Urgency Leads to Stress
These days, it is very easy to reach an overwhelmed state. With the amount of e-mail we get, and with all the responsibilities in our dynamic lives, we are working on overload. As a result, there is no way we can do it all. In fact, I suspect that for many of us, 50 percent or more of the things that land on our plates never get done!
The good news is that most of the many things that cross our desk each day we can ignore without issue-there is no impact if we never take them on. Things like low priority e-mail requests, invites to unimportant meetings, and even seemingly brilliant ideas we may have can all wait without causing alarm.
But if items on our list become obligations, then real problems can arise when too many of those obligations pile up on us all at once. At that point we go into urgency mode-we can start missing deadlines and everything looks like a fire needing to be put out. In that frothy state, even things we would normally dismiss can look critical, and that leads to an explosion of stress and overwhelm. Not only does it feel lousy, but we become hugely nonproductive-this is definitely something to avoid!
Controlling Urgency is the Solution
When overwhelm happens, the solution is to control urgency. That might mean cutting out some unnecessary sources of urgency and reducing your load-for example, saying "no" to additional must-do-now assignments from your boss, or taking on fewer new projects in your own business.
But an even more important way to control the impact of urgency is to learn how to approach your workload in a way that does not cause so much stress. To do that, you need a way to change your mental approach to work. A smart approach can lead to a major reduction in your feeling of overwhelm, and, ultimately, make you much happier.
One such solution lies in understanding our mental model of work. Mental models are subconscious beliefs we hold about things in the world that do not always hold up to scrutiny when examined. We all have many such mental models, and some of them are widely shared, even if they're wrong. For example, in the Middle Ages people thought the sun rotated about the earth-that was a mental model that was just not accurate and was later dispelled. We also have mental models about work, and being aware of those can help us work better.
In fact, there is a significant mental model nearly all of us have about our work, which once understood, can help us get a handle on our urgency. Very simply it is this: most of us believe that in one to two weeks from today, our workload will decrease. We consistently think "this week is the worst; in a week or two it will get better." And yet, it almost never comes true-we are just as busy when that week arrives as we are now. While the misunderstandings in many mental models can be harmful, this one is good, because we can use it to help solve our feeling of overwhelm. Here's how.
Three Steps to Solving Overwhelm
The point in time one to two weeks out, when most of us stop feeling worried about our workload, is what I call our Workday Now Horizon. Like a physical horizon, it is the distance (in time) beyond which we do not see work clearly, and so we do not worry about it. Remember that term as you do the next steps.
For Step 1, you need a list of all the work items that you are currently worried about. If you do not have an exhaustive to-do list like that, then create one now. I suggest you do this on a computer in a new blank word processing page or in a new spreadsheet page. On that blank page, list everything you need to do now or soon that is currently on your mind-everything that is contributing to your feeling of being overwhelmed. Include items from paper to-do lists, from sticky notes, and especially items in your head. Get them all recorded. Also, go through your e-mail in-box to find things that you have left there that you need to work on and that are contributing to your concern about work.
Once done, at the top of that list, write the label "Worry List." This is everything that you need to worry about, all in one place.
For Step 2, create another page in a new document, and label it at the top "Over the Horizon." This page represents time beyond the Workday Now Horizon that I described earlier; that is, it represents a time period about two weeks out and beyond.
Step 3 is the key one. By cutting and pasting items, start moving tasks off your Worry List and onto your Over-the-Horizon list. As you move them, tell yourself these items do not need to be started until sometime beyond two weeks or more. Make that agreement with yourself. You cannot do it all, so something has to give, and these are the items that will wait. As you move them, you are removing them from your Worry List.
Keep moving tasks until your Worry List is no longer "worrisome." Do it until that list feels fairly reasonable in size-until the items on the list appear they can be completed in the next week or two. When you reach the number of tasks that feel reasonable for that period, stop.
Now, here's the hard part of Step 3. If any of the items you just moved over the horizon represent promises to other people, and you feel it may be irresponsible to delay them without notice, make a plan to contact those people to tell them the items will be postponed about three weeks. Plan to take some heat, but do it-your mental health is at stake. This is worth it. You cannot do it all so, it is better to let people know now rather than at the last minute. As you consider this, feel free to juggle items between the lists to balance the impact if necessary, but keep the Worry List small enough to be reasonably completed within two weeks.
Now, Your Worries Are Over the Horizon!
That's it! Put the Over-the-Horizon list away, out of sight. Keep it handy in case you need to move more items there, but don't study it again for one week. You have negotiated with yourself and others not to worry about it, so don't!
You can now focus 100 percent on the relatively small list that remains on your Worry List. It is by definition a reasonable list, so it is much less stressful. I call this short list your Now Tasks list. These are the tasks you feel good about focusing on right now. In fact, go and change the name of your "Worry List" to "Now Tasks"-it's a much better name. Know that it represents the best that you can do right now, given the time you have.
While working off the Now Tasks list, most new requests may need to go on the Over-the-Horizon page to keep your work balanced, and that's okay. Plan on visiting the Over-the-Horizon list once a week; when you do, consider if anything on that list has become more urgent. If so, move it back to the Now Tasks list. However, you will be surprised how few things on that list are still important over time; very few things need urgent attention once given the test of time, and many simply fade from importance.
Overwhelm Under Control
Guess what? You have gotten control of your overwhelm! You have created a system that allows the urgency of tasks to be tested by time. And you now have a plan for the next week or so that allows you to focus and to complete quality work without killing yourself. Feel good about it! Celebrate your new freedom-and, of course...now get to work!