“I’m too stressed to know where to start, and before I have a chance to decide, I get another urgent interruption – this is crazy – how does anyone get anything done?” Sarah was venting as she faced 600 emails, an afternoon filled with meetings, 5 incomplete performance reviews, at least 12 issues she had promised to review three weeks ago, and no less than 2 people hovering over her desk in any given moment for a signature or “quick” question.
Sarah had a reputation for being organized, responsive, and calmly able to handle crises situations, but today she felt completely overwhelmed.
Here is a quick seven step process that reduces overwhelm and gets you focused:
- Rapid Containment – We all have a lot of balls in the air; overwhelm hits when you start losing track of them. The fear that a ball you forgot about will drop and hit you from behind can keep you spinning in circles all day. Rapid containment means gathering all the balls and getting them in one place. You can do this in 5-10 minutes this by updating your to-do list, scanning your calendar and all your flagged e-mails, or simply doing a brain-dumped list of everything that is stressing you out. The trick is to get it ALL down. When you are done, you want to feel the relief of knowing it’s all there in front of you. It may be impossible to handle all the issues in a timely manner, but at least you can see them.
- Categorize your Involvement – The “everything” you are staring at can usually be lumped into a few categories based on your role in moving them along. Get them categorized fast – 5 minutes or less.
I usually use these categories:
- “My Focus Work” – for anything that I have to spend at least 15 minutes reading, working on, or thinking about before moving along. Include an estimated amount of time – in some cases you may need to block out as much as 6 hours to do deeply creative or technical work.
- “Decide and Delegate” – most managers find themselves becoming a bottleneck when their approval is needed for members of the team to move forward with a project. This category is for anything that will take 15 minutes or less for you to approve, make a decision, or explain something – and then move along.
- “Meet” – for all issues that require that you have a 30 minute or longer conversation with someone in order to move it along.
- “Organize” – for just about everything else, including e-mail gone wild, issues you aren’t yet sure if you want to spend time on, stacks of paper you haven’t looked at in a while, and unknowns.
- Block off 20 – 30 Minutes – In chaos it feels impossible to block off time, but almost everyone can grab 30 minutes in the next four hours or so to shut themselves away. If you can’t grab 30, grab 20.
- Decide and Delegate – I usually have clients work through the “decide and delegate” category as fast as possible in the first block of time available to them. You might not get through everything, but if you can make at least some decisions on items waiting for your approval and get them into someone else’s hands, at least the system keeps moving. Anything you can’t decide in 15 minutes or less should be moved to the “focus work” or “meet” category. Schedule 10 – 30 minutes of “decide and delegate” time each day and make this a priority. You don’t want your team unproductive because they are waiting on you.
- Sanctify Focus Work Time – Most executives have to fight for a small bit of sacred time they can use to focus without interruptions. For some this is first thing in the morning, for some it’s later in the evening, and for others it’s “plane time”. Figure out when you can get 1-3 hours of quiet time on a daily basis. Expect and accept that MOST of your working hours will include interruptions, and you have to define and hold sacred a small portion of each day to focus quietly. For each person that is different. I find that on average, executives can manage about two hours of focused, proactive time per day. Get a block of at least one hour scheduled each day to do your focus work – and plug away on your quiet projects within that sanctuary.
- Consistent Containment – Most busy people do not use large blocks of time to organize, schedule meetings or catch up on e-mail. These activities are low priority in themselves, but they can take an infinite amount of time if you let them. Those who are most successful at staying organized “contain” their organization time in a consistent manner. For example, one client stops three times each day and sets a timer for 15 minutes. During this time, she sorts and cleans out e-mail, files paperwork, schedules meetings, or plows through as many “2-minute” to-do items as she can get through.
- Expect the Unexpected – The biggest mistake busy people make is assuming they will actually be able to get things done in the empty spaces between appointments. If you work in a chaotic environment, the chaos is driven by unplanned situations, and you will find out about these situations between meetings. On most days, situations show up that you never could have predicted in the morning. While you may not be able to predict what will come up during your day, you can usually predict how much will come up on average – just by reviewing your last few weeks of work. I have had clients block up to 4 hours per day off on their calendar for “responding”. If they don’t get that much coming at them, it’s never a problem to fill up the time. There is always a queue of e-mail and focus work waiting.
Planning and scheduling for the unexpected is one secret that helps the busiest managers stay present, focused, responsive, and calm, no matter how much everyone else is spinning.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and would like to walk through this process or create a work organization system that is customized to your situation, feel free to use the contact form to schedule a consultation, or just send an e-mail with your questions. I’d be happy to work though it with you!