How To Deal With Overwhelm

In this episode I run through my Crisis Mode Productivity system that I’ve used successfully in the past when I’ve been feeling completely overwhelmed (usually self-inflected because I’d taken on too much!)

It’s a bit longer than I had planned, but I do go through things in detail.

I also mention a blog post by Marc Jenkins: Must avoid at all costs and recommend that you use Sanebox, because it’s awesome.

As always, feedback welcomed: email bealers@siftware.com or you can get in touch via @bealers or @knucklingdown.

There is also a full transcript of the episode available.

Show Transcript

Hi, I’m Bealers, and this is Knuckling Down, my weekly show where I use you, the internet, as my accountability partner. I also share my own thoughts and tips, and things like that, from stuff I’ve learnt over the last, well, 10 years of running my business, and the last few years of turning my life around from being miserable and unhealthy to being happier and a lot more healthy, and importantly, much more productive.

This week’s been pretty good, I have to say. I’ve got most of my things done. Few things out of my control didn’t get done, but generally the tick list looks pretty good. Artwork for my book cover, that’s finished, so I’m ready to put a coming soon page up on my blog. Had a really good mastermind session with the rest of the guys. It’s starting to feel like we’re gelling quite well now. We know each other’s businesses, and so we know we can ask pertinent questions and we’ve got the history there. It’s taken a while, I think, to get into the groove, but it’s feeling really good, and a lot of value for each of us now in each session.

I got my previous podcast uploaded onto my blog and generally had my blog tidied up a bit. As I said in previous episodes, it was a bit messy and full of a lot of rubbish, but now I’ve been able to organise it a bit. Most importantly, I should be able to record this and get it up over the weekend, which was always my aim anyway.

Really, other than that, I’m looking forward to a pretty lazy weekend. Don’t have a lot planned on purpose. Just kind of want to chill a bit, so we’ll see how that goes.

Last week, I talked with you about overwhelm and how to reduce it. I talked about doing a mind mapping session. Looking at what you’re doing, what you’re being, as in what’s taxing you out. Certainly the things that are causing you the most pains in your being. Also then looking at a very, very high level at your goals. Things you want to get done. Now, that’s all and good, you’ve got a list of … The idea there was that you were going to prune a lot of the things that you were doing, so that you had a chance of actually achieving all of the things that you want to achieve within, say, the next six months.

Now, I think from that, when you do that exercise, it can feel quite overwhelming, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed anyway.

Whether we say it’s arbitrarily, it’s six months to the end of the year, but it doesn’t matter really. If you’re at a state of overwhelm, there’s just too much to do and you’re anxious that you’re not going to get it all done. What I’d like to share today is maybe a method for going from doing that mind map, of at least doing a first past pruning session of, “Well, I can forget this project. I can forget that project. It’s fine, but I’ve still got this list of things to do that I have to get done. Forget goals. I need to do these things.” You’re kind of in a state of crisis. I’ve certainly been in that position myself two, three, four times in the last two, three years, where it’s been overwhelming. There’s been so much to get done and I have to get it done, and I just didn’t know what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.

I’m going to share with you today my method for getting through that, and I’ve called it in the past, “SOS Productivity”. I’m just codifying it a bit and sharing it with you today.

The first thing is you’ve done that mind map. You’ve already pruned some of the doing, all your discretionary projects, and you feel that you’ve got a list of things that you have to get done. You need to give yourself, I would say, preferably on a weekend, give yourself half a day. Three, four hours. Preferably on your own, in a quiet room, and then follow this process.

Stage one

About an hour this will take you. What you need is a blank notebook. That could be a physical, get yourself a nice new moleskin or something, or I would literally open a new OneNote notebook, and I would close the other ones so there’s no distractions. Then, on the first page of that notebook, whether that’s physical or virtual, list out all of these projects. Already pruned projects that is, remember. Just list them out. For each one of the projects or the tasks, ask yourself, do you really have to do this in the next month? That’s all we care about right now, is the next month. Do you have to do it in the next month? Is the answer, yes? Why is that? Is somebody shouting at you? Screaming at you to get it done. Is it client work? You’ve got to get it done so you can get paid? Is it something you’ve promised to somebody? Well, can you have a word with them? Could you say, “Actually, look I’m under the cosh at the moment. Is there anyway maybe we can push that back for a bit?” Communicating with people, certainly …

At the moment it’s about you. You need to be reducing pressure on yourself, so if there’s anything you can push back, try a bit harder than, “Oh, I’ve just got to get that done.” As I say, talk to other people. If there’s other people that are relying on you for things, ask them, “Does this really matter right now? I really could do with the extra time.” People respect that, and especially if they’re thinking, “Well, I’d rather somebody who was less stressed out doing it.” Obviously, you don’t have to tell them you’re stressed out, but you can certainly just say, “Look, I’ve got a lot on at the moment. Next month, look, it’s looking a lot lighter. I’ll be able to do …” The implication will be that you can do a much better job when you’ve got less on your plate. I think a lot of people would probably recognize and respect that.

So, for each of these tasks, do you really, really need to do it?

Now, another thing to really watch out for here is the narratives in your head. “Oh, I’ve got to do that thing because I’ve promised somebody, and I’m a loser if I don’t do that.” Well, that inner chimp is a nasty piece of work and you really want to be ignoring that. You’re not a loser if you can’t get everything done. You’re probably the sort of person who’s trying to overachieve, and that’s probably what’s put you into this position right now. You’ve got too much to do, because you’re pushing a lot of this pressure on to yourself. Just be kind to yourself. If you don’t have to do it in the next four weeks, cross it through. It doesn’t make it onto your project list.

For each one of the projects that you are listing down, the one’s that don’t make it onto your project list, write on a post-it note. That post-it note’s going to get stuck to the side of your monitor, and that’s going to become your must avoid list. That’s the things that you’re not going to work on in the next month, because you’ve already worked through that you don’t need to do it. There’s a blog post that Marc Jenkins wrote. It’s really good. He refers to that, I think it was off the back of an article he’d read. Warren Buffet uses this. Lists out projects and basically only choose five, and the five things that you wanted to get done are your important, and everything else on the list that’s below the fold, you must avoid doing.

So, you’re going through. You’re listing out all your projects that you need to get done in the next month. From that, you want to create a new page per project. You’re going to now, per each project, you’re now going to list out the next five tasks that you need to get done in the next month. For each one of those tasks give it a time number. As in, how long is it going to take you to do that thing? If each one of those things is more than an hour and a half, break it out further. You’re looking for about five things that are about an hour and a half each. You don’t need to estimate the task for all of them right now, because otherwise it would take too long, but the top couple, because you’re not going to get them all done, frankly. You’ll see this is the theme. The whole idea is that you’re going to get some of it done, and it’s better than getting none of it done, and it’s better than you feeling like crap.

For each task within the project you should have five or six things. Two or three of them you’ve now estimated a time against, but they should all be about an hour and a half each, maximum. Obviously, if they’re smaller, brilliant.

So, this is the end of stage one. You’re now going to close all of your to do list apps and all of your other notebooks, and all your thoughts, and other things that are vying for your attention. Things that you need to get done. Go and put them in a drawer. Close them. You don’t want to be referring to them for at least the next week or so, because we just want to be pure on just trying to get some of this backlog out the way.

Stage two

You’re going to need an hour or two for this, and you’re going to need to be quite brave. First thing you’re going to do is you’re going to go to your email inbox. You’re going to select all. Sorry, you’re going to create a new folder. Call it “Processed”. That’s what I call it anyway. Select all. Drag everything into Processed. It might take a while. I get that. You might want to do that online if you’re using Gmail. Apply the label if it’s Gmail. Processed. What we’re looking for is an empty inbox.

Now, go through the Processed folder and just look at the last five days’ worth of email, if you’ve still got that much email unprocessed, or things that’s been nagging away at you. Anything further than five days, I would argue, can wait, or they’ll be getting in touch soon saying, “How did you get on with that thing?” Anything more than five days, ignore it effectively.

Through those five days, process. You’ve probably read GTD. If you haven’t, you’re going to delegate things you can, so forward on to colleagues, if you can, “Can you get this done for me?” If it’s a quick thing, like five minutes or so, nail it, respond, move on. Anything longer that’s basically a task, just for now, two things. Either flag it, or drag it back into your inbox. Just for now.

Install SaneBox. It’s a SaaS application. It’s really, relatively affordable. It’s cheap. It’s fantastic. You will thank me. Just do it.

Go back to your inbox, or look at your flagged emails, and now look through each one and add them to your project list. If they’re part of one of the projects that you’ve already got in your must get done in the next month projects, fine, or add them to a new project, or what you can do is … Certainly what I do, I have a small tasks section within my system for smaller things that I need to do that don’t require a project, and just pop them in there. The idea is at the end of this stage two, after a couple of hours of going through your email, you’ve got an empty inbox. Close your inbox.

Stage three

This is the last main stage. You’re now going to print off your calendar for the next month. Now, we’re going to focus in on the next two weeks. If you’ve got a calendar like I do, with maybe five or six calendars that are overlaid, try not to have all of them. If you’ve got things like somebody else’s calendar, because you don’t want to see they’re on holiday, close those down. Just stuff that’s relevant to you. Reminders out. Just things that … Should have it so, things you’re going to go running or something, doesn’t need to be in there. It’s things during your working day, so you can see what slots you’ve got. It maybe it’s blank because you don’t use your calendar much, or it may just say you’ve got a meeting on Tuesday, whatever.

Print that off and get yourself a sharpie or a pencil, and then block out two or three sessions per day for email. I would say no more than 20 minutes each. I don’t know how much email you get. Maybe that’s unrealistic. If you’re a project manager or something and you get a gazillion emails a day, you might need longer. Just be honest with yourself. How much time do you need, do you think, actually, during the day to quickly look at your email and process?

After that, and after all the other things you know you’ve got to get done, like taking your daughter to piano, within your calendar go through each of your projects and take the top thing on the list and slot it in somewhere. The things that you think are going to need your brain power the most go in the mornings, and things that maybe you could do slightly more brain dead in the afternoons. Also, block out a slot for what time do you leave work? If you leave at six, block out a slot for 5:30, and that’s your processing slot to review your day.

That’s pretty much it for that stage. Ultimately what you should have then at the end, for a couple of weeks you should have, hopefully, at least one task for each of your projects in your calendar per week. Don’t worry too much about it right now. Oh, and the other thing is try and make these a bright colour, so they’re obvious from the other things that might already be in your calendar. These are your doing things.

Now, what you’re going to do is you’re going to turn off all notifications on your computer, so no email pop-ups, and you’re going to turn off all notifications on your phone. Definitely email and social I would argue, on both devices. Assume this is a Saturday or a Sunday, switch off your computer, do something relaxing, try and get an early night tonight. When you do go to bed set your alarm for 30 minutes earlier than usual, so, if you get up at 7, 6:30.

Day one of your new trying to be less overwhelmed regime.

It’s half an hour earlier than usual out of bed. You’ve got a cup of tea. Open your laptop or your machine. Don’t open up your email. Just open up your calendar and your notebook, whether that’s physical or on your machine, and select a new page for that day. Write out what you’re going to get done, with most important tasks at the top. That’s it. Get on with your normal morning. Have you breakfast. Get the kids to school. Whatever you’re doing.

Now, during the day, what you’re going to do is you’re going to try and follow the plan as hard as possible. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re going to get interrupted, but get back to the plan. Note down any interruptions you get or things that come in. Note them down on that day page per day, but then carry on with the task that you’ve got that you’re on at the moment. Try and be using a timer, with an alarm ideally. Let’s say you’ve got an hour and a half task to get that proposal done for client B. Set the timer for an hour and a half. You might get it done in an hour, because you’ve got no notifications coming in, email’s closed. Focus on it. Don’t open up Facebook. Just nail it. If you do find yourself thinking, “I don’t want to be doing this. I’m going to open Facebook,” try very hard not to. What you can do at the end of a session, have a cheeky five minutes as a reward.

Try and keep your email closed. That’s really important, because it’s the interruptions that screw you. Just focus on getting the job done for that hour and a half, or that hour. When you do open your email, you’ve got a slot in the morning, slot in lunchtime, slot in the afternoon, I would suggest, train SaneBox, so drag things into the ignore folder. Stuff that you can nail into five minutes, as we talked about earlier, drag into processed. Anything that can’t, write it down on your day page as tasks that need to get done at some point, and then drag it into processed.

At the end of the day you’ve got a 30 minute slot.

How did you do? Be nice to yourself.

Did you do well? 75% of getting a bunch of stuff done is absolutely fantastic. You should be feeling really good that you’ve done some stuff and you’ve done that all on your own. Write how you feel. You don’t have to do that, but I think that’s a good habit to get into, and it’s something maybe I’ll go through in following weeks. Whatever you do, go through your thoughts for the day, your tasks during the day from your page, and fold those into your project list that you’ve already got. You may need to re-jig your calendar if need be. Try not to take any of your more important projects out. You might have to drop a few of the least important ones down. Don’t get too funny about this. We don’t want to spend three hours with our system. It needs to be lightweight enough, but you’ll know that there will be some things maybe you can drop or shift back out of our current two week window.

Try to get back to bed early again tonight.

Try this regime for a fortnight and see how you get on.

I’m pretty sure, if you’re anything like me, by the end of just two weeks, you’ll probably be feeling pretty good again. You’ll be feeling like you’re on top of things again. You can start allowing all of those other projects to come back in and start vying for attention, but that’s where being strict about saying no comes in.

Maybe that’s for another time.

Let me know how you do get on, and you can email me bealers@siftware.com and I’m at Twitter on @Bealers. Thanks for listening and I hope you have a great week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *