Overcoming Overwhelm: What’s Burning Your Processing Time?
A while back I used to work for a large corporate organization. I had a company-issued laptop that was heavily encrypted and locked down.
It wasn’t the greatest specification, and whilst it worked well most of the time, there were times when it would crawl along. Perhaps you’ve had a similar work laptop—the type that suddenly grinds to a halt with its internal fan on overdrive just as you have that horrible realization that you hadn’t saved the document you were working on, or just as you try and access that vital document that you need to present in a project meeting….
Since it was a Windows machine, I’d do the CTRL+ALT+DELETE shuffle. You know the deal, pressing that special combination of keys in a panic and accessing the mystical ‘task manager’ to see if there were applications or processes hogging the processor that I didn’t need. After killing a few, the laptop would generally work well again, for a while at least. This got me through until the company upgraded the laptops and upgraded the version of Windows, after which things consistently worked much better (I was lucky!).
Channeling Our Own Inner ‘Task Manager’
Of course, this blog isn’t really about laptops, but I was reflecting on these memories and it struck me how we fall into a similar pattern as practitioners. Have you ever got to your desk, and felt that uncomfortable pang of stress as you know you have far too much to do, more than is actually achievable? You’re on twenty projects, you’re trying to plan a requirements elicitation session but your attention is drawn to the hundreds of other tasks that seem urgent. The irony seems to be that this leads to procrastination: There’s too much to do, so where should we start? Perhaps you find yourself looking through your lengthy to-do list for the hundredth time (we’ve all been there) still failing to choose a task to start on. Or perhaps you start a task, only to remember another is more urgent. Then somebody instant messages you about another urgent task, so your attention is switched again… and so the cycle continues.
Situations like this can be extremely stressful. Of course, we all have tough deadlines, and an achievable deadline can actually be quite motivating (who hasn’t experienced the great feeling when celebrating achieving an ambitious deadline?). However, unachievable and arbitrary deadlines just seem to put us in ‘panic’ and ‘preservation’ mode. As we flip-flop between tasks, desperately trying to put out all of the most urgent fires, everything takes longer. Our attention is drawn from task A to task B and we end up with lots of things that are 95% done. Sadly, in many situations “95% done” is a vanity metric, in reality it just means “not done”. It often means “not done, and blocking someone else”. Sometimes it means “not done, and people are incessantly chasing…”, which makes things even harder to balance (as now there’s messages to respond to as well).
There are many reasons we can feel overwhelmed, and much like a laptop it might be that we are trying to process too many things simultaneously. If there are too many things on our to-do list, then realistically we have a few distinct choices. For each item we’ll have options that might include:
- Doing it now
- Scheduling it and doing it later
- Agreeing a set of conditions when it’ll get done (e.g. “When team X complete task Y, we’ll do this…)
- Getting someone else to do it
- Automating it or doing it differently
- Not doing it (striking it from the list)
So when feeling overwhelmed as we all feel from time to time, why not (metaphorically) press CTRL+ALT+DELETE on our own operating systems? Why not take time to breath, reflect and to ask ourselves the hard (but crucial) questions: “Am I trying to do too much here?” and “Am I actually being ineffective by indulging in too much task switching?”. By preserving our ‘processing power’ for those things that really matter in the short and long term, we can increase focus and shut out the noise. Like a ‘task manager’ on a laptop, we can choose to shut down things that aren’t necessary and are slowing us down.
It Starts With A List
If you open “task manager” on a laptop, you’ll notice it shows a list of everything that’s in progress. This is a pretty good place to start if you feel that paralyzing pang of overwhelm. You might even want to consider creating a personal Kanban board to see what you have ‘to do’ and what’s ‘in progress’. Chances are you’ll find too many things ‘in progress’, and that can act as a catalyst for a conversation over which to focus on (and how to stop the situation occurring in future). You might even choose to use the list above (do it now, schedule it, automate it etc) to work out how to handle each item whilst avoiding having too many ‘plates spinning’ at any one time. When looking at a to-do list clinically, it can be amazing how many things don’t actually need to be done at all. Their time has passed, they were once needed but they are now defunct.
A quick exercise like this can help instill a sense of calm. This type of approach can help us get out of the immediate feeling of being overwhelmed, and focused on the immediate work. We should also consider how we got there in the first place and take any necessary corrective action. Reflecting and changing ensures that we reduce the risk of becoming overloaded in the future, and also that we retain time in our diaries for the ‘important but not yet urgent’ items. Things like professional development planning, making that dentist’s appointment that you’ve been meaning to do for four weeks might not be urgent yet. When you’re in agony because your minor dental problem has escalated, or when you suddenly find some of your skills are considered out-of-date because you’ve neglected professional development for years, the urgency increases but the options are reduced. Ironically, we’re back to ‘overwhelm’
In summary: If you feel that pang of overwhelm, why not imagine pressing CTRL+ALT+DELETE, pausing, and seeing what’s taking up your processing time? A short pause for breath now can help us prioritize for the marathon ahead.