Have you ever found yourself so overwhelmed with the amount of ‘stuff’ you have to do, that you wish you could just press ‘pause’ for a while and escape your commitments and responsibilities? Even just for a few minutes?
Many modern organisations have been through so many rounds of restructuring and down-sizing they are at the bare minimum of staff to function. No-one carries any passengers any more, and everyone is expected to perform at a high level. All the time.
Concurrently, the financial crisis that began around 2008 has made many organisations very cautious about how they spend money and, by extension, about how they make decisions. Most companies are set up so that no individual executive can commit or spend the company’s money. Expenditure of any kind has to go to a committee whose function is to determine financial priorities and keep an overview of budgets.
So, fewer people to do the work; more people involved in each decision.
Result: lots of harassed people spending lots of time in meetings and working on the train, at the dining table or in front of the TV to ‘keep on top of’ their burden of email.
This may not be universally true, but even if you work in an organisation where not everyone has to be a superstar and you have a budget which you are actually allowed to spend without getting permission from elsewhere, chances are you still get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information coming your way every day.
Therefore, as the end of the year creeps ever nearer and many of us are looking forward to some days off, some quiet days in the office and a fresh start in January, this is the perfect time to take stock and to introduce some new habits to get you out of overwhelm and back in control of your workload and your professional life.
Here are my top tips for avoiding overwhelm and staying in control of your working day.
1. Plan the big picture
Before the year begins, get a 2017 planner (a paper one) and map out the year. Start with fixed dates:
- Bank Holidays
- School holidays if they’re relevant to you
- Important events such as conferences and exhibitions that you are committed to attending
- Your own holidays (yes, reserve the weeks now. Most people who don’t take their holiday always intend to but it never seems to be a good time)
Next, add in any regular events such as monthly meetings, quarterly off-sites and so on. Taking the time now to notice that your regular ‘second Friday of the month’ meeting is going to land on Good Friday in 2017 means you can plan an alternative, inform everyone and avoid the last minute chaos that will come if nobody spots the clash until the end of March.
If you use an electronic calendar, especially if other people have access to it, get all those dates into it now. Also add the time you need to prepare for each of the events: Two days to prepare for the Sales Conference? Choose your days and block them out. 3 hours to prepare for the quarterly off-site? Is it best done the day before, the week before? All in one go or two hours in one session and an hour later on? Once you’ve figured out the ideal, you can block it out of your calendar for each quarter.
Of course, the same applies to your weekly or monthly team meetings, your regular one-to-ones and client updates. ‘Prepare for one-to-ones?’ I hear some mutter. Yes, prepare. Planning and preparation are key to keeping out of overwhelm and in control.
For some people, this advance planning will be a joy; for others a chore. Different personalities respond differently to advance decision-making. Whatever your preference, there is benefit to be gained from mapping out the year ahead and establishing some basic principles for operating at your best.
2. Create routines for routine work
The word ‘routine’ is enough to cause some people to shudder. Some will already have stopped reading! If you’re still with me, let me reassure you, routines are for routine work. They apply to the boring stuff and they’re about getting it done with the minimum of fuss.
Make a list of all the regular tasks you have to complete:
- Expense claims
- Diary planning
- Budget reviews
- Client updates
- Tax planning
- One-to-ones with your team/boss
- Performance reviews
- And so on
Categorise the list into weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual tasks. For each list, ask yourself, ‘when is the best time to do this task?’ For example, it may be best to do your expenses on Friday morning, ready to submit by the afternoon deadline. If so, are there other similar admin tasks you might do at the same time and thereby have a useful session on Friday morning to clear your desk? I call this my ‘Friday tidy’ and it includes, among other things, backing up my pc, balancing the bank accounts and raising invoices for the week’s work.
The point is this: if you have to do something every week, it’s a waste of time to have to decide, every week, when to complete the task. If you make the decision once, and then always do the task at that time of the week, it saves time. Of course, if you happen to be out of the office one Friday, the tasks can’t be done that day. But you can decide whether to change the date for one week only of whether to roll everything forward into the following week. You can decide, because you have a list of the regular tasks and you know when they usually get done.
3. Take time out
There are several types of time out:
- Time out to rest and relax
- Time out to learn new skills and ideas
- Time out to review progress and make decisions
- Time out to plan and prepare activities
Taking time out is essential for well-being and avoiding the stress trap. Human beings have evolved the ability to recover from stress quite naturally. Modern man, however, tends to interrupt that natural process by refusing to take a change of pace, a change of environment or a break from business.
You can build your ‘time out’ into the plan for the year, not just in the form of annual holidays, but also by blocking out some weekends to relax or day-trips to a spa. Take care of yourself – everyone else is too busy!
4. Learn to manage your mind
‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so’ said Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A great deal of mental stress and overwhelm can be avoided by cultivating good habits in your thought processes. There is now so much knowledge about how the brain works and how our daily conscious experience is created, the opportunity to learn how to be in charge of your mind is available to all. (I’m offering ‘NLP for Work – Live’ on 8-9 February 2017).
If you prefer to manage your mental state through physical activity, then learning yoga or Tai Chi can be helpful. If nothing else, learn to meditate. (It’s part of the ‘Beyond NLP’ programme on 24-25 March 2017).
5. Having exciting goals
Now, against the backdrop of the year you’ve planned, what do you want to achieve? Write down your goals and keep them somewhere you will be able to look at them regularly. Work out when and how? Keep reminding yourself about what’s important and filter requests for your time through your key goals: if I do that will it help me achieve what I want to achieve? This makes it easier to say ‘no’ to distractions.
If you follow all of these tips, you should be able to create for yourself a professional life which can keep you engaged and end that ‘stop the world- I want to get off’ feeling. Of course, the same principles apply to life outside of work – although I recommend you involve your nearest and dearest in that plan!