During the past year or so, when I’ve seen friends or colleagues, they’ve asked if I “still like my job.” That’s because, a year ago, I shuttered my private law practice to work as a staff attorney for the court. It always comes as a surprise to them that I don’t regret my decision and I enjoy my work.
I really like the work I do now, and it’s led to this exciting new phase of my life. I now have the energy and time freedom to pursue the one thing I’m more passionate about than the law – writing!
But, even with a job I enjoy that allows me the time freedom to pursue my passion, at times I feel overwhelmed. The end of summer is a busy time of year. There’s always a workload push, as everyone wraps up their summer vacations and begins looking to clear cases before the pending holiday season.
This time of year, in addition to the additional substantive workload, it can feel like I’m spending all day, every day, mired in administrative minutia – responding to emails, tracking case statistics, managing grant applications, and filling out quarterly reports. Ugh.
It’s a lot to slog through.
Combine it with my writing work, and it gets a little crazy. Here’s what I mean…
In the past week, I’ve attended five different office or committee meetings, and I have three trial case rulings and two appellate matter rulings to draft over the next 60 days. That doesn’t even count the 718 emails I’ve received in the past week. (Yup, that’s an exact count, as of lunch time today.)
This week, I also have three editorial articles to draft or review editor comments on and finalize… and three blog posts to write, edit, polish and publish across my own platforms.
In addition, I’m right in the middle of reviewing the copy-edited manuscript for a colleague’s new book, and under a self-imposed deadline for a manuscript of my first book.
No wonder I feel overwhelmed!
But, I’m not complaining, and I’m sure your life is no less hectic.
The reality is, at times, all of us have more work than we can possibly do. When we add getting exercise, family demands, church or civic duties, and trying to have some semblance of a social life, it can seem impossible to keep up.
This past week, I finally decided I’d had enough. I needed to take a different approach, if I was going to get my head above water.
When you feel overwhelmed and underproductive, the worst thing to do is resign yourself to being exhausted and keep going.
You need to know how to deal with overwhelm, because being overwhelmed isn’t going to resolve itself.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unproductive, I begin by following some great advice from one of my mentors, Michael Hyatt. The first thing I do is…
Step #1: Triage the Situation
To triage your current circumstances, check in with your personal health and wellness — run through this seven-point checklist to see if you’re sabotaging your fulfillment and productivity:
- Are you getting enough?
- Are you eating nutritious foods? Are you eating enough?
- Are you staying active?
- Are you clear about what matters and about your “why”?
- Have you made too many?
- Are you following systems to filter or avoid distractions?
- Multi-tasking. Are you focusing on one thing at a time or trying to work on two or more projects at once?
Finally, I also review what I’ve been doing to stay focused and productive. Here, I always remember the advice of Ted Capshaw about productivity systems and techniques. I ask myself if I’ve fallen into the trap of using the current “fix all” productivity tool, rather than concentrating on my passion and “just doing the work.”
After you triage your situation by giving yourself an honest check-up, you’ll know what’s causing your overwhelm. Then, you can take the necessary steps to get more aligned and start working to alter your landscape to one of less overwhelm.
The next step is to get your head above water. To start that process, I employ the following two strategies…
Step #2: Change Your Mindset
Learning how to deal with overwhelm starts with changing your mindset to take a different approach to managing your time and being more productive. To help this along, I suggest doing these three things:
Decide a change is needed.
I know… this sounds a bit trivial. But, you’d be surprised how resistant people can be to this step. It almost seems like some people enjoy being overwhelmed – maybe it makes them feel indispensable or they thrive on the stress (or at least they’ve convinced themselves they do).
Fact is, stress isn’t good for you, and I’ve found that most often the truly indispensable person in any organization is the person who’s the best at delegating. They’ve already made this change! And, they’ve probably also already done #2…
Identify your biggest productivity sinkholes.
For me, this is easy. When I notice I’m getting overwhelmed by projects and deadlines, I almost always find I’ve been spending too much time mindlessly procrastinating on social media, talking with friends and coworkers about social issues, catching up on reading fiction, and binge watching my favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu.
I’ve also likely spent too much time tending to the trivial daily minutia that doesn’t serve moving forward on key projects. This is something productivity expert Michael Hyatt refers to as “the tyranny of tiny tasks.”
As much as I enjoy each of the above activities, when I start to get that overwhelmed feeling, I know it’s time to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, all of the above activities. None of them directly serves my passion (except maybe reading): Living the writer’s life.
Review the basics and schedule important tasks.
Part of identifying my productivity sinkholes includes reviewing the productivity basics and making sure I’m blocking time to do what’s important.
Now that you’ve decided a change is necessary and worked on taking a new approach from a macro-level, you can address it by reviewing the basics and doing the following six things to cope with feeling overwhelmed…
Step #3: Address & Cope with Feeling Overwhelmed
I originally learned a version of these coping strategies from Michael Hyatt, and since have tailored them to my needs for working full-time and pursuing freelance copywriting and writing:
Acknowledge that the idea you’ll get caught up is a myth. It’s impossible. You can’t do it all. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it likely means you’ve taken on too much.
Accept that some things will not get done at all. This is similar to the above, but it’s a separate and distinct acknowledgement. You need to come to terms with letting go of some of the things on your to do list… for your own peace of mind if for nothing else.
Triage your workload. Do you see a trend developing? Yes, you’re going to do a lot of triage when you feel overwhelmed… because it’s a critical situation! If you don’t fix what’s causing the overwhelm, you’ll burn out… and that’s even harder to recover from.
The triage here, as opposed to above, is more akin to the origin of the term – you must decide how to best use your limited resources.
Think about a battlefield situation. A medic must look past the patients who will survive without medical care as well as those who will not survive even with medical care. They must focus on those patients who will only survive with medical care — that is where they can apply their skills and resources to do the most good.
In our context, you have to determine which items you can safely ignore, and which demand your attention – which things must be done by you.
Prioritize your tasks. This applies only to the tasks that survive the above triage. You cannot treat all your tasks as equal. You need to sort your tasks according to priority.
I use the Franklin-Covey Method:
A – Important but Not Urgent
B – Important and Urgent
C – Not Important but Urgent
D – Not Important and Not Urgent
An alternative is the Eisenhower Matrix, which uses the same Urgent and Important tags for tasks, but involves a more in-depth workload analysis to determine if tasks should be done now, done later, delegated, or eliminated.
For now, let’s assume all tasks that survive your honest triage require your attention. In that reality, the above Franklin-Covey Method works well.
Each day, I categorize each pending task with one of the letter tags. I focus my attention on ensuring the A’s are done first. If I get through the A’s, then I’ll move on to the B’s, then the C’s.
Practice intentional neglect. This is the opposite of what often happens when we’re overwhelmed – unintentional neglect. Have you ever forgotten to do something or been late meeting a deadline? That’s unintentional neglect. It’s a by-product of being overwhelmed.
Intentional neglect is when you let go of the tasks that aren’t urgent or important… the D’s in the Franklin-Covey Method.
Remember, category D tasks are neither urgent nor important – not worthy of your limited time or attention. If you didn’t cut these out in your triage, it’s time to let go of them now.
What about tasks I don’t think are important, but someone else does? Valid question. I think the best way to explain this is with an example…
As a staff attorney, one of the judges I work with will sometimes ask me to do something I don’t regard as important (i.e., it’s something the judge’s assistant or bailiff is well-suited to do). But, I serve as a staff attorney at the judges’ – and my supervisor, the general counsel’s – pleasure. So, if I want to keep my job, I have to re-categorize the task as important. Side note: Generally, if a judge is asking me to complete such a task, they have a specific reason for using my expertise.
You may have things clients ask you to do that are important to them. It’s okay to make those things important to you for the sake of the relationship. But don’t adopt other people’s goals as your own without a very good reason.
Learning to say “No” to unimportant tasks is a critical skill. Once you learn to do this, you can always say “Yes” to tasks that serve your goals, and actually complete them without feeling overwhelmed.
Don’t try to multi-task. Let’s be clear on this point: You really cannot do more than one thing at a time… especially something that requires your focused attention.
You’ll cope with and avoid overwhelm much better if you set your priorities, focus on the most important task first, then move down your list one task at a time.
After you’ve completed the above three steps, hopefully, you’ll feel much less overwhelmed.
Now, let’s talk about how to avoid becoming overwhelmed in the future…
To sidestep overwhelm altogether — and I’m not always successful — I employ a four-part framework to “Succeed Without Overwhelm”… which I’ll talk about in next week’s message.