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What to Do When You Are Completely Overwhelmed at Work

March 25, 2010

A few weeks ago I was asked by the President of my company to go and fix an area of the business that wasn’t doing so well. I’m talking here the organizational equivalent of two-headed beast with six horns.

There were so many moving parts and levels of complexity involved with this situation that there was not one person over the past 15 years who had been able to get their arms around it.

Yet however dysfunctional it was, we still managed to get by. So we mostly left it alone all this time, other than assigning a new leader every few years.

But we could ignore it no longer.

“Sure! I’d love to!” is what I recall saying to the President as he hurled me towards the fiery pit.

ACKK!

Needless to say, it’s been a challenge. In fact, for these past couple of weeks I have been nothing short of completely overwhelmed. You know the feeling – numbness, panic-stricken, insomnia, anxiety, and then a strange tingling feeling going down the side of your arm.

Not the best example of a spiritually grounded executive.

I barely knew where to begin or end. I would find myself at the end of the day walking in tiny circles around my office, or just staring blankly out the window in a catatonic state – paralyzed by the daunting prospects before me.

Luckily, I have been in this tricky spot before and have a handy reportoire of practical resources to draw from to get me through. And, no, I am not talking about those little pills in your medicine cabinet.

Tips for keeping your head above water

If you are at all challenging and stretching yourself, you will inevitably run into situations where you feel completely over your head. It’s the most natural thing in the world. But rather than beating yourself up for being such an idiot for not knowing how to handle it better, here are some useful steps to take when you feel snowed under at work.

1. Chunk it into pieces.

You’ve probably heard that old joke from your grandpap:

Q: How to you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

Ha ha, I know – not very funny/ But there is some wisdom in there. Take that massive project and break it into small, bite-size pieces so that you can focus on one thing at a time. This will help you avoid the oppressive shadow of the great beast, and actually give your mind a more manageable starting point to begin chipping away at.

2. Make just one decision

Part of the problem of being overwhelmed by large projects is that your mind starts going to mush. Our brain naturally wants to find recognizable patterns and familiar connections, but if we can’t make sense out of the mess that is before us, our little mind goes straight into meltdown mode.

Instead of drooling, try and block out all of the miscellaneous noise and focus on just one issue that needs to be resolved. See if you can bring that one element to a point of decision, and you will begin to feel some momentum. The very act of deciding can be empowering and will start to clean up the clutter in your mind, clearing the way for that next decision. And the next.

3. Find one point of clarity

Is there just one aspect of the project that you intuitively feel a conviction about for direction? If you can latch on to just one thing that you believe is a step in the right direction, it will likely lead you to another intuitive connection that becomes the next point of clarity. Don’t worry – You don’t have to have all the answers immediately. Usually they unravel over time, and finding those small points of clarity along the way will eventually propel you towards the finish line.

 4. Talk to someone else

Before checking into the asylum, find someone else who is involved in the project that you can talk to. Rather than drag them down the slippery slope, bring one specific item for discussion, to air out your thoughts and confusion, just to sound off for a while. Even if you find yourself babbling like a madman, the very act of interacting and talking it out with an objective party can bring some insights through the conversation. Your subconscious mind is constantly working on the problem, but doesn’t necessarily fill you in all the time. Often times the talking it out begins to reveal the patterns and connections that are right in front of you. This is why therapists are in such great demand these days.

5. Stop obsessing about the outcome

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is “just showing up.” I have found that to be true. We tend to get obsessed over the deadline, the end result, or the outcome we are striving for. The stress and worry over achieving the end result can actually hinder our creative thinking, as opposed to just showing up every day, focusing on what’s in front of you and moving the ball a little bit further – even if it’s just another yard. Concentrate on the little things: waking up, eating breakfast, driving to work, and – oh, look! Here’s your project! Hello, project!

Remind yourself that at least you’re not going backwards. Sooner or later, everything will click.

6. Go do something else for a while

When all else fails, and you feel yourself becoming literally paralyzed by the looming situation, go do something else for a while. Preferrably something you enjoy, or that you know you can accomplish. A crossword puzzle, perhaps, or a little walk along the riverbank. Sometimes I’ll just pack it in and go run on the treadmill for a while with my ipod headphones at full volume.  Taking your mind off of the situation may have the paradoxical effect of allowing you to solve problems better, because when you are relaxed your creative mind is much better tuned to solutions.

7. Pray

When all else fails….

All right, so maybe this should have come first. But don’t ever forget that God cares about you, your job and this project. He loves you! And your soul is so much more important than that stupid project! God can help you get through it, just like he has done for you every other time. Do you believe that? If so, stop the madness for a few minutes and take it up with the Task Master himself.

Surrender.

Breathe.

Rest.

Do your best each day, and trust God for the outcome.

I’ll see you on the other side.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2010 2:18 am

    Bradley,

    That’s a great post. Someone trying what you’ve mentioned above cannot fail.

    I would be interested in the details of that failed arm of your company, what’s wrong with it exactly? And maybe some examples on what you’re doing to setting things back on track.

    PS: In case you’re a Project Manager, you might be interested in this article: Stress and Project Managers.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • March 27, 2010 10:47 am

      Hey, PM! Nice to see you here.

      I usually don’t give out too many details because I want to protect the innocent bystanders who are also involved. Suffice it to say it’s an underperforming area that needs an overhaul. Maybe I’ll write more about it once we’ve gotten through to the other side.

      I’ll check out your article, too!

  2. March 26, 2010 11:53 am

    I hit this wall about once a month, but because I hit it once a month, I know it passes. My work stress isn’t of the life-or-death variety (I work for a magazine). In fact, while my mother was dying, I looked forward to work stress, because I knew it would end.

    • March 27, 2010 10:50 am

      That’s an interesting perspective, Megan. I think having experience under your belt, and knowing that it will end, helps to manage through. What’s tough is going into entirely new situations where you do not have experience, and still are expected to bring it through to a positive outcome…

  3. March 26, 2010 12:11 pm

    I had so many of these kinds of projects at my last job, and re-imagining thousands of pages of content for the Web had to be the biggest. I used more than one of the suggestions you offer. Each worked. Sometimes the two-headed beast lets up on the bite just enough.

    Good post!

  4. March 26, 2010 3:23 pm

    I love the advice – just breath!

    I’ve been studying the practice of Conscious Embodiment with Wendy Palmer. She works with high level executives who are constantly dealing with 10 things (or more) coming at them at the same time. She recommends a practice where 10 times a day – during the working day – they set times for just 15 seconds to stop, breath, centre and then return to work. She says the leaders really struggle to keep the practice up but it does make a big difference.

    • March 27, 2010 10:52 am

      That’s very interesting – stopping ten times a day for 15 seconds..? I bet it works. I agree that it would be tought to “schedule” those micro-meditation moments throughout the day. Once I start up in something, it’s hard to stop thinking about it while the momentum is there. Plus we often have days with back-to-back meetings. Okay, these are all excuses. I should try it.

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