Dealing with Overwhelm in the Workplace in 5 Steps

Article by Samuel Hatton on February 14, 2019
Samuel Hatton
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When I worked on a high ropes course in college, my job was straightforward, simple, and fun! I knew exactly what I needed to do to progress to the next level, I knew how to train up on team building activities, I attended technical trainings, workshops, and outdoor trips to learn skills and gain experience that others who came before me had. Rarely did I ever feel overwhelmed due to work.

When I first came to work at Endsight I felt the same way, my job was straightforward, simple,  fun. Then something happened. Several months in, I had so much on my plate and I was juggling so many different projects that I became overwhelmed. This is common in an office environment that allows some amount of autonomy.

Frankly, getting overwhelmed is easy to do in a role like mine where you are responsible for researching, planning, and implementing things that no one else in your company has ever researched, planned, or implemented. As I get to know our clients, I have noticed that our customers, specifically those who manage the Endsight relationship, also deal with the same thing I deal with - wearing multiple hats.

Overwhelm comes in two varieties: (1) self-limiting beliefs and (2) lack of clarity and focus. Here are some strategies that I've held fast to over the years to combat overwhelm in the workplace.

Step 1) Put Your Self-Limiting Beliefs in Check

Overwhelm can come from Impostor Syndrome or not believing that "you got this". If you got this under control, you already know you’re awesome. Good! You can move on to the next section.

Here is the reality - You carry an important position in your place of work. Those who hired or appointed you believed enough in you to give you that position. This is a bet. They made a bet on YOU. It doesn't matter who you are or what work you’re doing, there will always be a ramping up period before you are proficient in your work.

When I studied theater arts in college, I believed that acting technique training was some of the best you can get in the art of performance. After all, your body, heart, and mind do not care if you are on stage or in the workplace. There was a phrase that one of my professors would say all the time, "Fake it till you make it!" Emphasis on the "make it". Faking it doesn't matter if you don't push through and skill up toward excellence.

When we hire anyone, from an office admin to a computer engineer, no matter how much experience they have; there is always a ramping up period before we can get meaningful work out of them. Managers and co-workers will pour hundreds of hours into these individuals to ramp them up on client knowledge, skills they need, and our way of doing things.

So know this: your employer, clients, and marketplace took a bet on you. They believe in who you are today, not just in who you are growing into tomorrow. You got this!

Step 2) Work from Your Strengths

StrengthsFinder 2.0 is hands down, my go-to personal assessment tool for knowing how to best navigate work. If you can work more from your strengths, then you will find yourself doing your best work more often. Furthermore, because work will be much simpler, you'll be less overwhelmed.

The idea behind the methodology is this - each of us has strengths or tendencies. These tendencies guide where and how we thrive in the work we do for our colleagues, clients, and friends. You can amplify each technical and soft job skill from one or more of these tendencies.

For example, consider these tendencies (by someone I know very well 😉): Strategic, Communication, Futuristic (thinking), Activator (of people), and Consistency (aka “fairness”). Executives must have a strong strategic and futuristic thinking backbone. Any job role where you use a computer the majority of the time can benefit from strong communication. Those in management roles need to get others to take action by breaking the vision into actionable steps.

But here's the thing. You only get five top strengths. You may be a manager without the activator tendency, but you have strong tendencies in learning and relating to others. Use those tenancies to learn about your employees and relate to them to inspire them toward their best. When you combine your own tendencies with your knowledge, skill, and experience in your particular work, you can become a more effective worker.

Side note, the StrengthsFinder 2.0 book I mentioned earlier comes with a brief 30-minute assessment to help you determine with which areas of your consciousness to operate. As of the writing of this article (and several years prior), the hardcover book on Amazon is the best deal for getting this book. Make sure to buy it new because the assessment code will not work with a used book.

Maybe you took the assessment before and discarded it soon after. You can forgive your past self for that. Dust off your results, or take the test again, and start working from a place of strength. Overwhelm cannot creep in when you are a force to be reckoned with because you are leveraging your superpowers.

This test was life changing for me and I think it will be for you too if you choose to work from your strengths as determined by the assessment. Recognize that your greatest success will come from you utilizing the few areas in which you are naturally great. The more you do the type of work that comes to you naturally, the more sustainability you have within your energy to work. Hours go by fast, you are working from a place of rest, and you experience flow.

Step 3) Prioritize with the 80/20 Rule

I think the real shift for me from eliminating overwhelm from my consciousness was something Jason Clause said to me along the lines of … “Look around you Samuel, you will always have more work to do than you have time to get it done. You will die with a  TODO list. So will everyone else here.” The reality is, there is a big list. We just have to prioritize it.

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. In other words, 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. This law has proved true across disciplines such as sociology, economics, agriculture, and business.

For example, studies show that -- 

  • 20% of the population own 80% of the real estate.
  • 20% of green bean plants carry 80% of the seeds.

Applied to business --

  • 20% of clients contribute 80% of revenues.

So if this is right, then 20% of your TODO list should give you 80% of your efficiency at work. When you remember the 80/20 rule, you can then force-rank (prioritize) your TODO list with the most important things on top, knowing that you are probably working on a highly effective task that will give you much higher results than the rest.

When you do the opposite, meaning you only get to the low value (seemingly urgent low value) items, your results will be mediocre.

Take both the “Work from your strengths” principle and the 80/20 rule, and amazing things can happen. Sometimes just one simple tweak will make your work more efficient and far less overwhelming. For example, delegating a low-value work function.

I recall a conversation with one of our customers. Before working with Endsight, he was the “tech guy” but was also responsible for purchasing, onboarding clients, and equipment installations. It was the onboarding and installations part of his work (the 20%) that was getting him the most results for his firm. When he let go of the nitty-gritty tech support stuff and hired Endsight, he was able to devote more of his energy to his best work, which made him more valuable to the firm.

Now as the VP of Operations, his IT involvement is high-level and always focused on strategy when it comes to his place of employment's industry. As he matures and grows in his work, he’s able to continually do more high-level planning and strategy for his clients to bring on new business with better execution.

Step 4) Focus on One Thing at a Time

If you want to take the 80/20 rule to the next level, you can discard your entire TODO list and focus on just one thing. There is a great book by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan called The ONE Thing.  To boil down the entire book to one sentence, "What is one thing I can do, such by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?"

This principle in its simplest form looks at work as a series of dominoes. You have to figure out which domino is the one that will cascade the rest of your work to make it somewhat effortless.

What if there was something you could do that would make months of work vanish? Or something that could make everything way easier? There have been a few systems that I've implemented here at Endsight that have done just that. After all, technology can be incredible for eliminating some tasks altogether. Examples may include removing administrative overhead by creating a web form, using macros, or it might be as simple as creating a style guide so you aren't wasting hours orienting a vendor on how to do your branding.

Step 5) Schedule BIS time

BIS is an acronym for "Butt In Seat". Your priority deserves to have its own place in your calendar. During this block of time, you are to do NOTHING except sit in your seat and do your priority.

BIS time can be difficult, but if you take pointers from the section above on working from your strengths, BIS time is easy. The first 5 minutes of BIS time is the hardest. Just get through the first 5 minutes and know what you are working on. Limit all distractions that might pull you away from your “One Thing” and keep going.

Anything that you schedule daily can become a habit. Steven King wrote in his book, On Writing, "It's pure habit. I write from probably 7:30 till noon most days. I kind of fall into a trance." Steven King had his priority (writing) down, you can too if you follow the other steps. Only then, will BIS time become a powerful force in your workday driving down overwhelm in the workplace.

The next time you find yourself burdened by a big task, a big position, a big list, a big situation in the workplace; just breath, relax, and come back to these steps to regain composure. You got this!

Tags: Productivity

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