About Time: How to Dig Yourself Out of Overwhelm

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

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!!!