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Coping with overload: a simple system for time, self, and stress-management

[9-minute read]

This post starts out by talking about me, then moves onto talking about you… I’m saying this upfront, just so you know there might be some actual value in reading on to the end – it’s not all wittering about my packed schedule and how it got that way! Also, this piece focuses on a way of visualising and managing your work – and how that might make your life a bit more manageable (it worked for me).

Points like, “exercise is good” and “meditation helps” and “don’t forget to sleep!” go without saying, so you won’t find them below. 

What’s the issue?
Calm beginnings

The first half of 2019 was pretty calm and relatively low-stress. I was busy finishing and publishing a poetry collection, putting a new website together, learning about social media… And doing enough work with clients to pay my bills and the layout and design costs for all the above.

In short, there was enough new stuff going on that I wasn’t all that worried about the slow inflow of paid work.

This situation continued – with a few spikes of busy-ness – through the second quarter. And then something happened.

Suddenly ‘in demand’

Between early July and early August, the number of clients and projects multiplied. Until I reached my current situation: eight jobs on the go at the same time. (Well … maybe nine – I’m still waiting to hear back about one proposal…)

I began to wonder if I’d fallen back into my bad, old habits of knee-jerk yessing and excessive people-pleasing.

So, why did I say ‘yes’ to everything?

In truth, my yeses over the past month or so were motivated by two factors:

  1. The work’s all interesting, challenging, and it felt doable at the time. (It always does.)
  2. After years of working on secure, long-term contracts, I’m just getting used to freelancing again – with its highly variable cash-flow. Taking on some additional work to cushion next year’s income targets seemed like a good idea.

All well and good. But now there’s the reality of about 100 days of work to fit into 120 days of time.

Full-time hours vs. consulting hours

On the face of it, this sounds OK. But, for those who aren’t consultants: a consulting day isn’t like an ordinary day at the office. Billable hours are supposed to mean actual hours of productive work– which is not always the way full-time employment operates…

I remember working a full-time job. Most of the time four to six of the day’s eight hours were actually productive. The rest of my time was spent in internal meetings (sometimes worthwhile), in random conversations, dealing with technical problems, and so on. But as a consultant, when your printer breaks down, or your brain goes on a Facebook safari, that’s not billable time – it’s lost time.

And I know my limitations. I can be productive for 12-14 hours a day – for about a week. And contact time in workshops and other group processes can get enough adrenaline flowing to sustain that a bit longer. But only about a quarter of what I do is contact work. The rest is reading, writing and thinking, spiced up with a bit of interviewing and (Aargh!) admin. Just like an office worker, 4-6 hours of productive work is a decent bet on an average day.

And there are weekends in that 120 days too, ya know.

Anyway, the upshot is I’ve booked myself up as if every minute can be productive. This may have been a mistake (I’ll keep you posted on that!), but since it’s done, it’s worth looking at how to cope… And that’s where this little post on self-management comes from – and where this long introduction ends.

A few steps back: avoiding overload

Granted, it might be a good idea not to get into an overbooked/overloaded situation – though, in the current economic climate, it’s hard not to consider a little of overload as good fortune.

If this is your goal, then you have to cosy up to the word ‘no’.

Personally, I’m a fan of ‘no’ most of the time. It’s useful to say ‘no’ if the work is:

  1. not aligned with your purpose
  2. you don’t need the money, contacts or exposure
  3. you don’t want to do it
  4. you don’t have the time

It’s often worth trying to say ‘no’ helpfully though. To refer, to offer an idea about how the client’s goals could be achieved differently – or at least to offer a more resourceful response that an ungilded refusal. There’s no need to burn bridges after all.

However, let’s assume that, like me, it’s too late for that – i.e. you’ve said ‘yes’ already. Plus, most of the work is purposeful, you want to do it, and the income will come in handy. So there’s just the niggling little matter of finding time and space for all of it, while avoiding burn-out and divorce.

And more immediately, a way of addressing the feelings of overwhelm that start to bubble up during a late-night flight home from a work trip. Vague, boiling anxiety salted with existential dread. It comes prepackaged with a predictable set of thoughts, mostly untrue and unhelpful… Thoughts like: “It’s all too much.” “I can’t do it.” “I’m going to make a mess of half these things, then my reputation will be mud and I’ll never work again.” And so on. (Or perhaps you have a more reassuring Inner Child?) Anyway… moving swiftly on…

Strategies for coping with overload
Four ineffective strategies

Let’s start with some ineffective ones I’ve tried in the past:

  1. Panic! (Just sink into that feeling and let it wash over you.)
  2. Flip-flop between excessive optimism and existential dread while bingeing on Netflix and biltong
  3. Work really hard, all the time, without a plan
  4. Schedule every second

Option 1 doesn’t make for a happy life. Take a few deep breaths and remember that there are real crises in the world, and this isn’t one of them. (Dissociative catatonia is only a workable response if you have a rescue team on hand to solve your problems for you – and most of us would-be adults don’t.)

I trust you can see why Option 2 usually doesn’t work: it’s pure avoidance and procrastination, with a side of dysfunctional self-medication. This only succeeds if the universe intervenes to make the work unnecessary. Which does happen occasionally… Fresh crises or new developments supersede your task; people resign or die; organisations close down. It’s best not to count on these though (and bad form to pray for them!). And when they do happen, with them comes a rash of new problems.

Option 3 leads to a lot of wasted time and, ultimately, to burnout because we all need some downtime. Plus, the more tired you get, the slower your brain processes information and the longer things take. Mistakes often require more time and energy to correct than it would have taken to avoid them in the first place.

Option 4 might look like a good idea, but like the others, it’s founded on wishful thinking –the fairytale that we’re totally in control of our lives and ourselves. What happens when you simply can’t face that report in the specific timeslot you’ve allocated it? Well, then you’ve failed. Cue the Netflix-and-junk-food binge. Option 4 also opens the door to the planning-trap: you spend as much (or more) time planning the work as actually doing it, because, “Hey, at least the plan’s something I can control!”

And one that works (for me… so far…)

Well, I did start with a plan… This began in the form of a good, old-fashioned Gannt Chart (do Google that it if it’s unfamiliar – it’s an old system, but it remains a good way of capturing the timelines and milestones involved in multiple threads of work). The Gannt chart is a classic project management tool, but it can be adapted to capture as much detail as you require.

I’m more comfortable in Word than Excel, so my chart is set up in A3 format in MS Word – I’ll eventually print it as a useful reference point for my office wall.

The various threads of work – which I think of as ‘projects’ – are somewhat fragmentary… There are gaps where clients or colleagues are doing stuff that I’m not involved in. There are also some key deliverables and fixed points (like workshops,  meetings and flights) in each project, and I wanted to differentiate those from ongoing processes (like interviewing and writing).

So, what I ended up with is not a classic Gannt chart – more of a hybrid Gannt/calendar.

Here’s a screenshot of the first page of my plan for the rest of this year – the whole thing covers two pages. (Some details have been removed to protect the innocent – and because they’re irrelevant.)

Example workplan (incomplete, redacted)
Example workplan (incomplete, redacted)

The whole thing is organised on a weekly basis with dates for specific deadlines or meetings logged in the relevant project’s column. Each project is colour-coded – and I turn the coloured blocks grey once they’re done (satisfying!). Text that’s not in colour speaks to processes (e.g. reading, writing, designing) that lead up to appointments and deadlines. At the bottom (not visible in this screenshot) is a complete list of all the main tasks and deliverables per project.

What’s the value of this?

After putting this together, I calmed down immediately. Why?

Well, for one thing, I could see at a glance that everything actually fitted in!

I could also see points of stress and overload – for example, a week with three or four separate deliverables (coloured blocks with solid lines). This suggests where renegotiation of deadlines might be needed, well before problems arise. The chart also shows lighter periods when some downtime is possible – or when I can catch up on anything that’s slipped from one week to the next.

Further, this simple system makes it very clear where certain inputs (information, documents, travel visas, etc.) are required. This allows for clear connections to other people’s timelines – making collaboration easier to achieve. For example, it becomes possible to say (with authority): “I need that draft by 26 August, otherwise I won’t be able to comment,” or “Those are the only possible dates for stakeholder interviews.”

It actually makes for more flexibility too. You can ‘rejig’ a week to work with your mood and energy levels rather than against them. And changes are easier to manage because you can see their implications at a glance. For example: choosing to write this blog post today, means that some of the reading I need to do before next week is going to have to happen at the weekend. If I want a slower pace, or to do something different on any given day (like going to the movies and completely escaping, or writing a poem, or whatever) I can do that – provided I’m OK with the knock-on effects and consequences. And those consequences are visible… More rational choices – ones that work for me as a human being as well as a professional – become possible.

So far, so good…

This system works for me – partly because I prefer to keep things as simple as possible, and partly because eight projects really is a manageable number for me, provided they’re well organised. (It just felt like overload after an undemanding second quarter.) The basic table is backed up by an electronic calendar and a time-tracking app. (I use OfficeTime – which works seamlessly on most devices and is very easy to integrate and to use for billing purposes.)

Now it’s just a matter of implementing – and so far, so good. There’s even enough space in the plan for the occasional day of playing hooky and bingeing on Netflix. 🙂

How about you?

If your situation is more complex – or your overload is actually unmanageable – then you may need more help, or to let go of some things, or to find a more advanced system to help you manage the work. There are lots of apps and bespoke systems out there, but I’d recommend figuring out what you really need before buying into one.

But perhaps what you’re doing now is working well for you? If so, what’s your approach to managing overload and complexity?

Have you found a way of managing yourself and your work that allows you to feel on top of things and (reasonably) in control?

And that allows you to stop work and relax without guilt or a sense of impending doom?

If so, please do comment below.

 

Cover image: Lysander Yuen

4 Responses
  1. Warren Banks

    Thanks for your thoughts and feedback, Anna, Pumla and Cat – and very good to hear from you all! Also, apologies for the delay in replying (I need to turn comment notifications ‘on’). I haven’t tried Asana, though I’ve heard good things – and I like the idea of a flying unicorn. 🙂 I just can’t bear to add another app at the moment: still acclimatising to Webex and Appointlet which are my most recent additions…
    I hear you on the people management front, Anna. Perhaps this is what I should write about next? Very glad to hear about new staff BTW – much needed I know, and I hope they make your work life a bit easier and more manageable!

  2. Anna Mmolai-Chalmers

    Warren,

    Thank you for this. I’m reading from the coach procrastinating proposal writing which means I’m going to pull an all nighter tomorrow.

    In some situations it’s really hard to keep to the workplan especially if part of ones job is to manage people. I know I’m negative, but I think that what takes half of my time in the day. Yes, I know it’s because our staff is mostly inexperienced and needs more support. But I’m happy to say, this week we finally got a finance manager and M&E officer. That will surely take off some of the load and I can review my plan and possibly follow it consistently.

    I also use a calender, it’s on my phone, computer, tablet and desktop. I get alerts on sundays to review the week and shift things around.

    Saying no is really hard, I always have this thing that every partner is critical or may be important in future so not taking on work with them now may affect relations in future. So I say yes to everything, hip the work on my colleagues and ruin those friendships instead.

    I do like a Gunt Chart, we will try it for the next 4 months. I do like reading you blogs.

  3. Pumla Mabizela

    this was very interesting to read. I need to find my system that works for me. Yay Gannt Chart! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Cat Simmons

    Hi Warren, great article! I love your ideas for managing multiple workstreams. I wonder have you looked at Asana at all ? I use it with a classic to do list view, but you can “kanban-ize” with a board view, that would allow for columns to manage tasks within a project as well as a gannt style calendar view…..and of course, when you tick off a certain number of tasks you get a flying unicorn across the screen so its worth doing the work just for that!

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About this blog

This blog is for people who work with and in organisations of any kind – as leaders, managers, formal or informal change agents. If you are trying to work more consciously and effectively with change in your organisation, I hope you will find some ideas here that make your work (and your life) a bit easier, and your organisation a more effective, creative and positive place to be.

If you would like to engage around these ideas, ask a question, suggest a post, or discuss the possibility of working together, please drop me a line.

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