Four Simple Steps to Recovering from OverwhelmHugh Culver
The first time I competed in the Victoria Marathon I was swept away by the setting – ocean views, horse-drawn buggies clopping along Wharf Street, sailboats navigating Inner Harbour and classic west coast architecture.
And then there’s the run.
If you’ve ever experienced the legendary runner’s “wall” you’ll know how tough it is to keep moving when everything in you is screaming “Stop!” It’s not pretty – sort of like the experience at work when you feel overwhelmed by endless lists of unfinished work.
There’s another phenomenon familiar to marathon runners called the “marathon effect” – it’s what happens when you still have 10-30 minutes of sloughing to go, but can ‘smell the barn.’
At the Victoria Marathon, it happens as you approach the final corner onto Bellevue Street and the finish line in front of the British Columbia parliament buildings. Your head comes up, and spine straightens (this is when some runners – unwisely after over four hours of pain – dive into a heroic sprint to the finish)—damn if you don’t look like a runner again!
Back at work, it’s hard to replicate the marathon effect sitting at your desk staring at a bulging Inbox. The good news is there are four steps for recovering from overwhelm and getting back on track.
1. Step away
The first step is to stop, step away, and get perspective. All problems look bigger up close, and it’s hard to discover a solution when you’re neck deep in alligators.
Many times a simple change of scenery is all it takes to see the space around your problems and find new approaches. As Churchill once quipped “Change is as good as a rest.”
Here are four options:
- Go for a brisk 10-minute walk (get your heart rate up to boost circulation).
- Grab a notepad, sit in a different location and allow for some doodle time.
- Talk with a friend – they don’t have to have answers, just be good listeners.
- Find a quiet corner in a coffee shop to chill out and re-prioritize your list.
2. Take Stock
Overwhelm results from too much to do and no plan for doing it. So we continually think about what needs to be done and worry. Getting Things Done author David Allen calls these ‘open-loops’ – repeated thoughts about unfinished tasks.
I see this with entrepreneurs, building their speaking business, they have all sorts of ideas and half-baked plans, all with the same “NOW!” priority. And because these are usually new ventures, everything falls on their shoulders, and they become paralyzed with inaction.
Taking stock is about getting everything in place (that means one list!) and matching that with whatever resources you have.
If I’m leaving town tomorrow, that means I have four hours available to get done what I can. If I have one assistant – maybe they can take on some of my work. If I have work that can wait – that’s another opportunity.
3. Prioritize Your List
Simple in theory, prioritizing your list is actually an art. The obvious attack is to rank everything on your list. Great! Now you have 112 items all in order. The problem is many don’t belong on your list.
Effective prioritization starts with deciding what really matters. Email is a great example – most people waste time sorting through spam frantically hunting for a few gems that need their attention.
My rule is everything must have a home, so when prioritizing, I divide my list into:
- This week (limit 12-16 items)
- This month (unprioritized remaining tasks waiting for attention)
- Someday (unprioritized and maybe unnecessary)
4. Work on #1 Until Complete
Now for the punch line: you need to work on one thing until it’s complete. By “complete” I mean you’ve reached a logical point where you can scratch it off your list, assign it to someone else, or schedule the next step on your calendar.
Your job is to create results through completion and small wins.
Being overwhelmed is a choice, you’re allowing yourself to be a victim of lazy planning. You don’t have to run a marathon to recover from overwhelm, but you do need to take action: step back, take stock, prioritize, and get to work on #1.