Every few days I have that sinking feeling of being overwhelmed. I realise that something somewhere has slipped through the cracks. Perhaps it is a message that I forgot to get back to promptly enough. Perhaps it is an offer of a meeting that has not yet been agreed. Perhaps it is an idea that I wanted to explore but I haven’t had the time to progress. Maybe it is that book that I was going to write. What is worrying is that I’m not even close to a full workload. I look around me and everyone seems in a similar situation.

There is a lot going on. If you don’t take care it is overwhelming. Our connected global world means we can see more and interact a lot more frequently. News stories, research, blogposts, new books, emails, messages, meeting requests, offers of work, collaboration opportunities, calls and more arrive in number each day.  Those stimuli need to be managed carefully or the volume will overwhelm. The commonest answer to “Have you seen this?” is usually no.

When you move beyond communication, we are truly overwhelmed. Organisations are doing more with less. The focus on efficiency means many organisations are missing effectiveness of processes or work. Cross-silo, outward facing or outsourced processes break with the strain but we expect work must still get done for customers. As fewer people do more to less outcomes, the daily pressures only mount. Organisations demand collaboration, engagement and customer focus as additional layers on top, rather than an inherent part of work. Then we overlay the need for transformational change and something needs to give.

Filter Failure

“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure” – Clay Shirky

Stop blaming the external forces. Start to focus on your decision making. What filters do you have in place? A quick no saves an awful lot of work. Deferring work or conversations is better than scraping by and doing a bad job. Excluding distractions to focus on what matters most improves both sanity and effectiveness.

Filter out the ineffective forms of work and communication. That’s a key step to making work more effective.  Importantly, the first sign your filters are failing is a loss of time to reflect. Bake empty space into your day to allow the time to reflect on your effectiveness and how you can improve your work.

Important Over Urgent

“Anything less than a conscious commitment to the important is an unconscious commitment to the unimportant” – Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill & Rebecca R. Merrill

When you can’t do everything, stop trying. To focus on what is most effective, focus on purpose. Spend more time fulfilling your purpose and you will feel more satisfied.

The greatest distraction from purposeful work is the urgent interruption of the notification. “Urgent” is easy to write or say, but as we all know it is harder to reply and often not the most important work. Manage out the urgent but unimportant work and distractions.

Don’t Focus on Should

“We struggle with insecurity because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steven Furtick

“Should” is always overwhelming. We look around us and see what our entire networks are doing today. We can easily confuse the highlights of the output of that entire network with what we need to achieve to keep up. We start adding items to the list of what we should do.

Other people succeed because they do what is most effective for them to do. That is not always what will make you effective. Organisations are particularly bad at this. They create strategies by copying others, adding more and more to do, not by choosing what they need do to fulfil their purpose.

We need to do the work that we need to do today. We can solve the problems of the entire world tomorrow. Add up all the listicles and helpful advice and you will have far too many things you should do today. Do what matters instead.

Don’t Do It Alone

“A problem shared is a problem halved” – Proverb

Carrying everything on our own narrow shoulders is overwhelming. We need to engage our networks to share the burden.

At one point in my career I was asked to manage three roles at the same time. The lack of opportunity to backfill missing people had created the problem.  Doing three jobs simultaneously was impossible. Faced with the challenge I created a table of all the responsibilities across the three roles. I allocated my time to each of the jobs. I ranked each of the columns by their importance and then I cut off each column at what I could achieve with the time available. Anything below that line either needed to be delegated to others or stopped. That was a filtering process. I filtered by effectiveness. I ignored what I should have done in each role and focused on what could be best done.

The power of that document was that I made it available to my teams and to all my stakeholders. People could see as I worked out loud on my priorities where their work sat and could estimate where their new request would fit. Transparency allowed my networks to become part of my filtering process. My teams stepped up and took items off the list. Stakeholders volunteered to change timelines given the issues or to deal directly with someone else.

Don’t make change, innovation, collaboration, engagement or customer focus, extra work. Build these activities into the work to reduce the effort. Ask others transparently to help you better manage your challenges. Use the tools available to leverage the inputs and assistance of others.

Work and life are overwhelming. That’s because you live in an age of a surfeit of opportunity and challenge. Focus on what you need to do to be more effective in your work and your life.

Update: Part 2 with more tips based on discussions inspired by this post.

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