Monday, June 11, 2012

A practical plan for when you feel overwhelmed

Sheena Iyengar, a management professor at Columbia University Business School, researches and speaks on the dilemma of choice. In one of her studies, she offered a group of people samples of six different jams available for purchase while she offered another group 24 different jams, including the six jams offered to the first group.

With all that choice you'd think the group offered the 24 jams would be more likely to purchase one. But it's the opposite. Those in the six-jam group were ten times more likely to actually purchase a jar of jam.

The more numerous our options, the more difficult it becomes to choose a single one, and so we end up choosing none at all. That's what happens when we have too many things to do and think about. We become overwhelmed and don't do anything. Sheena says this is ‘suffocation by meaningless minutiae’.

So how can individuals move from being overwhelmed to becoming productive? Partly it’s to do with moving forward and doing something/anything ….getting on with it. And there are a few examples of this work ethic.
  • Trollope used to get up every morning very early - at 5:30 - and write for 3 hours before going to work at the Post Office.
  • Richard Strauss used to be shown to his study by his wife with the admonition. "Richard, go and compose."
  • Sheridan had not written the last act of "The Rivals" on the Friday before it was due to open. They locked him in a room with paper, ink and bottles of port until he did so.
Here’s an action plan that may help you get on with it.

First, take a few minutes writing down everything you have to do on a piece of paper. Resist the urge to use technology for this task. Writing on paper — and then crossing things out — creates momentum.

Next, identify a block of time in your diary which is not broken up with meetings or telephone calls. Aim for an afternoon or morning session.

In 15 minutes — no more — get as many of the easiest, fastest tasks as you can. Make your quick phone calls. Send your short emails. Don't worry about whether these are the most important tasks on your list.The objective is to cross off as many items as possible in the shortest time and launching yourself into action. Use a timer to keep you focused.

When 15 minutes are up, turn off your phone, close down all the windows on your computer, and choose the most daunting thing on your list, the one that is the highest priority or is most stressful.

Then work on it and only it — without hesitation or distraction — for 35 minutes.

After 35 minutes, take a break for 10 minutes and then start the hour-long process over again, beginning with the 15 minutes of quick actions.

Working within a specific and limited time frame is important because the race against time maintains focus. Using a short time frame actually increases the pressure but it keeps our effort specific and particular to a single task. That increases a good, motivating tension while reducing negative, disconcerting pressure. So the fog of overwhelm dissipates and forward movement progresses.

Whilst we still have the endless decisions and dilemma of choice to contend with by actioning items we are creating focus and feel more positive that we are moving in the right direction.

How leaders can facilitate growth

Employees feel engaged and deliver growth when they share a clear agenda, and are using all their talents.  Leaders add true value when they communicate clear expectations, outcomes and boundaries to allow others to be successful. 
From talking to business people and reading the press, it’s clear that many corporate leaders have responded to the tough environment and huge uncertainties by:
  • Cutting people and rewards – but not necessarily expected outputs
  • Pulling decision-making upwards – to give a sense of control
These are perfectly natural responses to a crisis but they have long-term consequences that are starting to appear. Cutting people and rewards without cutting the expected outputs can indeed result in people finding more efficient and innovative ways to do and share work – but only up to a point. The tipping point comes when they feel there is no hope of meeting what is expected of them after which they become de-moralised. In a tough jobs environment some will move on for a better work experience but many will simply disengage.

Similarly many decisions end up going through very senior people to give the leadership the illusion of control. The resulting bottleneck results in chronic slow or, worse still, no decision-making. Despite all the pressure to do more, managers can’t actually deliver their goals because they aren’t allowed to make the necessary decisions and judgements appropriate to their responsibilities. Again, unintentionally, the leaders have disengaged the very people they need to deliver growth and development of the company.

Smart, ambitious people can accept those conditions for a period of time. If it goes on too long they get start to question how much real opportunity they are getting for growth. What can they say on their CVs about these years if every initiative seems to be required and expected of them but all action gets bogged down from lack of senior decision-making?

One of the major benefits of the leadership coaching I deliver is helping leaders push decision-making downwards in their team, releasing strategic thinking time upwards in the organisation. To make this change, leaders have to take some critical actions:
  1. First they have to step back and create some reflective time for themselves - often that in itself requires some tough decisions about control of their time and possibly saying “no” to some “nice to do” tasks
  2. They need to get much clearer what is central and essential to their team’s or organisation’s success going forward – a tough, demanding but clear agenda is much more stimulating
  3. Once clear, they need to communicate these outcomes to employees in ways that allow them make sensible and effective decisions aligned to those outcomes – they need to give back the head-room to deliver.

It's all a question of control

Work-life balance concerns balancing time, priorities and energies between your working life and your personal life – in which the ability to exercise choice and to have some degree of control and flexibility is all important.

But beneath this there are actually a whole range of balances that impact our well-being and ultimately our degree of satisfaction with our working and personal lives. As a quick self-assessment consider the following list and ask yourself what is the balance in your life? It’s not that these balances need to be 50/50, but too much on one side or the other, or a complete absence on one side or the other, may be an indication of something needing attention. Be aware also that many of these apply to both your professional and personal lives.

1. The balance of demands - between doing what you want to do and what others (employers and family) want you to do
2. The balance between being planned and scheduled on the one hand and being spontaneous and unplanned on the other.
3. The balance between the routine and the new.
4. The balance between fulfilling the basic needs in your life and fulfilling your dreams and aspirations.
5. The balance between being under pressure and being relaxed.
6. The balance between being on-line and available as opposed to off-line
7. The balance between being rational and being creative
8. The balance between planning your life and taking life as it comes.
9. The balance between following and leading (yourself and others)

Many people achieve a balance in these things by compensation - in other words, if their job is too routine they look for the new and exciting in the rest of their life, and the converse can also be true.

Ultimately, it is not your response to these questions that determines your work-life balance; it is your ability to influence the answers.