Thursday, April 9, 2015

Overwhelmed at Work? What's Worked For Me.

I admit. I have been overwhelmed at work. And, in the process of coaching many entrepreneurs and leaders, I have learnt that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed at work. I have come to realize that any new project / role / job / M&A, will have days if not weeks or months when we feel overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed with the quantum of work that needs to be done. Overwhelmed with the pressure to succeed. Overwhelmed with the responsibility.

Here is my list of what can be done to help when we are feeling overwhelmed. I have tried these myself as have my protégés and colleagues. Not all at the same time, of course, but a few, based on the situation.  It has worked for me more often than not.  So I hope these will help you too.

1.  Urgent vs Important? There's More

We have all learnt Eisenhower's Decision Matrix (popularized by Stephen Covey in 7 Habits). It encourages us to spend time to manage Quadrant 1, focus on Quadrant 2 for our future, avoid Quadrant 3 activities, and limit time spent on Quadrant 4.

I have added to this by categorizing Quadrant activities into three - "Me" vs "Team" vs "Others".  All Quadrant 1 activities, especially, do not have to be done by me and me alone.  Determining who can do these, whether they are on my team or not, can help reduce the number of crisis that need to be dealt with immediately.  

2.  Seek Peer Help

I believe that my peers are my best support system / group. I have worked in intensely competitive environments, full to the brim with type A personalities. Even in these environments, there are many people who are willing to help.  Willing to take on some of the load. Often, I have reached out to people in my "nurtured" network, and I have not been let down.

3.  Supervisors Can Be Your Best Friends

Yes, they can! When you and your team are in crisis, is not the time to try to make your supervisor a friend.  The best time to become friends with a supervisor is when they need help with something and you take on some additional work to help them. They appreciate it.  You also get dedicated time with them to form a bond while working on something that is critical to their success.  When your time to seek help comes, they will be there for you. All you need to do is ask for help - but remember - be very specific.

4.  Announce What You Cannot Do

If you have shared your goals with the larger organization, and you need to re-prioritize to manage something critical, go back and re-announce to them that some goals / deliverables will be delayed. It takes away the pressure of having to work on things that are not "important" today.  It also helps them understand changed priorities and hence they are able to offer help with what is "important" / "urgent" now. Before you do this, always, tell your supervisor and peers that there are actions / deliverables that will be postponed, and get their buy-in.


5.  Make The Time To Think 

Drowning in urgent and important tasks is very easy. It takes conscious thought and effort to break away. I have often blocked-off time on my calender to think (much to the amusement of people who I share my calendar with!). Yes, THINK! I close the door, put my laptop to sleep, turn on the silent mode of my mobile phone and place it face down on the table, and pull out a sheet of white paper, sharpened pencils, and an eraser.  And just Think! And write.

6.  Make Meetings Count.  Say "No" To Those That Don't

Have you noticed that when there is a something really critical to be done, with many moving parts, there also seem to be many more meetings? These meeting are more to provide status updates (something that can be done on the phone or email).  And meetings can swallow whole days when there is no time to eat lunch. If a meeting is not going to be useful, then tell the meeting organizer that you are not attending the meeting and why.  

7.  It's OK To Take a Break

I know that this sounds ludicrous, specially when you are drowning, working 18 hour days. But, it is critical for you to function with some semblance of normalcy.  Take a break.  Go out for lunch or away for a day. Exercising / meditating helps. I know someone, who during a complicated financial transaction, halted meetings for 15 mins multiple times during the day. While others wandered around, continuing to talk about legal contracts, he would meditate.  And he signed a deal that was great for the organization.  

8.  Get A Full Night's Sleep

One of the first things that happens when I am overwhelmed at work is that I sleep less, and I sleep badly.  It impacts my concentration.  It makes me irritable - making my team not to want to work with me.  So when overwhelmed with work, allocate time to sleep.  It is a goal and a deliverable that you need to make non-negotiable. There are many times when solutions have just popped into my dreams! I keep a pad and pen on my bedside, so that I can jot these down. Of course, it breaks my sleep cycle, but I get a new idea, so it is worth the loss of sleep. But really nothing else is.

Dedicated to my protégés and peers, entrepreneurs and managers, across genders and levels who have helped me understand and deal with being overwhelmed

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