Managing Overwhelm at Work

Managing overwhelm at work - Red Zebra CoachingOverwhelm.  Margarita Tartakovsky describes it as “the feeling as if a 20 foot wave is crashing into you.  Repeatedly.”  As business leaders, most of us have been overwhelmed one time or another – feeling as if there is too much to do and not enough hours in the day to get it all accomplished.

Recently, I met with a client who was fighting a major case of overwhelm.  “Joe” ran a successful small business, which was about to launch a new product.  Everything was ready to go – except for Joe.  Joe was the roadblock to the launch.  He wasn’t able to complete the last few stages of the project as he was drowning in a sea of overwhelm.

As Joe’s colleagues grew increasing frustrated with him, I was sent in as the last ditch rescue operation.

Deconstructing Overwhelm

In our meeting, I pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Let’s write down all of your tasks and then tackle them together.” As Joe began to rattle off tasks, it was quickly apparent that there was nothing insurmountable on his to-do list.  In fact, Joe was surprised to see everything on paper and said felt like far more stuff in his head.  We prioritized and parceled out the tasks, then set deadlines.

A few weeks later, Joe had a successful product launch.  I grabbed coffee with him soon thereafter.  Despite a still heavy workload, Joe was more relaxed.  When I asked him what changed he said, “I spent so much time spinning in my head – thinking things were so much harder than they actually were – that I would just get paralyzed and not know where to start.  After we met, I got into the practice of writing stuff down.  On paper, it is clear, easier to handle and I don’t worry about missing something.  Then, I prioritize and tackle my list.”

Overwhelm Life Preserver

If you find yourself drowning in overwhelm, here are three quick tips to help:

  1. Break it Down – If you have a huge project, break it into manageable phases.  (Remember the old joke about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time?!?)
  2. Make a List – Write down what you need to do in each phase.  Then, prioritize the tasks and set deadlines.
  3. Focus on the Present – Focus one task / phase at a time.  If you feel overwhelm creeping in, adjust your time horizon to the present – not next week, not tomorrow, not even two hours from now.  Focus on NOW.  This helps to keep overwhelm at bay and keeps you on point.

When you feel a tidal wave of overwhelm coming, take a few deep breaths and then divide and conquer your way to success.


How do you conquer the overwhelm wave?

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