At some level, I was aware of the layer of panic sweat that covered me head to toe, but it was far away. The bulk of my mind raced – rapidly flipping through the endless list of “to dos” while at the same time, I was unable to focus on any one thing. I didn’t know how to make it better, every option seemed more terrible than the last. All I knew, for certain, was that I was paralyzed and it was only making things worse.
If you’re a creative professional, I’m sure you can relate to this. It can hit anyone, but I often see it hit worst with high performers – those always seeing to do more and do it better. That incredible zeal, coupled with exacting standards means the most talented, dedicated, and passionate people take on more and more, and sooner or later, overwhelm comes for them all.
What It Looks Like
When I’ve talked with members of my teams suffering from feeling overwhelmed, I’ve heard it described as feeling hopeless, buried, or drowning… even blind and lost. Granted, those feelings can happen at any moment of unexpected change or complexity – both common occurrences in any creative field. What makes overwhelm distinct is its unrelenting persistence.
For creatives across the full spectrum of industries & fields, overwhelm is particularly insidious and difficult. Simply dealing with the anxiety and worries it creates can take so much of your mental processing, you’re unable to progress on anything… And, so, the entire situation just gets worse. A downward spiral of despair, stalled or inadequate work, and missed deadlines.
Where It Comes From
In my experience, there’s not a singular cause for feeling overwhelmed. I’ve seen it manifest from a combination of internal and external factors. Very real, very tangible external pressures combined with a mindset and beliefs all interconnect to kill your productivity.
If you are suffering from this, I’m sure many (or all) of these external factors look familiar: Too much work, tasks lacking clarity or direction, multiple projects with different deadlines, contradictory feedback, constant interruptions, and even a lack of support.
Internally, you have to contend with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, misaligned expectations, and occasionally interpersonal conflict.
Why It’s Critical To Manage
As a creative, managing overwhelm ensures you’re able to perform, deliver, and grow. Finding a way to handle it when it crops up allows you to be at your best and deliver quality work that matters to your customers, clients, or stakeholders.
More troubling, though, persistent & unrelenting overwhelm is a fast pass to burnout. If not managed, not only will your work suffer – your mental health and your career or business development can suffer as well.
So What Do We Do About It
I get it. The realities of business – deadlines, contracts, dependencies, and more drive our timetables. When you’re overwhelmed, the answer seldom comes down to just “getting more time”.
Thankfully, while the cause of feeling overwhelmed comes from varied factors – Solutions to improve the situation also come from an interplay of options. There are a variety of approaches to support different personality types, different sources of the overwhelm, and different project & team structures. Below are a series of tools and techniques I’ve used for both myself and my teams when things get overwhelming.
Time Management Techniques
As a creative, techniques, like the Pomodoro technique, Get Things Done (GTD), or simpler flavors like Eat The Frog can help provide a structure and process to begin working through the overwhelm. A key challenge here is finding a technique that works for you.
While heavy-handed, time blocking is another option I’ve seen work, particularly in highly collaborative environments (ie places with lots and lots of meetings). Time blocking allows you to define blocks of time dedicated to specific tasks, and helps to set boundaries around those blocks to help ensure the focus needed to make real progress. A key challenge here comes down to the realities of the business world – meetings happen, calls happen, and urgent emails happen. For this technique to really succeed, requires you to balance your needs, your client’s or stakeholder’s needs, as well as the project’s needs.
There are a plethora (yes, I used ‘plethora’) of apps that can help with task tracking, prioritization, and productivity. The tools span a wide spectrum of complexity, with everything from a handwritten to-do list on a post-it, to a fully customized JIRA deployment, to a custom-developed tool & workflow.
Having tasks captured, prioritized, and tracked is incredibly helpful in driving progress, but also helps in communication and organization. The key challenge here is two-fold. The first is the over-complication, the sheer number of features and options on some of these apps can actually make you feel more overwhelmed, rather than helping to mitigate it. Connected to this, is utilization. The best task-tracking app, tool, or process is one that you or your organization can actually use.
Breaking Down The Work
I’ve seen even the most seasoned professionals get lost in the details of enormous tasks – losing their way and their focus. If that sounds like you, I’d recommend “taking a step back up” to look at the work with fresh eyes, through a lens of simplification and focus. Take a given deliverable and see how it can be split into additional, smaller, component tasks. “Write a Book” is overwhelming. As is “Design an App”. “Write A Chapter” is less overwhelming, same with “Design a Feature”.
Breaking down tasks helps you find a path forward, and often – with just a little effort – you can break down even the largest deliverables to something that can be executed, right then & right there – providing small, but tangible and real progress.
All that said, this can be more easily said than done. I’ve found it’s usually easy to break something down a level or two – the challenge comes after that – particularly when overwhelmed and stressed. Once you get to this level, deliverables usually require a complicated interconnection of several pieces. When you’re overwhelmed, there’s a tendency to just keep a task as a singular “atomic” unit. When my teams or myself have run up against this, I find a good way forward is to look at that “atomic” unit and figure out how to shave off just one thing that I can do right now.
Get Clarity and a Solid Definition of Done
This is a big one I’ve seen crop up several times, and I suspect it hits folks working on any creative endeavor. Simply put, what you assume is “done” may significantly differ from what your client or stakeholders consider “done”. A lack of clear definitions of done, along with a lack of clear vision on the task itself can significantly add to stress, lost time, miscommunications, missed deliveries, and rework – all contributing sources of feeling overwhelmed.
Simple as it is, taking the time regularly to meet, discuss, and get alignment on your and your client’s or stakeholder’s expectations can help provide a clear route to success.
Wrapping It Up
I understand. I’ve been there too – When you’re overwhelmed. When you have that feeling of drowning and having no way out, it can be hard to know a first step to take. That sensation of hopelessness grinds your productivity to zero. If you’re suffering through that now, you have my sympathy, and I hope some of the tips above can help you push through, clear the air, and move forward toward the success you deserve.
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