When I’m working with an individual client, I always listen carefully for signs of overwhelm. Whether overwhelm comes from business development activity or (more commonly) from the press of billable work, the result is catastrophic for business development success.
Business development aside, overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else. On days with overflowing email, an endless task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, you may find it almost impossible to operate effectively. Even if you manage to limp along, overwhelm-driven distraction may send things falling through the cracks. Over the years, I’ve hones in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:
- Move. Overwhelm tends to cause mental paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of physical activity. Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks. Get your blood pumping.
- Lift your mood. Overwhelm breeds lethargy. Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift. I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop or two perks me up almost instantly, and I have a “get going” playlist of peppy songs that gets me going every time.
- Focus intently for a short time. After the computer and telephone, your most productive piece of equipment could be a digital timer. When you feel stuck, set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that you can take a break as soon as the timer beeps. Make it a game: compete against yourself using the timer to see how quickly you can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks. The timer and competition will get you going, and momentum may keep you working even after the alarm sounds. Here’s the timer I use. (I recommend you NOT use the timer on your cell phone–too much temptation to check email or Facebook there.)
- Clean it up. Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm. If your desk is too messy (and “too messy” will vary person to person), set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor. If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it. (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour? I’ll have some tips for you next week.)
- Call in the reinforcements. Find the right help for your source of overwhelm. Perhaps your assistant can help you clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through the mental clutter. When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress. Get some help.
- Dump it. One common source of overwhelm is the mental task list. When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy from productive activity for simple memory maintenance. Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper. Free up your mind for more useful work.
- Get out of the office and do something else. Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective. Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work? When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
- Access a different part of your brain. One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before a trial. Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side o f his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts. What can you do to bring another part of your skills to the table?
- Mind map. If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map. Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating. Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up. If you’re really stuck you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list. Click here for a video on this technique.
- If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted. Think of your energy as a pitcher of water. If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more wateR) will allow it to pour more. If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty. Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.