A slightly longer post this one but it's dealing with one of the biggest challenges you'll be facing as a senior manager – overload and feeling overwhelmed.
Overload is probably the most misunderstood, sinister, beasts executives face every single day. When not managed properly, overload throws lives into chaos, reducing influence, and quality of work.
Beating overload unleashes so much value that mastering it might well be the single most important lesson for any professional looking to leap into a more senior role.
If you’re running from meeting to meeting, constantly putting out fires, and feel like you're in control as much as you'd like to be, then this one’s for you.
Consider the following story, paraphrased from the thousands of conversations I’ve had with leaders across all different industries.
Your day starts by waking from a restless sleep still tired, your eyes are weight a ton and your muscles have that weird empty feeling. You reach over and check your phone for emails as you’ve been nervously waiting for a response to an email you sent yesterday. Lying back with your eyes half open the brain kicks into work mode. No response, ‘damn it’. You roll out of bed and into the shower and you’re already thinking about the nagging issues with other departments that you need to work on and that god damn email…
In the shower, you don’t really even notice the nice warm water, it's simply a quick step in rushing to get ready for work. You get dressed, grab breakfast and peck your partner and kids on the cheek as you head out the door. It’s like a race to get to see how efficient you can be in getting ready. You check the time as you walk out the door, “Personal Best?”
The trip to work is checking emails and getting the latest news to stay across all that is happening.
By 7:30am, you’re at your desk opening your email and calendar and as usual, it’s back-to-back meetings all day, which just goes with being in an important role. But you know that almost no time is set to complete actions so you’ll be working on the fly or after hours…hang on…you’ve got to get the kids from swim school at 5:30pm. Looks like it’ll be after dinner…your partner will understand.
You get a coffee and head to the first meeting and its on. The whole day is spent running from one meeting to another, putting out fires and wishing people would lift their game. It feels like you’re just about afloat but the chaos seems to always want to drag you down into another issue.
The end of the days comes rushes towards you as you storm out the door at 5:15pm and get to swim school 10 minutes late. It’s home and sort out the kids by the time that’s done you don’t have the energy for the gym so you reach for a beer or glass of wine instead. Over dinner with your partner, you spend much of the time thinking about the politics and bureaucracy at work and never fully check in with how their really doing, which you know is always a bit of a problem even though they’re very understanding.
After dinner, you open your emails in front of the box and respond to a few long email chains that seem crazy to you. It’s the last thing you do before going to bed. You get another average nights sleep in which your brain is processing like an overactive hard drive. The next morning hits like groundhog day.”
I’ve never met a senior leader that hasn’t experienced some of the above symptoms.
This “over-busyness” syndrome is a black hole that sucks leaders in. For some, it’s simply how they live their lives for long periods, telling themselves that as soon as their through this patch everything will be fine.
But without realising it, they are likely excluding themselves from future promotion or more interesting opportunities because if you look overloaded now, the CEO doesn't think you can make the leap to the next level.
Great C-Level leaders never let this happen—they implement systems to keep overload in-check.
What is overload and what are the signs of feeling overwhelmed?
In 1956 George Miller conducted an experiment that revealed the conscious mind can only process between 5 and 9 things at any given point in time.
Think of the Conscious Mind like the RAM in a computer, where thoughts and information are processed actively. Mental RAM comes with limitations and capacity thresholds. When you run too many programs at once, the RAM is overwhelmed—the computer overloads and crashes.
Overload leads to the following symptoms and consequences:
- Life is chaos and can feel like you’re not on top of your game
- Relationships at home can be strained as you never switch off from the office and check in with your family. You miss important events in your kids and partner’s life and the big family holiday never seems to happen.
- The quality of your work is reduced because there is so much to do and this means that you’re often on the defensive about your department's performance and it struggles to meet deadlines and budget
- Your results aren’t game-changing you’re not seen as a leader that is making a real improvement to the company. As a result, your credibility and ability to influence is significantly reduced.
- Shorter temper, stress and anxiety are the norm and often rear their heads just when you don’t need them. Deep down you don’t feel as confident or clear minded as you used to and that really bothers you.
- Your peers and team don’t fully support your cause. In fact, all relationships aren’t as good as they can be because the speed at which you operate makes building tight bonds almost impossible.
- Lack of fitness and energy, because there are negative biochemicals e.g. cortisol flowing into the body for long periods of time. You also have reduced energy levels and consume more alcohol or caffeine to get through the day.
- Innovation and creativity squashed out by the other actions your brain is consumed by. Add to this it is very unlikely you’re maintaining good longer-term strategic thinking which means that you may well be tracking off course from your intended outcome. This can easily get you labelled as “technical” rather than “strategic”
- Your professional mastery and learning stall because you don’t have time to do it.
A SYSTEM FOR BEATING OVERLOAD
The three most effective tools for managing overload work most effectively when used together.
Use mindmaps as a tool to rise above complexity
Most professional leaders have seen a mind-map, but few use them to specifically handle overload.
The CEO of an international hotel chain once told me mindmaps were the most important skill she learned on her way to the top. They allowed her to manage the chaos and shift between the big and small pictures without losing her composure.
Mindmaps are just one process to shift from working in the business to working on the business—a critical distinction for senior leaders to make every day.
The mindmap is a high-level, 10,000-foot strategic view of your work and life.
- Chunk complex into simple
- Are a single visual reference for an entire topic or life
- Give the helicopter view so you can work on the business rather than in the business
- Are not a list of actions, instead, it is the game plan or categories/initiatives on a page
- Don’t need to be big, colourful, and shapely pictures. They simply need to tell a big story on one page so you can see the forest through the trees.
Below is a simple process for using mindmaps as a tool for managing your work.
Start sketching out the main categories for your work. Like project A, team development, reporting, operations, admin etc and then add sub-categories. Your first few attempts will probably look like spaghetti. No stress, just get all the crap bouncing around your head out and onto the page.
You know you're done when you feel a sense of calm and relief. Now use the mind map as a planning tool. You should get a sense pretty quickly where the hot-spots are that are drawing your attention.
Check-in with your mind map regularly over a cup of coffee to ensure everything is on-track, adding and removing items as necessary. The most effective method I've seen is a daily check-in. See next point.
You may find it useful to have one of these for the different aspects of your life like home, work and learning.
You can find out more about how to create mindmaps here. www.tonybuzan.com
Daily Reset and Planning
Start a daily check-in routine. Check-in with your mindmap and most important priorities.
Create a morning ritual for success. Here’s an example.
- Update mindmaps to revisit 10,000-foot view
- Reset your focus on the most important activities
- Update calendar to ensure every meeting is a valuable use of time.
- Rehearse important conversations ensuring your focus is on what you want people to “think, feel, and do” when the discussion is finished
Create flow with work rules
The brain is incredibly well geared to do one thing at a time, so when we try and multi-task things tend to get a little pear-shaped.
Create flow with work rules to keep this from happening.
- Turn off notifications on your computer for emails/social media. Notifications interrupt valuable thinking time and reduce the quality of work.
- Segment your day/week into times when you will do admin work like checking emails. Don’t do admin work outside of this.
- Do not check emails as a matter of course late in the evening or first thing the next morning. Exceptional circumstances are fine, but most of us go well beyond that.
- Decrease the amount of information being sent to your mind. Give your brain a break.