how to stay productive when you're completely overwhelmed

6 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Completely Overwhelmed

Have you ever looked at your to do list and just laughed? You think, “Oh right, that’s not happening,” and then moments later, you realize that none of the tasks on your list are really an option. Perhaps that’s the point that your nervous laughter turns to tears. You want to be productive, but you’re completely overwhelmed.

That’s the wall I hit this week. I’ve had a number of serious personal challenges that require an intense investment of emotion and time, some stuff I wouldn’t have chosen, and certainly not at a time like this, and other remarkable surprises filled with joy and hope.

And, I’m neck-deep in the throes of the most intense and exciting time of my entire career.  We’re starting our tour for Winning Well, and the  response has been tremendous. There’s a constant flurry of speeches and media interviews to prepare for, and we head to Oregon next week to film for our forthcoming Winning Well online course.

Sure I took out Eisenhower’s good old urgent and important matrix and mapped my priorities. The truth is, the urgent AND important box would make your hair curl. My closest friends and family are all saying “You have every right to feel this way… even half of the list would feel impossible.” Although that may feel strangely comforting, it doesn’t actually make the list smaller.

So if you’re reading this because you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that I’m right there with you.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to cope. And it’s helping. I hope it can help you too.

6 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

  1. Identify Your Most Important Thing (MIT)
    In Winning Well, we write about the importance of identifying your MIT each day, “At the start of each day look over your projects, tasks, and to-dos and identify the one item that is the MIT for that day.”
  2. Follow the “Rule of One”
    The Rule of One means that you give one thing at a time your full attention. When you need to change focus do so fully and intentionally. If you spend much time with C-level executives, you’ll see that they do not multi-task. They focus. They’re all in. Concentrating. They’re confident their focus will make an impact. There’s a reason they focus on one important task at a time to stay productive. Give it a shot.
  3. Breathe
    Yes, that sounds cliché, and it is…if you keep breathing as a metaphor. But if you find yourself holding your breath as you’re working your way down the list, I encourage you to stop, close your eyes and take five slow breaths in and out.
  4. Take a Walk
    Before you scream at your computer, “Yeah, lady, I told you I don’t have time already and now you want me to go for a walk?” stay with me. This week I was feeling really blocked on the structure for an important speech I’m doing. I’m committed to adding real value for the audience, and we’re filming it, so I need to nail it to preserve the value for others as well. I was making myself insane staring at my computer writing and rewriting, and I just couldn’t get the stories to flow to align with my message. I got in the car and drove to a trailhead with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I walked without consciously thinking, and whenever I got a surge of inspiration, I wrote it down. At one point, I just stopped and sat on a rock and sketched out a brand new model that’s perfect for this speech and others. Plus, I got to check off exercise from the list.  BAM!
  5. Ask For and Receive Help
    Look around, my guess is there are people offering to help. If not think about who you can ask. This can be tough for so many reasons… perhaps you think you can do it better, perhaps you want to be doing your fair share, or maybe you just don’t want to feel out of control. I get it. I also know when you receive help, tasks go away. Our Winning Well toolkit is done and the Frontline Festival will run as scheduled, all without much intervention from me because I said “yes” to help from my co-author, David and my assistant, Beth, when they said “Just let me do this.”
  6. Decide What Must Go
    After three years, of religiously writing a blog post three times a week, the last few weeks, I’ve gone down to one. Yes, I felt guilty. Sure I worried about letting folks down. But the truth is, bringing you strong, fresh content three times a week just isn’t feasible right now. Better to take a step back and decide how to keep the blog adding value AND focusing on the rest of the list.

    People who are making an impact all feel overwhelmed from time to time. If you’re in that season, don’t spend time feeling frustrated and guilty. Take a deep breath, break it down, ask for help and work on what you know will make the biggest difference for your work and the people you care about.

See Also: How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted

The Best Way to Reduce Stress in Stupid Situations

While I was getting worked up at all the stupidity, my colleague always had the same response: “fascinating.”

He had a strange sense of calm, while my head was exploding. I knew he was as deeply invested in the scene as me, and I often wondered– I’ll admit with a bit of envy– what was going on. Finally, I blew “don’t you see how stupid this is? How can you just let this go?”

  • 6 VPs spending 3 hours working on fonts and “page turns” for the executive readout while the strategic work crept slowly along
  • A leader protecting her career at all costs, including at the expense of her team
  • Leaders packaging the results upwards to look one way, downwards to look another, neither of which exposed the reality of the situation

He shared his secret, which I’ve since applied to great gains in my professional and personal life. Begin with fascination.

If you just let yourself get worked up by the stupidity of scenes you think you can’t change, you’ll go crazy. You’ll internalize the stress until it makes you sick or those around you sick of you. But if you approach the stupidity with a sense of wonder: “this is fascinating… why would they, he, she act THAT way or make THAT decision? You slow down long enough to garner a deeper understanding. It leads you to ask better questions. All that negative energy then has some work to do.

You’d be surprised how far a little fascination can go to getting underneath and addressing the root cause of the problem.

Where can you begin with a sense of wonder and fascination?

The Trouble With Servant Leaders

“I’ve failed.” Mark’s voice shook as we met to discuss next steps for Lisa, his troubled employee. He’d tried everything to help Lisa succeed. She’d get better for a while, but then her old habits would surface. Lisa was impacting the team and results. It was time for her to find something new. “I can’t believe I couldn’t help her, I’m usually better than this.” Mark kept shaking his head. This servant leader was filled with compassion for Lisa, but had none left over for himself.

I know that feeling. Seeing such potential, investing everything you have to help, and then watching the backwards slide. The truth is humans are complex. Most of the time we can help a great deal, and sometimes what we have to give is just not enough. You bring in reinforcements, and they still struggle. When they fail you feel like you’ve failed. It’s hard to let it go.

Servant leaders have such compassion for others, that often they have little left for themselves. They forgive others when they struggle, but don’t offer themselves that same latitude. Servant leaders don’t want to let anyone down in their serving. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and feel depressed when they can’t be everything they hope to the people who need them.

Words I’ve heard from some of the best servant leaders I know, this week:

  • “My team’s working so hard, I’m doing everything I can to help them… I just feel so bad for them.”
  • “I know he’s got issues outside of work, but I should have made a bigger impact.”
  • “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t pick up your phone call, I was taking my son to school.”
  • I feel so guilty, I just haven’t had enough time for my kids this week.”
  • “I’m sorry to let you down (she hadn’t), I’ll do better next time”
  • “I just wish I could do more.”
  • “I’m so tired.”

My Wish for You

  • Give yourself the same compassion and understanding you give those you lead.
  • Know that sometimes people will take too much, you don’t need to serve takers
  • Know that tomorrow’s challenges bring more opportunities to serve.
  • Know others appreciate you more than they say.
  • Know that you’re more helpful than you think.
  • Know that others are wrestling too.
  •  Know you will fail, and that’s okay.
  • Know you can’t help everybody.
  • Know that your best is enough.
  • Know that you’re not perfect.
  • Know that life has seasons.
  • Know that it’s okay to rest.

* Photo by Larry Kohlenstein

Hashtags Or Hashbrowns For Christmas?

Twas the night before Christmas
The topic was stress
Two bloggers were writing
Their posts still a mess…

Hashtags for Christmas (an email exchange)

To: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
From: Regina@CreativelyConscious
Re: Christmas

Hey Karin. Merry Christmas! Can I stop by and bring you some breakfast?

To: Regina@CreativelyConscious
From: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
Re: Christmas

Thanks, but I’m on a deadline. #toobusy #nostresseating

To: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
From: Regina@CreativelyConscious
Re: Christmas

I am too actually. But I can’t seem to get my post just right so I thought I’d take a few minutes and clear my head. What are you doing?

To: Regina@CreativelyConscious
From: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
Re: Christmas

Ughhh….The question is what am I NOT doing? #Travelinglikecrazyforwork. #Christmasisatmyhousethisyear. Ordered presents #online (#stillnothere), #pageants, #snowmancupcakes – #Pinterest #BTWsocute. AND! I don’t have a #blogpost written for today. #gottapost

To: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
From: Regina@CreativelyConscious
Re: Christmas

Seriously, you need to slow down a bit. BTW – What’s with all the hashtags? #hashtags #?

To: Regina@CreativelyConscious
From: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
Re: Christmas

I’ve been #reading up on #TrendingTopics and #SEO

To: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
From: Regina@CreativelyConscious
Re: Christmas

Well, it’s #ChristmasEve. I’m not sure anyone is going to be reading #Let’sGrowLeaders or #CreativelyConscious for that matter.

To: Regina@CreativelyConscious
From: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
Re: Christmas

#Consistencyiskey. Do you think people would be interested in #Thegift of #feedback for a topic? Or how about #mybossisagrinch?

To: Karin@Let’sGrowLeaders
From: Regina@CreativelyConscious
Re: Christmas

Hmm, maybe not so much. I think we’ve got to get #creative. I’ve got an idea:

Click here for your sing-a-long Christmas card.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Karin and Regina from Let’s Grow Leaders and Creatively Conscious!

Thanks to Lee Gelwicks and Dave Hegmann for lending their voices. And my nephew, Jared Herr, for video production.

Winning When The Troops Are Tired

“I’m so sorry,: I whispered before he could even say hello. It was Sunday afternoon, and it was the third time I had to call.

He graciously spoke what we both knew was technically true, “Karin, no worries, this is my job.” But it had been a long couple of weeks, and I knew he was tired.

I hated to keep pushing, but the business needs were real.

7 Ways to Counter Attack Tired

Be a leader that strengthens the mission and the team. It’s wrong to live in a state of constant urgency, if that’s the scene, something’s wrong. Leaders must lead in seasons. But when the going gets tough, it’s important to plan your triage.

  1. Strategize Failure – The business needs this AND that. But some battles will win the war. Help your team understand what matters most. Be frank about what can be lost without sacrificing your mission. Candor strengthens resolve. Empowering “less than perfect” energizes the frontlines.
  2. Visualize the Win – Help them build a team vision aligned with the strategy. Brainstorm creative tactics and alternative approaches. Encourage talents outside normal job descriptions that support the cause.
  3. Speak to Behaviors, Not Metrics – Too many metrics exhaust. Trend and study results, but coach to behaviors. Identify the 2-3 most important behaviors that will impact results.
  4. Provide a Little Leave – The normal response to overwhelmed is longer hours and fewer breaks. Review their calendars and help them find white space. Eliminate unnecessary meetings. Stepping back will leave room for creativity and more efficient approaches.
  5. Communicate Through the Ranks – Your highest performers won’t complain. They’ll take on more, and work longer hours to get it done. You may not even know they’re tired. Initiate the conversation. Establish regular check-ins. Make it okay to politely question your asks.
  6. Manage Your Own Stress – Stress rolls down hill. Get a grip.
  7. Encourage Collaboration & Sharing Best Practices – Fast paced pressure creates silos. Catalyze best practice sharing. Eliminate redundant work. Benchmark how other departments are approaching similar issues. Ask for help from unusual suspects. You’ll get support and it will enhance their development.

5 Steps To Managing Emotions At Work

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
~ Daniel Goleman

A subscriber writes:

 I have found that because I’m passionate, I tend to get emotional. I look at things objectively, however at times when I am having a much-needed conversation my emotions get to me.”

Emotions get funky and screw everything up. It’s not just the “distressing” emotions. Joy, excitement, and passion easily overwhelm your cause too. Emotional extremes of either breed raise eyebrows and damage credibility. Listen well to your emotions and hear what they have to say. Channel that energy to serve your cause.

5 Steps to Channeling Emotions

Don’t lose that leading feeling. Use it to inspire your leadership:

  1. Time Out – Back away from the scene. Let it steep. Your heart is screaming, “say something now.” “This is urgent.” “I must speak my truth.” Most moments of truth last more than a moment. You will be more effective with a deliberate plan.
  2. Name That Emotion – Naming your feeling helps you understand it. Jealous, scared, pissed off, hurt, or some combination. Sit with this a minute. Write it down.
  3. Ask Why – The old 5 Why trick is very useful here: (1) Why am I so excited? “It will help the customer”, (2) Why is that important: “their lives will be improved”, “We will win JD Powers”, “My boss will be happy.” Even the second “why” begins to uncover root cause. Go for 5 whys. Be honest. Ask a mentor or coach for help.
  4. Seek To Understand – Really listen to alternative point of views. Ask open-ended “what” and “why questions.” The picture is always bigger than it appears.
  5. Now Speak Your Truth – Write down your top 3 points. Read them aloud. Envision conversation. Breathe, don’t blurt. Use a calm tone of voice. Don’t feel compelled to handle it in one shot (see #1 back away as needed). You’ll gain respect with each well- handled encounter. The next one will be easier.

Join our growing leadership community. Enter your email address to subscribe. Have a leadership challenge you want to discuss? Send me an email at

You've Got To Move It, Move It

Last week was one of THOSE weeks. So much to do. The great, good, bad, and ugly. Pressures mounting on all fronts. Important investments in people, for which there was no short-cut. Business travel and back-to-back meetings. Demanding senior executive reviews and the requisite preparation. Mid year performance write-ups and discussions. A newly selected leader, and vital discussions with disappointed candidates). Preparation for our upcoming Leadership Summit, including an important tradition of writing personal notes in books for each member of the team. And then the unexpected train delays, and “small” LGL frustrations, like my entire site going down due to server issues. No time for exercise. Too much caffeine. Time to move it.

I received a note from an old friend, he asked “when do you sleep?” I responded with some bologna about being on a mission. Bottom line I hadn’t slept much. When the alarm went off the next morning, my husband said, (I think affectionately)… wow, honey, you’re a machine.).

Of course, I’m not a machine, and Friday night, I collapsed early. Saturday I awoke before 6 to ironically start writing my “energy series.” I was staring at the computer, when in all my stuckness, my little guy, Seb, snuggled in and said, “mom, are we going the gym?” We always go to the gym on Saturdays. It’s our “routine.” Ugh, I didn’t know I had this big summit next week, much work to do and NOTHING written on LGL. It’s an important week for the REAL model, the Energy front. 5 posts to write on something I believe in deeply and I had a big family day on Sunday with lots of commitments. The summit includes dramatic evening activities, so there would be no time to write then. Something had to go.

We went to the gym. Sometimes you’ve got to move it, move it.

Move it, Move it

Enter, Michael, my kickboxing instructor. This guy’s an energetic cop always over-the-top with excitement. He began, “I really need your help today, I need some support in gaining my usual energy.”

I thought, “Seriously, dude? Crap. I don’t feel it, you don’t feel it”

Okay game on. I smiled, he smiled, we went for it. 87 of us went for it. With in 10 minutes the “move it, move it” left my stress, his stress, our stress dripping on the floor. Something needed to go. We kick-boxed it away. I came home, and wrote 3 posts. The stuckness was gone.

When you’re exhausted, the last thing you want to do is “move it.” Take time to shake loose the energy. Get the blood flowing. Back away from the situation, and kick something. The ideas will follow.

For anyone who needs some Friday inspiration, our second favorite family song, I like to Move It, Move It .

Real leadership
This is the last in our series on Energy, the second branch in the REAL model. Tomorrow we return to our regular fare. Next week, Authenticity. Not yet a subscriber, enter your email address so you never miss a post.

How Stress is Hurting Your Career

You know stress is bad for your health. But what about your career? When results are rough the “obvious” answer is to work longer and harder. It’s sad to watch a passionate, hard-working leader shoot themselves in the foot with a stressful reaction. Don’t let stress destroy hard work or sabotage your progress.

Stress Sabotage Stories

(all names changed)

  • Sally worked late every night for weeks getting the numbers just right. She was exhausted. She knew the scenarios inside and out as she presented to the senior team. When an executive questioned the methodology, she began to cry. She knew the answer, but was too worked up to explain it. After all that work, they remember the tears more than the results.
  • Joe is a seasoned sales manager who’s passionate about his vision and driven to win. The competitor was gaining ground, and he was not happy. He frantically called for more meetings and action plans. He demanded improvement loudly. Stress rolled downhill. The team spent more time explaining the problem than selling.Results got worse.
  • Carol’s child was sick and the diagnosis was unclear. She was afraid to tell her boss or to take time off during this critical time in the business. She became distracted and dropped a few balls. Not knowing the whole story, her boss concluded she didn’t care.
  • Frank was “too committed to take vacation.” He worked long days and stayed connected every weekend. He stopped exercising and started drinking too much coffee. His cranky demeanor led his team to avoid telling him bad news He didn’t learn that the project was in jeopardy until it was too late to fix it.
  • Brenda is the ultimate multi-tasker. She gets a lot done, but she always seems frantic. Despite her strong track record of results, she’s not getting promoted due to concerns of “executive presence.”

The Cleveland Clinic provides a good summary of the signs and symptoms of stress. Hardly the conditions for elegant leadership.

Physical Cognitive Emotional Behavioral
Headaches Difficulty concentrating Anger Increased alcohol use
Backaches Forgetfullness Anxiety Cigarette smoking
Chest tightness Worrying Depression Increased caffeine use
Fatigue Thoughts of death Poor self-esteem Drug use
Stomach cramps Poor attention to detail Moodiness Violence
Difficulty breathing Perfectionist tendencies Suspiciousness Overeating
Diarrhea Indecisiveness Guilt Weight gain or loss
Loss of sexual interest Feeling helpless Weeping Relationship conflict
Insomnia Catastrophizing (blowing things out of prorportion) Loss of motivation Decreased activity

It’s easy to think the way out of a stressful situation is to push harder, deeper, and work longer. Taking the foot off your gas may get you further.

What would you add?

how do you support your boss?

5 Ways to Support Your Boss (Without Kissing Up)

How do you support your boss without kissing up? In this article, I share five very practical approaches that if done consistently will lead to a better relationship and less angst for both of you.

How to Build a Better Relationship With Your Boss-Without Kissing Up

I don’t know your boss.

She may be great. He may be a pain in the neck. He may be supportive. She may be a real witch.

I’ve been that boss. I’ve had all those bosses.

My guess is your boss also…

  • wants you to succeed
  • is dealing with pressures you don’t fully understand
  • sometimes feels overwhelmed
  • is trying to please a boss too
  • is working to balance work and family
  • wants to do the best she can
  • could use your help

There’s the age-old advice “always make your boss look good.” I find it also useful to make them feel good– reduce the stress by making their job a bit easier.

5 Ways To Support Your Boss

1. Sweat the small stuff

Do what you say you will, without reminding. Get ahead of deadlines. Administrative work is a drag, your boss has better things to do than to chase down your paperwork.

2. Communicate frequently in bulleted summaries

Leaders often suffer from information overload. They are often called upon to summarize complex issues on the fly, that’s not when they want to go digging through emails. Resist the urge to cc and forward emails without a summary attached.

3. Uncover issues & address them

Your boss knows there are problems, shielding her from them will only make her nervous. Lift up the issues you are finding, along with the solutions to address them. She will sleep better knowing you are paying attention and are all over it.

4. Thank him for his help

Be honest and specific. Done well and privately this is not brown-nosing– it’s feedback that can help him help you. A side benefit he will grow as a leader.

5. Document your accomplishments

This is not bragging, it’s useful. Well-timed, detailed summaries help to support the performance management process.

See Also: Managing Your Boss: Get the Feedback You Need in 10 Minutes or Less (Includes Free Tool)

Fast Company: Ten Common Excuses That Silently Damage Manager’s Careers