Being overwhelmed

I think getting used to being overwhelmed is a leadership skill. Several times a week a difficult situation occurs and in the first moment I don’t know what to do. It can be many things. Maybe there are too many open issues and too little time or there is a new and unexpected problem or an unfulfillable demand from a stakeholder.

What I have figured out, is that the feeling of being overwhelmed is simply that: a feeling. It has nothing to do with facts. It’s just the emotional impulse when something unexpected or overwhelming happens for which I don’t have a solution at hand. So as always: I use an algorithm for that.

Being confident

The first thing is to remind myself that I’m totally capable of solving the situation. And if I’m not, then it’s probably not solvable anyway. So there is no need to be fearful or ashamed.

I also use a technique that is described in Susan Jeffries “Feel the fear and do it anyway”: She describes three levels of fear. The first level is about the immediate threat (like an angry customer or a software bug). The second level is the fear that because of the threat, a deeper need cannot be fulfilled (like being successful or respected). And the third level is the fear that I can’t handle it, if the need is not fulfilled.

The trick is now to remind myself that the level-3-fear is unnecessary, because my life will go on even if the need is not fulfilled.

Zooming out

I then make a complete big picture of all the aspects of the situation. There are some similarities with the decision making algorithm I described in an earlier article. I will not repeat it here, but to give you a hint:  Understanding the problem, specifying your goal, finding the right level of analysis and finding alternatives is necessary in most difficult situations—not just in typical decision situations. You are probably aware that a lot of situations actually are decision situations anyway. So I highly recommend using the decision making algorithm during that phase.

Decide what to do next

When I have a complete understanding of the situation, I decide what the single most important next step is. But I not only look at the actual action items. I also enrich the list of possible TODOs with “management issues”. Here are some examples:

  • Delegate Task A
  • Postpone delivery date for Task B
  • Get overview over the scope of Task C
  • Communicate the elimination of Task D
  • Correct expectation of person X (expectation management is indeed a very essential tool for dealing with excessive demand)

This enrichment is critical. Omitting it would mean to voluntarily accept running in a hamster wheel. I’ve found out that this is what most people do, by the way.

Zooming in – Focus

When I have decided upon the most important action item, I focus on it until I’m finished and I decide not to be distracted. I shorten my timeframe to the next two hours or the next day. I also intentionally decide not to feel guilty about not working on something else. This is especially important if other people depend on your work, because they will probably try to impose their priorities on you. It takes some practice and resistance and you need to be able to tolerate other people’s anxiety. I’ve found out that this is also a point where most people fail.

If some new issues arise during this phase, I delegate them immediately: to my future-me. This also takes some mental practice, but it’s really helpful. To do that, I either include it on my big-picture-todo-list or I immediately schedule a half-hour appointment somewhere in the reasonable near future in my calendar. But this new appointment is just for “planning what to do about issue X”. It’s not about actually solving the issue. Because the scheduling of an appointment for really solving the issue is too much of an immediate effort: I would have to immediately think about what to do and who to involve and how to mitigate risks and so on, just to schedule the appointment. Making only the “planning what to do”-appointment is much less time and energy consuming.


After I have completed the most important action item, I start again with the first step. That’s it. I hope it helps :-).

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