Conquering Overwhelm

One of the most common issues I encounter with executives is being overwhelmed, juggling and prioritizing tasks. They are managing complexity and processing massive volumes of data, all while maintaining a high need for insightful thinking and knowing the deep importance of building and maintaining relationships. I’ve interviewed leaders and teams in the midst of being tasked with completing upwards of twenty significant complex projects and initiatives within the next six months.

A lengthy pile of tasks can freeze us right in our tracks. Several executives have shared feeling frustration at the slow pace of change, or their exasperation that nothing ever seems to get done. When I ask them what they are trying to accomplish today, often I hear responses like “I’m trying to do 50 things today”. I follow up by asking them to estimate how long it would take for them to complete every task on their “to do” list. Many tell me it would take a month to complete all the things they are trying to do today! Is it any wonder that feels like overwhelm?

There are solutions. Whenever I hear a leader share with me they are feeling overwhelmed, the last thing I want to do is add anything else to their heavy burden. Rather, we explore options to let go and lighten the load.

Thoreau wrote “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand . . . Simplify, simplify.” Neuroscience research indicates that our brains can hold and manage up to seven items when clearly focused. When experiencing heavy stress, the number decreases to three or four.

A leader of a global complex multi-billion dollar company has a daily practice that enables her to manage her very full day while staying connected with her intuition, focused and fulfilled. The first thing she does each morning is spend quiet time centering on her four big picture objectives, deciding on four specific actions she will accomplish by the end of the day ahead. Her silence and solitude time is important, non-negotiable space. It is “against the law” for anyone to disturb her for the first half hour when she arrives in the office.

We can reflect on the day ahead and choose 3 or 4 intentional goals or tasks to complete that will be good enough for today. We can estimate the time requirements for each task and be aware if we have space and flexibility to allow for unexpected events, distractions, and leadership opportunities that may arise. If one task is estimated to require eight hours of focus time, we can choose to limit our goals to that one and also recognize we do not have much flexibility for anything else.

Maybe one or two of these are behaviors, or “being” goals. For example, choosing to enjoy the day and being grateful no matter what happens. Or being present, noticing our emotional self-awareness, our situational awareness in our interactions with others.

What are your 3 or 4 overarching, intentional big picture goals? Do you have clarity about the direction you are heading? What are the next action steps, the most important 3 or 4 tasks that will be good enough for you to complete today? What is your estimated time commitment to complete each of these tasks? Is there flexibility and space for unexpected events, or leadership opportunities?

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