“If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” It’s a well-known phrase – and largely true in my experience.
The exceptions arise either because people are giving the illusion of being busy – the kind that will happily take half an hour to tell you how busy they are – or because people got swamped with a wave of work that overwhelmed them. Work doesn’t always arrive in nice neat packages – and these situations do arise.
During my early career in production management in the auto industry, I frequently faced situations where I was in massive firefight mode and had to dig my way out. Ideally, of course, you want to avoid it happening altogether. Just as a wary windsurfer keeps a weather eye out for imminent gusts of wind that might catapult them off the board, so those of us that like to squeeze the most out of every moment need to develop a “weather eye”.
In the meantime, whilst that weather eye is developing, here are five tips to get you back in control for those occasions that you miss the signs:
1. Keep calm!
It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed, which is the real killer. Once you’re in panic mode, your ability to think clearly diminishes, that already long list of items takes even longer to deal with and the problem just gets worse.
So get to a calm space where you can concentrate, take some deep breaths and grab a large piece of blank paper (I prefer A3 size).
2. Determine the scale of the problem
The overwhelming feelings tend to exaggerate in your own mind how bad your situation really is. So, the first thing you need to know is the true size of the beast you’re dealing with – only then will you be able to deal with it effectively.
Using your big sheet of paper from step 1, do a brain dump of all the projects, tasks and any other general ‘stuff’ on your mind. I love mind maps so I start to group items by theme as I go – but you can use whatever structure works best for you. The idea is to take all of those thoughts that are buzzing round in your head and creating the panic, and putting them down on paper so that you can take an objective view.
Despite having dealt with some massive problems throughout my career, I’ve never yet had the list go onto more than one page (maybe why I like a big sheet of paper!).
3. Get perspective
Now go through each item one by one and ask about each the killer question: “Would the world stop if I didn’t do this?” I’ve yet to find something in my experience that would, though there might be other consequences such as financial loss, reduced credibility, embarrassment or hurt pride. Circle the ones you feel stand out with significant impact – I like to use a red felt tip so they stand out. Which of those could be renegotiated? Simply pick up the phone to whoever is expecting the work, explain the situation and check when they absolutely need it. I’ve been surprised how often taking this small step can resolve things, as they might also be overwhelmed and not able to do anything with your inputs right now anyway. In the worst case, at least you know the hard points for your planning.
4. Scope out the immediate tasks
Taking your ringed list of items, think about how much time you need to spend on each one to get it complete – or at least to the next stage – within the next 24 hours. Add it all up and see how your estimate compares to how many hours you’ve got available. If there’s still more work to do than time available, go back to the step above and check the impact assessments. Alternatively, do you have anyone you can call upon to help you?
5. Prioritise and crack on!
You’ve now got the massive list of stuff down to a shorter list of critical items, with an estimate of how long they’ll take. Your next step is to decide which specific task you want to start with. It might be that a specific deadline makes the decision for you, or that you choose the one you would most enjoy starting with, or that there’s a particular task you know you can get through relatively easily that would build momentum for the rest of the day. I draw on school and university experience and regard it a bit like choosing which exam question to start with – it was important to get one under the belt and build confidence. On completion, I love to block out the task in black marker pen – an immediate visual sign of progress.
I find this process from brain dump to starting the first task can be done in 15 minutes or so. The judicial enquiry about how you got into ‘the overwhelm’ and how to improve your weather eye can be scheduled for a time in the not-too-distant future – once you’ve cleared the backlog. Suddenly you’re back in action mode, in control and moving forward.
Hilary Briggs is managing director of profitable growth specialists R2P. She has developed a seven-step programme to ‘Deliver Results in 100 Days’ with free resources on her website www.hilary.briggs.co.uk and runs workshops across the UK and Ireland.
‘Five minutes today to make tomorrow better’ is part of the ‘Deliver Results in 100 Days’ programme available free here.