Dealing with Overwhelm

Tsunamis are one of nature's greatest forces of destruction. Formed in the sea by earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions or meteorite impacts, they can travel at incredible speeds and cause unimaginable destruction. The deeper the water, the faster the tsunami. In the deep ocean, tsunamis can move as fast as a jet plane, over 500 miles per hour, and can cross entire oceans in less than a day. As the waves enter shallow water near land, they slow to the speed of a car, approximately 20 or 30 mph.

Building and growing a small business sometimes feels like a tsunami is heading your way — it's going to overwhelm you and bury you and you're never going to make it out alive.

Here are three things you can do to deal with overwhelm:

  1. Find dependencies
  2. Focus on just one thing
  3. Stick to the clock

Let's look at each of these.

1. Find dependencies

One of the reasons you feel overwhelmed is that there seems to be a million things that need to be done. And they all need to be done at the same time. And they all need to be done perfectly. All of this combines to form a tsunami of work.

Because you have limited resources, you need to prioritize the most important tasks to get done first. But prioritizing tasks is not easy — it sometimes feels like everything needs to be done at the same time, therefore everything is at top priority.

But you have to start somewhere and you can only focus on one task at a time. To find that one task you need to know the dependencies between all the tasks. Quite simply, dependency means that you cannot start one task until another is done.

Let's use an analogy. If you're baking a bread, you have to have the ingredients before you can start mixing the dough. Before you can put the dough in the oven you have to let it rise. So the dependencies are:

  1. Get all the ingredients
  2. Mix the dough
  3. Let it rise
  4. Put it in the oven

Seems simple, right? In business, the number of tasks are a lot more and the dependencies may be more complex. But they are there. And for you to be effective you have to spend the time to list all the tasks and find the dependencies between them.

2: Focus on just one thing

To be effective and get stuff done we can only really focus on one task at a time. And this is doubly true if you have to do something that requires "deep work" or creativity.

So when you've found your task dependencies and selected the next task to work on, you need to focus on just that one task to the exclusion of everything else.

It's hard to ignore a tsunami heading your way. But the only way in which you're going to get everything done is by getting one thing done, and then another thing, and then the next thing. And before you know it you have most of the stuff done and the tsunami has turned into a little wave.

3. Stick to the clock

If you've ever been a student you will have come across student syndrome. This is the phenomenon of putting off studying for an exam or starting on an assignment until the last possible moment. Stress and pressure then force you to get an incredible amount of work done in a short amount of time (often overnight!) and you deliver on time or actually do well in the exam.

Unfortunately you can't do this when a tsunami is heading your way. You have to get as much done as you possibly can before the tsunami reaches you.

So you have to allocate time to each of your tasks and then stick to the clock.

Get each task done in the time you allocated for it. Create your own deadlines and, if you must, use student syndrome to drive yourself to get stuff done by those deadlines. But you have to treat them as real deadlines, otherwise they will just slip.

Which task do I choose?

If you've done your dependencies you may still end up with a ton of stuff that needs to be done that don't have any dependencies. How do you choose the right one?

One way to deal with this is to just pick one task. Any one — you need to get all of them done so it doesn't matter which one you choose.

Another way to deal with this is to choose the smallest or easiest. This way you get the satisfaction of getting stuff done, and that serves as motivation to get to the next one.

I prefer starting with the largest or most difficult. That way, when that task is done, I know that I have covered a large percentage of the work that needs to be done, and the rest comes easier.

Let's recap

Work can seem overwhelming because of the number of tasks, the amount of work and looming deadlines. You can use at least three techniques to deal with overwhelm:

  1. Find dependencies: Make sure that you know what needs to get done before you can tackle the next task.
  2. Focus on just one thing: We can only really focus on one thing at a time — pick one and stick with it until it's done.
  3. Stick to the clock: Create your own deadlines and stick to them as if they are an exam you have to write.

Even tsunamis eventually lose their power

Tsunamis slow down and lose their power as they reach shallower water. By getting one task done, and then the next, and then the next you are slowing down the tsunami of work in your business.

Fortunately for us a tsunami of work does not leave destruction behind. You may suffer from a lack of sleep and too much stress, but dealing with only one task — the right task — at a time allows us to survive and even thrive in the toughest of times.

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