Unlike regular employees, the entrepreneur’s in-box will never get to “empty”. Our natural tendency – if we don’t catch it – is to work harder, put in more hours and, ultimately, sacrifice our health, relationships and other responsibilities important to a fulfilling life.
Pulling an all-nighter for a critical project deadline once every few months could be sustainable, but when it’s the norm to burn the candle at both ends, our performance will start to suffer. The results of feeling permanently overwhelmed include mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, impaired problem solving, sleep disorders, and poor emotional self-regulation that can even lead to violence. And these effects reinforce the overwhelm, perpetuating the cycle.
The only way to disrupt the cycle is to reduce the factors that cause it. But how can we take a break without giving up our responsibilities and goals? If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed from an infinite to-do list, here are 5 simple strategies recently published by Harvard Business Review:
1. Identify the root cause of overwhelm. Pause and ask, “What one or two things would alleviate 80% of the stress if I pushed them off my plate?” Simply creating this awareness can help you adapt your action plan for completing the task. E.g. if you’re nearly done, finish it. If it’s a big project, chunk it down and reward yourself for completing each task, even if it’s just a mental sense of achievement.
2. Ring-fence your time. This could be done by limiting the hours you allow for a task, like leaving the office by a certain time, or trying the pomodoro technique and tackling the task in tiny but highly focussed bursts of 25- to 55-minute bursts at a time. It also includes saying no to certain tasks and interruptions, like blocking a meeting with yourself in your calendar so your staff don’t interrupt you during a critical thinking task.
3. Challenge perfectionism. As a rehabilitating perfectionist, I know how difficult it is to accept when the job is good enough and move on to the next task. Maxims like, “Done is better than perfect,” sound good but are hard to truly apply in the moment. So stop and ask yourself what the marginal gain is from keeping at a task. If there are other tasks with a better pay-off for your time, it’s time to wrap up and switch to a new task.
4. Outsource or delegate. Analyse whether the task is the best use of your time to achieve your most important goals. If it’s not the best way to spend your time, train someone else to do it. Or outsource it.
5. Challenge assumptions. Hidden beliefs, especially bedrock assumptions, are a common blind spot that are sometimes impossible to auto-detect, so you might need help from a trusted ally or a life- or business coach with this one. For example, “If you want it done right, you’ve gotta do it yourself.” Or, “If I’m not available to support my staff 24 x 7, they will lose motivation, productivity will slow, and my business will fail.” These assumptions from my real-life coaching clients might seem trite when looked at by a third party, but we each have our Achilles heel beliefs that, in the wrong context, hobble our thinking and actions.
It’s normal to feel a little overwhelm occasionally, but when overwhelm becomes acute and never stops, it’s time to try these strategies. Doing so might keep you and your key relationships healthy, making you a better entrepreneur and, in turn, safeguarding your business and your wealth.
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