Dealing with "Chronic Overwhelm"? Simple Four Option Solution.
I am often approached on the breaks in my programs by people reporting significant work/life overwhelm -- they have too much to do all the time and never a chance to get caught up. After thinking about this, and reflecting that, during much of my professional life, I too have felt this way, I decided to look from a bigger picture perspective at this reported problem. And the more I looked, the more I realized the solution is actually pretty simple (notice that I did not use the word EASY!)
We live in a world of information, project, task, and e-mail overload. Malcolm Gladwell, quite eloquently in his master work, Blink, laid out that the people that are not only surviving but thriving in this reality are those that learn to "swim with the overload", rather than swim against it. They take in the information they need that allows them to make good (if not perfect) decisions, allowing them to keep a bias for "effective action". They don't get bogged down by "too much info, too many projects/tasks, too much e-mail" -- they swim effectively with it.
Understanding this is our reality, I've thought about the problem of "chronic overwhelm", as is reported by so many of the people attending my courses. And, after boiling it down to its core, I've come to the strong belief that, when in a situation of "chronic overwhelm", you have one of four options you can use, or "levers" that you can pull. Here they are:
1. Work more. This is pretty simple. If you aren't getting enough done, then maybe you need to work more so you can get more done. You aren't giving yourself enough time to meet your basic responsibilities and/or goals. You need to dedicate more time to checking stuff off your "To Do" list. And yes, that may mean a little less time watching "Grey's Anatomy" and/or Facebooking!
2. Work smarter. This is a better option than #1, and actually works quite well in combination with #1 -- figure out where your time is best spent, and spend MORE time there. Get clear on your priorities, the key projects/tasks related to those priorities, and spend more of your dedicated task time on those key projects/priorities. This doesn't necessarily require you to "work more" -- it just requires you to be a bit more disciplined with how you are using your currently active "task" time. (And yes, this can be said for both work AND for life time choices.) Another factor in "working smarter" is simply doing things you are already doing a bit faster, smarter, better. Never miss the chance to gain additional efficiency through the opportunity of additional training -- if you can find a way to get "free time" by doing something you've already been doing in a more efficient way, that opens up more time for getting to the most important stuff on your work AND life project and task lists. (This is why I've built a career at helping people be more efficient and prioritized with their technology, e-mail, Outlook, BlackBerry's, and office organization -- I want to give them a bit more time to get this stuff under control and lead a higher quality life!)
3. Do less. This one certainly isn't rocket science. If you have too much on your plate, push some of the stuff you aren't as motivated on off to the side (that can be in work AND/OR life!) Then, focus on the main courses that you either really enjoy, or that get you closer to your personal and professional goals, dreams, aspirations. I sort of see this one as akin to the work of Dave Ramsey, Mr. "Live Your Wage" -- he's always talking about living within your income, rather than using debt to dig an even deeper hole due to conspicuous spending and consumption. I could see the same thing said for thinking about your time -- you only have 164 hours per week, you need some sleep, and you can't be "productive" 100% of the time. If you have personal and professional projects/goals/tasks that require 125+ hours per week to simply keep up, I think I know why you are living in a state of "chronic overwhelm". You need to downsize your projects/goals/tasks to a more reasonable level, unless of course you can better take advantage of #4.
4. Get help. No, I'm not talking about professional psychological help here (although a few of you that have been living for years in a state of chronic overwhelm due to consistently "overfilling your plate" may actually benefit from this!) What I'm instead referring to is the fact that maybe -- just maybe -- you don't have to do it all on your own. In Timothy Ferriss's controversial and breakthrough recent book, The Four Hour Work Week, he posits that we are being absolutely asinine both personally and professionally by trying to do WAY too much of it by ourselves. He argues that delegating low-level tasks extensively is the way to sanity, freedom, and personal joy. From a work perspective, are you delegating as effectively as you possibly could be? Have you provided the necessary training and tools to those supporting you so you can be confident in that delegation? Do you have the time as a "manager" to effectively
"manage" that delegation? Or are you in the never-ending rut that you can't delegate because you are so busy that you have to keep it all moving yourself thus never having the time to think about effectively delegating (and thus keeping you in an endless spiral of chronic overwhelm, stress, and (long-term) potential burnout?) Re-read this last sentence -- I would argue that consistently being in this state may argue you are living either in denial or possibly in a state of low-level insanity! It will not "get better sometime in the future" -- if you don't get out in front of this, you might be doomed to a life of "overwhelm misery".
Also never forget the option of outsourcing -- if your staff/team is completely full (and working on the right stuff!), maybe there are times when you could outsource some of these activities? Also, look at your personal life -- are you cleaning the house, changing the oil, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, painting the shutters, installing the lamp (and on and on and on). If you love those things, I'm not saying stop doing them, but if you've got some extra coin in your bank account, couldn't you outsource many if not all of those tasks to buy yourself more time and quality of life? Now, I see Dave Ramsey's work and Timothy Ferriss's work in a bit of competition -- if you are way in debt from a monetary perspective, you might need to fix this before giving Timothy Ferriss's strategies a full and good try. Of course, that leads back to levers #1, 2, and 3 in this blog post -- working more, working smarter, and doing less.
Really, when you boil it down, it all comes back to "living within your means" -- from both a money AND a time perspective, as well as more effectively managing your assets (technology, staff, outside help options) to both meet your professional aspirations and also live the kind of life you really desire. Or, just stay in your "chronic overwhelm" prison, as you have for years already -- it is your choice! This stuff really is "simple", but not necessarily "easy" -- it requires discipline, personal vision, and the ability to sometimes say "no", including to yourself. But it certainly seems better than the other option: a constantly overwhelming yet unfulfilling work/life existence.
"So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the keys." -- The Eagles: Already Gone
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