Updated: Jul 17, 2019
tl:dr everything I know about digging yourself out of overwhelm — probably the single biggest recurring issue I have with my tech leader clients. Don’t have time to read it? You probably need to read it.
Being Overwhelmed: A Story
When I was VP Engineering at a public company I used to time my routes between meetings so I could fit in a bathroom stop. I actually planned the quickest route so there would be maybe a minute or two for a pit stop. It took me a while to realize this, and a while longer to realize how out of control it was.
It was probably on a weekend, spending another Sunday doing reviews, or Board Meeting preparation, or reading product proposals when it dawned on me that I was not in charge of my time and attention. Which, of course, as an executive manager, was about all I had to bring to the job. The realization of the “bathroom problem” just brought the whole thing into a (rather unflattering, slightly bizarre) perspective.
These days I coach VPs of Engineering, startup CEOs and others in the tech industry, and the most frequent issue that shows up is overwhelm. Usually, I hear, “yes, I know I need to think about that (strategy, org planning), but there just isn’t the time”. And then I get shown a calendar: day after day of colored blocks from 8am to 6pm or later.
So I learned some things while I was still an exec, and some more things as I worked with my clients. You have to find the thinking time. It’s part of your job now think strategically, to grow your people, to develop culture, to read about other leaders, and to take care of yourself.
And you can.
The solutions are at two levels: being disciplined and practical in using a simple model to structure your time, and paying attention to the deeper environmental and personal reasons you stay in overwhelm.
The model is simple and well-known. Attributed originally to Dwight Eisenhower (yes, that guy), and popularized in Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, it proposes two axes — importance, and urgency.
Conceptually easy. Divide your tasks into important/urgent, important/not urgent etc etc, and then do the ones that are important/urgent now, the ones that are important/not urgent later, and all is well. Something like this:
But there’s an immediate catch. Everything feels important/urgent!!!
So how do we use this model to really get a grip?
Using The Model
The traditional methods of using this model don’t work in a fast-moving environment. Ideally, we would look at our to-do list at the start of the week, put each item in the appropriate part of the model, and then check things off as the week progressed. I’ve never had a job where that was possible, and if you’re reading this, it’s likely you haven’t either.
So we have to use the model dynamically, as an ongoing approach to structuring everything that grabs our time and attention, not a one-off set of decisions.
Think of the model as a lens. Look at your time/attention decisions through the lens of the model, using it to make conscious choices about where to spend your most precious resource.
Use the lens to view everything: meetings, emails, Slack, interruptions, group chats — everything that takes your time and attention.
Own Your Calendar
The biggest time sink I see with my clients is unnecessary meetings. That is, unnecessary to you.
If your calendar is “open”, and anybody can grab a slot, then establish some rules: you will go if your attendance is genuinely necessary, otherwise you will delegate somebody from your team to attend, or politely refuse the invite. (And: why is your calendar “open”?).
Practice limiting your attendance: perhaps you can make your contribution in ten minutes and then leave. It doesn’t have to be rude, just efficient.
Review your standing meetings. Do you really have to go to each of them every week? Can you go once a month? Can somebody from your team take the responsibility?
You can make conscious choices here — your calendar is there for you, not you for it.
Be ruthless about what stays in important/urgent: move everything you can out to another quadrant. Your bias, and the bias of the company around you will be to make everything important/urgent. Don’t fall for it. Tasks in the red quadrant need a reason to be there. If there’s not a great reason for them to be there, throw them out.
Schedule the Important/Not Urgent Time (Thinking Time)
If you don’t schedule important/not urgent time ahead in your calendar, you won’t get it. So schedule time for next week, and every week after that. You need at least two hours, every week (I know, seems crazy right now!). Some people need more, to let their minds wander, a few will need less.
Defend Your Important/Not Urgent Time (Thinking Time)
Your Important/Not Urgent Time is your thinking time — it’s inviolate (unless there’s a genuine emergency, and if there’s a “genuine emergency” every week, somebody — maybe you — is doing something wrong). Don’t allow meetings to be scheduled over it, don’t allow it to be canceled.
Delegation is a Super-Power
Delegation does two things: allows members of your team to grow, and saves you time. It’s a super-power, and often a hard one to learn.
Look for members of your team who are ready to grow. Invite them to attend a standing meeting you have been going to for months. Forward them emails they can reply to instead of you. People grow when you stretch them. Try it.
Spot “Productivity Performance” (Noodling)
Noodling in the “not important/not urgent” zone can relax you, help take the stress off. But so can taking a walk, and taking a walk is good for you, noodling isn’t. So watch for “just doing some email” or “catching up on twitter” or “reading a few blogs”. If you are in full attention to those things, maybe they are productive. If you’re browsing, you’re “performing work”, not doing work. Might be better not to work at all and take the weight off for a bit.
Using Your Thinking Time
So you got your two hours, and you frittered them away doing email. Bummer.
This is not unusual. In settling down to do concentrated work, our brain is not on our side.
The issue here is that our brains love novelty, and every unopened email, every Slack conversation, every chat with a remote coworker promises a little hit of novelty. So in settling down to do concentrated work, our brain is not on our side. It’s restless, wanting another tiny hit of something new. That’s why the little red dot next to messaging and email apps is so alluring. And why there’s always another level in any game you care to get into.
We have to deliberately take steps to signal to our brain that we are working in a different mode, of longer, concentrated work, and that we won’t be giving it a hit of newness for a while.
Here’s are some approaches:
Find a Different Environment
Get away from your desk to a different conference room, part of the building, somewhere you don’t normally go. Ideally go outside — find a coffee shop or a park. This signals to your brain that things are going to be different.
Don’t Take Your Phone
We’re all weak, and that thing is like crack. It, and the apps that sit on it, are designed to be like crack. Leave it behind. (If you’re constantly in a situation where you can’t be away from your phone for at least an hour or two a week, then something needs to change).
Limit, Or Don’t Use, Your Laptop
You can think just as well with pen and paper, and they don’t interrupt us every minute or two. Leave your laptop behind. If you need to use it, download an app like Self Control, which lets you switch off a bunch of sites, whilst leaving the rest of the net open for research (there are other apps — I like, and use Self Control).
Embrace the Discomfort, and Start
Your brain is going to spend the first few minutes desperately wanting some stimulation — a twitter message, a new email, anything. Don’t feed it. Be uncomfortable and start working. Once you’re into your work, keep going for at least twenty minutes — after that, things will start to flow. And if not, do it again next week.
I Did All That — It’s Still Not Working
OK, I hear you. I said at the beginning, transitioning to owning your time and attention takes a while. Our cultures don’t appreciate it, and don’t encourage it, and they do encourage and celebrate people who can handle being continuously swamped.
Is It a Temporary Push?
Maybe it’s just that way, temporarily: there will be times when you are genuinely overwhelmed. Massive growth, a huge product push, a terrible system failure — these things happen. But they should be identifiable, and temporary. If you know what’s causing the overwhelm, and you can see an end to it, OK, well, maybe you just have to deal. If you can’t see it, and the end is many months or years away, take some action.
Consider Company Culture
Maybe it’s your company culture: does your company culture celebrate overwhelm, over-nighters, “eighty hour” weeks? If so, how do you feel about that? Maybe you fit! Maybe that’s OK. Maybe not, and you’d like to start building a little bubble of sanity around yourself. You have a conscious choice here. Take it.
Check How Much You Are Delegating
Maybe you’re not delegating: this comes up frequently — “I have to do all this because my team is not ready/too junior…”. Probably you’re wrong, and holding on to things out of fear of failure, the difficulty of clearly describing the tasks — something. Delegation is great: you get more time, your team gets more responsibility and growth.
Find something you are afraid to delegate and do it, today. People are resilient, and grow when you least expect it. Try it.
What About You?
Maybe it’s you: our business (loosely, the tech world), attracts people who get a kick out of highly detailed, massively complex challenge. I certainly do, and so did the people I hired. We tend to love the adrenaline of navigating a river of problems, endlessly dodging boulders and shooting rapids. And that can make us successful, and rewarded, and the stakes can be high (money, status, career).
So being able to live and work effectively in overwhelm is a super-power, but like many super-powers, it has a downside, and the downside is that it doesn’t work forever. Physically and emotionally, most of us are not set up to go that hard year in and year out.
So take a look at yourself. What do you enjoy about the overwhelm? How does it serve you (ego? a rush? status?). What can you let go of, just a little bit? Two hours a week of thinking time? Sunday afternoons? It may take a while to dig into this, but start — give it a shot.
Yes, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
If it all works out (acquisition! IPO!), perhaps you can retire at thirty, or thirty-five,or forty. Then this won’t be an issue (although almost without exception the folks I know who did make it remain intense, focussed and, yes, overwhelmed). But probably one way or another you’ll be working for a while.
Beware of the illusion that the overwhelm is temporary. It will only be temporary if you make it temporary.
Managing your time and attention will remain a critical skill, allowing you to get to the deeper work of futures, direction and growing your people. And, most crucially, taking care of yourself and the people closest to you. So you can build a long, satisfying and productive career, and remain healthy and sane throughout.
Take a breath. Give it a shot!