Totally Overwhelmed at Work?

August 10, 2018

Where to start when everything seems like a top priority

I recently had a long conversation with a manager who was feeling “totally overwhelmed”. She had several deadlines looming, stress with co-workers, and felt like she couldn’t even think straight she was so stressed out. You’ve likely been there. Anyone in our business has at one time or another. Your ‘to do’ list seems to be growing and everything needs to be done…yesterday. When your blood pressure starts to rise and your head seems to be in a ‘brain fog’ what do you do? I’ve been in this situation throughout my career. Here’s the advice I gave the manager on our recent call:

Take a deep breath and get focused.

Medical studies have found that stress can suppress the rationalization areas of the brain (the cortex) and increase the areas of the brain reactive to danger (the amygdala and others). This change in brain functioning makes us more aware of danger. While this is beneficial when in real danger, it can become a problem when the stress response is activated too frequently and/or dramatically, such as when being overly anxious at work. This change in brain functioning can come across as ‘brain fog or foggy head.

We cannot be effective when we are overly anxious. We must first find a way to manage the stress and get our heads clear. I suggested to this particular manager to get some sleep and start fresh in the morning. Other ideas might include stepping outside in the fresh air for a quick walk or going off property for 30 minutes and getting a cup of coffee.

Make a complete list of all your ‘to do’s’.

Write down all your tasks. Just the act of getting it all on paper will begin to help you feel better - and at least ‘in control’.


Prioritize the list.

I like to use a good ol’ numbering system. 1…2…3…and so on. While you do this, ask yourself, “are there any of these tasks that can be delegated?” Do not hesitate to delegate tasks. Remember, while your colleague/subordinate may not do the task the same way you would, as long as the outcome is the same (it gets completed), it’s okay. If you are particular about one or two components of how something gets done, take the time to give clear and concise instructions as well as deadlines when delegating. Other than that, let it go.

Eat the Frog.

Invariably your list of ‘to dos’ contains one or more tasks that you are dreading. Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t tackle it early on. Take this on first (and ideally first thing in the morning). The concept of ‘eat the frog’ dates back to the late 1700’s and more recently popularized by Brian Tracy's book, “Eat That Frog” which offers actionable steps to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time.

Set clear and realistic expectations.

This is one thing I had to learn the hard way. How many times have you been in a meeting and as it concludes, tasks are divvied up amongst the group, gifting you yet one more thing to do? It happens to the best of us. My best recommendation to managers feeling overwhelmed is to communicate when your plate is already full. Be gracious and try to offer a solution for completing the task; even if it involves delegating. When you’re assigned a task, be sure not to just ‘take it’ so you don’t run the risk of failing expectations you didn’t know exist. Ask follow up questions such as -- When is it due? What does the deliverable look like? Who else will be working on the task?, etc. And when it’s asked for ‘immediately’, be sure to advise your manager or supervisor about how this task will impact the others you have at the moment and jeopardize other deadlines.

Protect your time going forward.

This is a big one that most professionals in our business could learn to do better. Manage your day by blocking time on your calendar for specific tasks such as reading and responding to emails, returning phone calls, preparing reports and presentations, meeting with direct reports, etc…. When in your day you attack these various activities is a personal decision. I always preferred to do creative projects, presentations, and reports first thing in the morning. I often hear from managers that members constantly interrupt them, and take up hours of planned productive time in lengthy conversations. While I agree we need to generally be available to our customers/members, we must also do our best to stay on task. This means you must protect and manage your time professionally. There might be times of your day that you block off as being unavailable to members (with the exception of an emergency situation or a board member’s needs).

Limit distractions from colleagues and direct reports.

This one can be difficult because a pre-existing culture likely already exists which may not make this type of structure easy to come by, but it’s one of my TOP RECOMMENDATIONS when it comes to managing your time. It is absolutely necessary to limit “pop ins”. It’s disruptive and can take valuable planned productive time. How do you avoid this? Set up mutually convenient weekly (or daily if necessary) meetings with your direct reports and keep it on the calendar. Hold this time as sacrosanct and do not reschedule except in extreme situations. Use this time to review any questions, deadlines, projects, etc. The direct report will become used to holding onto questions until your scheduled meeting and will help everyone to improve communications and efficiency.

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed, pull out these recommendations and begin to get things under control. We work in a very demanding industry, but with a little effort and discipline you will be able to manage your day and achieve success.