I’ve been in the land of the overwhelmed for the past several weeks. You know those times when everything seems to come at you at once? Sometimes it is just about quantity. We might have too many things on our plate that need attention and it is hard to figure out what to do first. Other times it is about complexity. The projects in front of us all demand a lot of thought, energy and time for us to crack the code and know how to engage successfully. A difficult manifestation of this state is when many of the things on our mind are quite ambiguous, where each time we look at them we don’t see a path forward. We may not have enough information, the issue may be ominous but immature or it may be an emotional issue where facts aren’t always helpful.
And then sometimes we hit a perfect storm when all three conditions – quantity, complexity and ambiguity – are all at play. That’s how I’ve been feeling lately.
At the risk of sounding like I’m whining, I’d like to itemize what is going on for me as an example of what this might be like.
- In one week I start my “first retirement”. I’m resigning my executive position and becoming a 50% contract employee. I am really wondering how that will feel. No more management meetings, no more executive meetings, no signing authority, no parking space, sharing an office with someone else are all on the horizon. Working 50% is something I’m looking forward to, but it adds to the uncertainty, as I’m trying to figure out how I will schedule my time.
- At the same time I’m staying attached to my company. The role I’m taking has never been done before and it is proving to be a challenge to know how to engage effectively. Each assignment within the role is unique and involves new people. We are still defining how this should work.
- After 15 years in the same location, the company is moving office towers in one week. We are in limbo right now as our old office has been disassembled, we are all working from home and it is really hard to organize or accomplish anything. All familiarity of work patterns are disrupted.
- A part of my retirement dream has been to have a coaching practice, which really means that I’m starting a new business right now, and it’s a shock to see how many tasks I need to take on myself. I am now my own accountant, payroll, tax, IT, office management, web design, marketing, sales, design, development, scheduler [______ insert other roles here].
- I have a good business design, but I need more clients. It’s a bit of a daunting feeling to know I have to go build the practice.
- One of the ventures I’m working on in the new business is at a critical state right now, and our partnership is struggling with next steps. This venture is the cornerstone of new clients for my business.
- My wife is fully retiring at the same time and while really excited is also uncertain, which amplifies all of this.
- Both of our kids have significant change in their lives as well. All parents know that when your kids are unsettled … you are unsettled!
- We are planning to build a new house 1200 kilometers away, hopefully starting next year. Just trying to figure out a plan and then how to manage the build from a distance is complex. At the same time, the local infrastructure affecting our build is in flux at the moment, meaning we don’t know where we are at.
- The demands of everyday life continue as expected.
I hope you get the idea. There are many moving parts, most of them with a significant degree of both complexity and ambiguity. What I have felt over the past few weeks as all of this has added up is a sense of things moving rapidly around me and a temptation to try to move at that same speed chasing each one of them around. I catch myself thinking in the middle of the night about something, or sitting at my desk with two or three things tugging at me, demanding my attention and I feel like I need to deal with them all.
What works for me when I feel this urge to go fast, is that I need to actually slow down. Here’s the three approaches that seem to work for me when I find myself feeling overwhelmed.
I mean this literally. When things start to swirl around us it is good to practice a little bit of mindfulness. The swirling comes from our focus on what is coming in the future and we tend to get a bit self-critical which is rooted in our past. Our ability to act exists in the present, so a simple mindfulness exercise of concentrating on our breathing and bring ourselves back to now can really help. We can also take a breath more figuratively and step away. We can add context by adding distance. By doing this we can more clearly see the relative priority and importance of the things on our plate a little more clearly, and we can see what we are in control of and where we need to wait for others. As we do this the mass of complexity and ambiguity tends to resolve into individual issues that are easier for us to consider.
Break it Down.
Now that we can see the individual issues and have a sense of urgency, importance and control, we can decide what to focus on. The simpler problems can be brought forward, knocked off and give us a sense of relief that the pile is dwindling. More complex problems need us to sit with them and understand their nature. What we often find is that these aren’t one big issue but a series of issues strung together. We can use the “breathe” approach again on this problem. What needs to be done first? What is most important? What remains ambiguous and outside our control. Define a task that we can tackle and do it. Then cycle back and go through the process again to see what emerges as the next work item.
Sometimes when you use the above two approaches we find that there is still too much ambiguity to be able to decide what to do. So when I say trust, what I mean is to trust whoever or whatever you need to. Yourself, your team, the greater good, etc. Start by being confident in your competence. Move on to think about your team and all of their skills and characteristics that have helped you get where you need to before. Know that you’ve all done the work you need to and that the answers aren’t ready to appear. Don’t shut down. Remain vigilant. You will know when it is time to move on any item, and this gets easier if you retain a sense of managing separate items and don’t let the items merge back into a single mass. When I was in the midst of a circumstance like this a while back, a really great coach I know, Kent Osborne, asked me a simple question. He said, “Ian, what if you just trusted the universe on this one?” It turned out to be the critical question. Sometimes the right answer is to do nothing. Trust that there is power in the systems of our world that move us along the right lines.
So that’s it. Three basic approaches that allow us to deal with volume, complexity and ambiguity. What are your experiences with these techniques? Do you have any others that are effective for you?