Organize

Overwhelmed? Stop and get organized!

When the list of to-do’s, calls to return, and emails in your inbox is growing at a steady rate, it is easy to get overwhelmed.

When you’re overwhelmed, it feels like there are piles everywhere and you just cannot get ahead of them, no matter what you do. The laundry and dishes pile up. The email threads get lost in digital piles. And looking at the real paper piles on your desk can make you cringe.

It is hard to know what to do next. And it seems like things are never going to be “done.”

What we want to do in times of overwhelm is keep going!
We tell ourselves: Do this one more thing. And then this. And then go over here and do this. Keep going! It will get better if I just keep going!
But it does not get better.

Good news! I have learned a key trick that can help reduce overwhelm within a few hours. You probably know it too. It’s simple — and we almost never do it.

Stop. Get organized!

This is not what we want to do. Looking at all those piles of work increases our anxiety, and we usually want to flee from it. I know I do.

I promise that if you get organized, you will feel better. You may have to push through that first bout of anxiety, but you will feel better! And getting organized improves the chances you will actually accomplish the task you set out to do.

I did this earlier this month.

Right now, I have a number of projects going, including quite a bit of on-site facilitation. At the end of April, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get it all done.

My first response was to put my head down and just push through. To ignore the piles that were building up around me and simply take care of the next task… and the next… and the next.

I pride myself on being there for my clients. In order to do that, I actually needed to be there for myself first.

So inside of blindly running forward, I set aside an afternoon and evening to get organized. I did not delve into any pending tasks or to-do’s. Instead I cleaned up and fine-tuned my systems.

Here is what I did:

Manage the project and work backwards from deadlines

First I tackled my project management system. I cleaned up the software I use for project management. (I use Asana for business, client and personal projects.) I made sure all my major projects were in the system, with their monthly and weekly tasks. I worked backwards from my deadlines and set completion dates for the key components of each project.

Review daily to-do’s

I use my project management tool and calendar to tell me what needs to happen and when. And I keep track of my daily to-do’s in an actual paper notebook that is always with me. (I know most people are fully digital now – I just cannot give up the great feeling of crossing off tasks on a piece of paper. AND this process allows me to step away from the computer during the day.)Each day I write out two to four to-do’s and/or meetings. If I have more than four to-do’s, I know my project timelines are off and I am not going to get everything done.

Clean up the calendar

I took a look at my calendar and made sure it was “telling the truth.” I reviewed the last few weeks and previewed the weeks coming up. This means that what my calendar says I am doing and what I have planned to do is ACTUALLY what is occurring. When I revisit my calendar, I learn how I am spending my time. That helps me be more realistic about how long it will take me to complete upcoming tasks. I ask myself, “Can I really get this done by then? And what other chunks of time will it take to get this task done?”

Get emails under control

I got back on top of my emails in a few steps. I scanned my email. I responded to anything I could handle quickly. For emails that needed a more thoughtful response, I used Boomerang in Gmail to send messages out of my inbox and back to me at a time when I could focus on them. And I deleted A WHOLE bunch of email, making sure to unsubscribe when pertinent. When I am receiving too much email, I change my email priorities. I respond only to clients, potential clients, friends, and family. I delete the articles and “forwards” in my inbox and start fresh.

Clear the decks

As I worked through this process, I paid attention to tasks that could come off my plate. I asked myself, “What can I move to next month? What can I do a few months from now?” I revised some deadlines in my project management system. I canceled a few appointments. I asked for more help from other people on my team. I decided whether some tasks were truly critical, and whether I needed to do them. I took some tasks off my plate completely. Yes, I actually chose to NOT do some things that were on my to do list.

I know my priorities this month. I have fewer piles. I know what needs to get done. I gave myself permission to let a few things slide for the next five weeks (things like laundry and home-cooked meals).

The whole thing took about four hours. When I was finished organizing, I was tired! And I still felt residual overwhelm.

But the next morning I woke up refreshed! I knew what I needed to tackle and I was no longer avoiding my email or calendar.

This month and the beginning of June are full of good work and good times with my loved ones. I know I will have to stop and get organized again — maybe more than once. I will also need to take an hour at the end of every other day to straighten out my email, my calendar, and my project management system.

If you’re overwhelmed by the work, set aside the time to get your systems in order. When you know what you need to get done, your overwhelm will decrease significantly.

Piles all around you?
Before you do another task, stop and get organized!

Annie Von EssenOverwhelmed? Stop and get organized!
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Calm from the Top Down

Are you stressed? How about the people in your organization? There’s stress in every workplace.  A certain level of stress is OK – it gets people going, and keeps them motivated. It means they care about the work. But a lot of stress? That is no good. No good for your body, your mind, your organization, or your bottom line.

Excessive stress at work happens for lots of reasons: more work than there are people to do it, unclear direction, no sense of control, no time to take breaks from the work, and a constant state of urgency.

Brace yourself. This will be hard to hear.

Stress begins at the top and trickles down to senior directors, then middle managers, and weaves its way all the way down to staff. This means, if you’re a boss, a leader, or a manager, then you are responsible for the level of stress your employees are feeling. I know this is a bold and unpopular statement. I know we all have the responsibility for making good choices while managing our professional and personal lives.

But consider this:

If you are in a position of power, management, and decision-making, then you set the tone and priorities for your organization. If your company is stressed out, you hold some of the responsibility to usher people back from the brink, before you lose them for good.

If the people at your organization are experiencing unhealthy stress, it impacts your productivity and bottom line. Excessive stress leads to overwhelmed people who are slowing down. It increases negativity, and increases sick days and medical leave. And stress is contagious: stressed out people make other people stressed out! In a consistently high-stress workplace, your employees are unable to do their best work.

You can do something! You can set the tone and expectations for your organization. You can create a place where people want to work.

Let’s get concrete.

Your step-by-step action plan for reducing workplace stress:

Set the tone

Before you do anything else, take time to build a practice that helps you reduce stress.

Here are some starting points:
Find focus and priorities in your work. Clarify your work boundaries. Increase your work-free, joy-filled time. Take care of your body. Practice gratitude, and let go of things beyond your control.

This list may sound simple, but these practices fly in the face of the, “work your buns off so you can be seen as successful” norm. Stress reduction is a journey, not a quick fix. The good news is that as you find ways to reduce your own stress, you will be physically healthier, have more energy, and be more capable of leading your team.

Model your behaviors for co-workers, and you’ll be much closer to changing the culture of your organization. As other managers and directors change with you, you’ll be even further along to reducing everybody’s stress level

Support your employees

When you’re supervising employees, ask them, one-on-one, how much stress they are experiencing in their work. Where does the stress stem from? Ask for your employees’ ideas for reducing stress.

Be ready to hear things you do not want to. Prepare yourself to listen and look for solutions. If you ask the question and do not work to find solutions, you will decrease trust and increase stress. This is an ongoing conversation between you and the people you manage. Give each other time to look for solutions, try them out, and talk again.

Examine Policies and Boundaries

How has your organization decided what work must get done? Re-evaluate what you are prioritizing as “urgent.” Is there an expectation that people are always “at work”, even when they are home? Are employees always expected to answer the phone or emails, even on vacation? Even in legitimate work emergencies, how can responsibilities be shared across a team so everyone is not on duty all the time?

Define clear responsibilities, and priorities

Check in with folks about their job descriptions. Do they understand what is asked of them? Is it actually doable? Be ready to hear things you may not like, and be willing to brainstorm solutions.

Support people in deciding what must be done and by when. If a task should come off one employee’s plate, how can it be shifted or become a shared task with someone else?

Use these conversations to set clear priorities based on your strategic plans and company-wide goals. Re-visit priorities often, at the management level and with employees you’re supervising.

Set up meaningful fun and follow through

Brainstorm with your team the things they would like to celebrate. Every once in a while do these things! This could be as simple as gathering for sparkling cider in the middle of the day to congratulate the team on a successful project completion.

Hold your celebrations during work hours as often as you can. A brief break won’t hurt the work.  And too many extra-curriculars—even if they’re celebrations—become just one more work-related event that cuts into time off.

Hire more people or take on less work

A HUGE source of stress and overwhelm is people’s inability to finish the work within a reasonable workday. Talk with people about the workload. Find out how long tasks really take. Ask why certain tasks or projects are a struggle. Take on only the amount of work people can realistically accomplish.

As an employer, you should not take on every project that arises, unless you can support it with your current workforce or bring on more people. As a manager, you can speak up for your team as the workload increases.

Put the right people in the right job

If you have people doing the wrong work—work they do not have the right skill set for—they will feel unsuccessful and they will not be efficient. This creates additional stress for that employee and for their co-workers.

Having someone in a job they cannot perform successfully is cruel to them and bad for your organization. You can lose money and your reputation.

The right answer to this issue depends on the job and the individual. Your options are to move the person to a different position, get them the training they need, rebuild their job description to fit their skills, or let them go.

Do you want a productive organization where people enjoy coming to work, make an impact, and have a full life outside of work?

It’s up to you. Start with reducing your stress, and supporting your team to reduce theirs.

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More Resources:

Stressed? Here is why and what you can do about it!
Dwight Mihalicz
(Geared toward management)
effectivemanagers.com/dwight-mihalicz/stressed-here-is-why-and-what-you-can-do-about-it

How to reduce stress among employees at a nonprofit.
First Nonprofit Group
www.firstnonprofitcompanies.com/how-to-reduce-stress-among-employees-at-a-nonprofit

How to tell your boss about stress.
Monica Burton, Career Realism
www.careerealism.com/talking-boss-about-stress

How to make stress your friend.
Kelly McGonigal, Ted Talk
www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend

Annie Von EssenCalm from the Top Down
read more