is it you or is it your job?  What can you do to get control of your life and simply the day to day at work?  Let's take a look.

Assess your situation

The first step to look at is what it is you do day in and day out.  Start by outlining your day.  Not the one you plan for, but the one that typically happens.  You may have planned a few phone calls, several goals you need to meet for the day and a couple meetings, but what's happening in addition to those things?  Take inventory on what you're doing throughout the day and see how that contrasts to what you've actually had planned.   

The items you're looking to record are the minutia that happens around all the things you planned to do.  Here are a few examples:

  • While you're on the phone several people try and stop by and drop notes asking for your assistance.  You are now obliged to respond to these requests.
  • Just before your meeting a customer calls and it runs long
  • Your boss likes to talk and constantly checks in with you or shares war stories while you anxiously try to get your focus back on work.
  • People in your office stop in for casual chat and impromptu meetings
  • You start on what is typically a simple task, but you run in to issue after issue.

All of these things create disruption in your day.  They're the things that keep you from focusing on the tasks you know you need to accomplish and are most likely the largest part of what's causing your grief.  

Planning your day

I might have taken this for granted in the last section, but if you're not planning your day ahead of time, just stop right there.  Why aren't you planning your day?  A wise person once told me that you must tell your time where to go before someone else does.  I always approach each day with a list of goals I know I need to accomplish.  Now, it's likely that you won't complete all the goals you have set, but realistic goal setting is a must.  

There are a ton of tools available today that have the sole purposes of helping you organize, collaborate and find yourself in a more efficient position.  The key is to remember not to overwhelm your day with too much clutter.  You already know you'll have inevitable interruptions throughout the day, so make sure you build in a solid buffer for those things.   Here are a few tips and tricks that you may find useful for setting up your day:

  • Don't stack your meetings if you can help it.  Running from one meeting to the next does not give you sufficient time to switch your mental gears and prepare for what's next.  
  • Pick a few intervals during the day to answer emails.  While email is a great tool for communication, it's also widely overused and is a huge waste of your time.  While it's commonplace and necessary, people tend to use it as a replacement for making phone calls and conversations that should probably take place elsewhere get batted around in cyberspace needlessly.
  • Create a bulleted list of the things you need to accomplish for the day.  I use a great tool called Evernote for tracking and storing my personal goals and notes for the day.
  • Create an agenda.  Turn your goals into measured time and don't let anything else fall in to those categories.  It really works.

Avoiding the Stress

Planning is one thing, but what about the anxieties that come from dealing with a large pile of "to-do's"? Here are a few tricks to keeping your sanity in check.

  • When possible, pick up the phone instead of sending an email.  In some cases, you can avoid an endless chain of emails by engaging in simple back and forth communication.
  • Delegate anything you can.  If you're of the mentality that either you're the only one that can do it, or do it right, you're only hurting yourself.  You'd be surprised to find how willing others might be to assisting you with your overload.
  • Yes should be in your vocabulary, but not to everything.  Pace yourself with tasks you know you can accomplish in parallel with your current load.  Saying yes to everything will simply add more items to your pile.
  • Close your door (if you have one).  If you're a cube dweller this advice won't help you much.  I've seen some in cube-land create creative signs that tell others something like  "Hey, I'm pretty busy, let's talk at 2:00 pm".  
  • If you're using an instant message tool at work,  check it periodically if you can vs any time an alert comes up.  While very useful in team settings, messaging apps can really disrupt your time and focus.
  • Take short breaks, and take them outside if you can.  You might be saying "I don't have time to take a break!", but trust me, you do and you should.  You'll thank me later.
  • Find great tools that enhance your productivity.  Here's a great article that covers some of the best we've come across so far:  https://liftoff.shop/blog/10-Business-Productivity-Tools-You-Just-Cant-Live-Without

In Summary

Sometimes we're responsible for creating our own stress.  Sometimes that stress comes from other sources.  Either way, you're the one in charge of your own destiny.  Handle what you can and do what you can remove yourself from the situation.  It's important to be happy in your work and your home life.  There should be a healthy balance of both.  Prolonged exposure to overworking can eventually lead to health issues and general distress.  

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