How To Have A Good Day: Overcoming Overload Part I

Entrepreneurship and stress
Caroline Webb
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Although Anthony has become pretty expert at designing his day to make the most of his time and effort, his workload is heavy. His digital marketing company is growing fast, and he says: “I hit pinch points in every week. I often end up with a Monday that’s totally packed, which leaves me starting the week feeling exhausted. It’s bad pacing for the rest of the week.”

This article is an excerpt from Caroline Webb's How To Have A Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life, which will be published on 14 January.

Anthony says that feeling overloaded is a sure way of putting his brain on the defensive. “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air and saying ‘enough!’. I immediately feel my brain seizing up when I do that. Then, instead of being smart in handling the workload, it’s easy to make bad decisions,” he says. “You can end up catastrophizing, worrying about worst-case scenarios like missing deadlines and even losing your job. None of which helps you think any more clearly.” It’s a good description of how stressful it feels when our brain’s deliberate system gets swamped with demands, and how the resulting tumble into defensive mode makes it hard to be our most sensible selves.

Some of this pressure is part and parcel of modern working life. But another reason so many of us often feel overloaded is because of something called the planning fallacy. This describes the fact that we typically expect tasks to take less time than they actually do, because we base our estimates on one standout memory - our best past experience - rather than the average time it’s taken us to do similar tasks in the past. (That’s one of the brain’s common automatic shortcuts, to rely on a single example rather than bothering to calculate an average across multiple data points.) As a result, we tend to set excessively optimistic expectations for ourselves. If we’re already busy, that means it doesn’t take much to unbalance us: a colleague who’s on vacation, a looming deadline, an unanticipated problem, or simply saying yes to something we really should have dodged.

There’s some obvious advice that flows from acknowledging the existence of the planning fallacy: when you’re estimating the amount of time a task is going to take, balance your brain’s natural optimism by imagining a scenario where things don’t go entirely your way. Then plan for something close to that. The fallacy exerts such a strong pull on our brains that this will probably leave you with an estimate that’s fairly accurate. (And imagine how great you’ll feel if you finish it sooner.)

But for situations when you’re already too overloaded to be able to plan your way out, I want to show you some techniques for rediscovering a sense of Zen-like control - without hurling your smartphone to the ground.

The mindful pause

Anthony knows when he’s hitting a wall. He recognizes the tension in his muscles and his snappish comments, as well as the feeling that he’s not thinking straight. But he has a reliable routine for getting his brain back into discovery mode.

When he notices the tide of stress rising, Anthony says, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and then asks himself, “Do I want to feel like this?” He explains: “I know the way I’m feeling is just a symptom of too many demands on my brain, and that there are plenty of practical things I can do to help my brain cope. And I’ve found that asking this simple question reminds me that I have some choices in how I decide to react. It starts to reengage rational thought, without fail. It’s like pinching myself in a dream.”

He uses a specific technique for taking that deep breath. “When you’re panicking, you can feel short of breath, but you’re actually over-oxygenating yourself by breathing fast. So I use a technique called ‘triangular breathing,’ where you breathe in for a count of three, then breathe out for a count of three, then pause for a count of three. By slowing your heart rate, you’re sending a signal to your brain that the threat has passed, so it reduces the other signals of stress.”.

With this, Anthony is basically using mindfulness as his first-line tactic to handle workplace overload. As a result, he’s reaping some of the compelling neurological benefits that  research has found to be associated with mindfulness practices, including sharper thinking and better resilience. Perhaps his short routine doesn’t sound like mindfulness - but it is, in effect. The counting involved in his breathing exercise gives his overloaded mind a clear and uncomplicated point of focus for a little while, allowing his brain a few minutes to unpack and reorganize everything it’s trying to keep track of. As Anthony says: “It slows and calms things down very, very quickly.”

If you want a quick, discreet way of taking a mindful pause when you’re swamped at work, try this:

1) Find a way to sit (or stand) as comfortably as you can. Try putting your feet squarely on the floor. Close your eyes if possible or just look downward into your lap.

2) Next, choose an easy point of focus. Try one of these approaches:

  • Concentrate  on your breath. You can try Anthony’s technique, or just count 1–2 on the in-breath and 3–4 on the out-breath. It can help you focus if you put your hands on your stomach to feel its rise and fall as you breathe
  • Notice how each part of your body feels, working up from your toes to the top of your head
  • Count down from one hundred to zero in your mind

If your mind wanders, don’t worry - that’s normal. Don’t judge yourself. Just notice that  you’ve drifted, then bring your focus back to where you were before.

If your moment of overload is hitting you in the middle of a meeting, you can use miniature versions of all of these suggestions to pause and bring your smarter self back online. Take just one or two mindful breaths; count down from ten (rather than one hundred); take a second to notice how your feet feel on the floor. Nobody will notice except your grateful brain.

Outsource your memory

Because our brain’s working memory is tiny, even small distractions can make it difficult to concentrate. And thinking about incomplete tasks and concerns qualifies as a serious distraction, especially if you’re trying to keep track of them all in your head. You burn a little of your deliberate system’s mental energy every time you tell yourself, “I must remember to pick up the dry cleaning today.” That’s why psychologists E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister, at Florida State University, found that people do less well at solving anagrams and logic problems when they’re aware of another activity that’s yet to be completed. There’s even a term for this phenomenon: the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Russian psychologist who discovered it.

The key to overcoming the Zeigarnik effect is outsourcing some of your basic memory tasks to a recording device other than your brain to free up space for real thinking:

  • Develop a habit of immediately getting worries and work-in-progress thoughts out of your head and down on “paper” - whether real paper or the electronic version - so that your brain no longer has to expend  energy on remembering  them
  • Consider keeping a notepad or voice recorder anywhere that you find thoughts often come to mind. Personally, I have a waterproof pad in the shower, as well as a regular one by my bed and a well-used notepad function on my phone

But what is the most important  thing? If you could do only one thing today, what should it be?

You still have to consider later what to do with each item you write down- but your work will feel easier once you’re not wasting mental horsepower on trying to keep everything straight in your mind. Unfinished tasks are like screaming kindergartners - much easier to handle when you get them to sit down quietly.

Most important thing first

Some years ago, a haiku-like phrase was posted on a now-dormant Twitter account, badged as “productivity in 11 words”. It said: “One thing at a time. Most important thing first. Start now.” It wasn’t written by a behavioral scientist, but it might just as well have been, given the research on how readily the brain’s deliberate system gets overloaded.

But what is the most important  thing? If you could do only one thing today, what should it be? One January day in New York, I was coaching a high-powered businesswoman about to leave for the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland. There’s no doubt that Valerie was entirely overloaded with things to do. She was in the middle of changing jobs, had promised a dozen favors to friends and acquaintances, and had a big speech to write about the role of business in society. She was listing all her tasks out loud as we walked in the snow.

Eventually, during a break in the conversation, I said: “That’s a lot, yes. So, out of all that, what’s really the single most important thing to do today?”

Her eyes widened. “That’s it.” I looked at her blankly.

“What you said is so clarifying,” she explained. It was hardly the most sophisticated question in the world, but it was enough to make her realize that “the most important thing” was to get personal invitations sent out to some key people for her speech in Davos. It meant a lot to Valerie to make that session a success, and it was approaching fast. Feeling overwhelmed had made it hard to see the obvious; posing the blunt question made it clear again, by reducing the noise in her head (or, to be specific, reducing the load on her brain’s working memory).

What’s the smallest first step you can take to move things forward? This deceptively simple question soothes your brain for a couple of different reasons.

It’s a simple trick that Anthony uses time and again when he hits his weekly pinch points. “After I’ve taken a breath and gotten my head back on straight, I look at all the things on my plate and say: ‘Okay, what really needs to happen by the end of the day?’ That clarity can be quite de-stressing.” What if there are multiple urgent things to do? “If I ask myself honestly, there’s always one thing that’s really top priority, usually because other things depend on it or there’s really more at stake in the longer term. And the other things can be deferred or delegated or dropped if I really analyze it.”

Looking at your to-do list, try these clarifying questions:

  • What really matters most right now? (It may help to revisit your intentions for the day.)
  • What really has to happen today, if nothing else?
  • Project forward to the end of the day. What will you be most glad or relieved to have done?

The smallest first step

You’re now clear on what’s most important.  But if it’s a complex or daunting task, you can still feel stuck. So the next simple question to ask is this: What’s the smallest first step you can take to move things forward?

This deceptively simple question soothes your brain for a couple of different reasons. First, it guides you away from worrying about the scale of the challenge you’re facing, toward something that you know you can do. Your brain anticipates the reward that comes from success, which helps to move you out of defensive mode and toward a discovery state of mind. The “smallest step” question also reduces the load on your brain by redirecting effort from something it finds difficult (conceiving of an unknown future) to something it finds easy (thinking about an immediate action to take).

Angela, an attorney, works for a firm where managers are elected by their peers rather than appointed. It’s an approach that rewards candidates who have great ideas and people skills, and Angela had plenty of both. But every time she thought about putting herself forward for a management election, she ground to a halt. Almost every day, she had an item on her to-do list called “start prep for election". It was always her “most important thing,” but the task felt too large and complex to tackle in the middle of her busy days.

So we talked about the smallest first step. Angela says, “I realized that the first thing was just to have coffee with my boss, whom I know and like, to talk to him about my ideas. So I wrote that on a yellow sticky note. Then I called his assistant, and went and did it. After that, I took the same approach for the next step, and the next. It was very freeing.” Moreover, it worked. After her colleagues elected her to a managerial role, Angela used the “first small step” technique to attack all her difficult tasks. “It always works. There’s always something tiny you can do to feel you’ve made progress. It’s an infallible way of keeping things moving forward when things feel unmanageable.

Part II of this chapter will be published on BusinessZone on Saturday (16 January). 

Caroline Webb's speaking at an Executive Foundation dinner on 19 January in Tetbury. Click here to find out more details or register for the event.


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