Fighting Overwhelm as an entrepreneur

“I have so much on my plate; I am truly overwhelmed” (said by every entrepreneur).

Every entrepreneur feels overwhelmed at some point, but many don’t understand how quickly it can lead to failure.

Overwhelm might come from a negative place. Too many bills to pay at the same time your car breaks down. Your spouse needs you at home. Your kids want you to be at their sporting event. And your office needs you in an important meeting. You can’t be in three places at once and they all feel important. Suddenly one or two things get added to your plate, and – OVERWHELM. 

It can also come from a positive place. Sometimes for me personally, overwhelm is hard to complain about because I am overwhelmed with opportunities and options. Deciding where to allocate time to several really interesting and compelling options. My mentor would likely call it a “high-class problem” which is one of the many sayings I’ve heard him use over the years.

The first five years of being an entrepreneur I was bouncing between positive and negative – the roller coaster of entrepreneurship leading to OVERWHELM quite often.

But to me, and millions of entrepreneurs around the world, OVERWHELM is real and a real problem (high-class or not)!

In many ways the choice to become an entrepreneur is almost a conscious choice to increase the odds of overwhelm. You are choosing to pursue work that matters but still have a life outside of work which competes for your time and attention. You are deciding to take responsibility for a company and its outcome, and that company will need resources – but so will your family.

Try as you may; overwhelm is coming for you… and if you don’t learn how to recognize it and quickly defeat it, overwhelm will lead you to failure. 

So, how do you address OVERWHELM?

Steps to Reduce Overwhelm

First, know that it will happen. Despite your best efforts, most organized planning, and thoughtful preparation, you will have a time that you will get hit with overwhelm. It might be once a year; it might be a few days a month or more. But knowing that it will happen and not being shocked when it does is the first step. The fact you know it is coming just helps you stay (a bit more) calm when it does.

Second, when overwhelm strikes, you have to hit pause (briefly) in all areas of your life. You have to slow down, calm the noise and go back to refreshing your memory on what matters. If you work with me, you should pull out your version of The Great Outcome. Some call it a North Star. Cameron Harold calls it Vivid Vision, but whatever you call it, you need a clear, compelling, and beautiful picture of where you are going and why. This will help refresh you on what you are pursuing and why it is so important. But the key here is you have to get refocused on the WHY. Why you were pursuing certain goals, why you were allocating more time to family, why your health was so important. Before you do anything else, get very clear on this. 

NOTE: Getting back to clarity can sometimes take a minute, hours, or days… but to get out of overwhelm you have to take this step – otherwise, you will be buried in tactical steps and to-do lists that are likely only adding to the problem.  

Now, when you are clear, it is time to prioritize. 

Here’s where you take massive steps to sprint out of overwhelm. 

You need to make four quick lists.

The 4-Lists You Need to Reduce Overwhelm

  • List One: 3-4 things I can or need to do TODAY that are important to what truly matters.
  • List Two: 5-10 other things I have to do this WEEK that are important and time-sensitive
  • List Three: Other important things I have to do (ranked by importance)
  • List Four: A comprehensive list of all other todos, ideas, thoughts, etc.

These lists are immediately actionable. Take the first list out, and lay it on your desk (or wherever you see it). You’ll come back to it in a moment. 

Pull out List Two. Add a note to your calendar or however, you manage your time so you can ensure you work on them and complete them over the next week. These are important tasks that are time sensitive, critical to your goals/success, and need to be done, so schedule them accordingly. But not today. Plan to start these tomorrow. 

Take List Three and put it aside. You can make a note to review it at the end of each day this week to ensure you feel on top of things, but this list should not get anything but a review for the next seven days. It’ll make you feel better that you are looking at it and considering it, but just look, make any quick notes/changes, and put it away until tomorrow’s review.

Take List Four and put it in your drawer. Make a note to review it on Sunday. Plan to cross out things that no longer matter, plan to add items to it if necessary, plan to consider the rank and priority of any items… but put this list out in the future at least seven days. Don’t worry, the list isn’t going anywhere and you put a note in your calendar to review it… but get it out of your mind and out of your site.

Ok, back to list one. That is your attack list. Try incredibly hard to do NOTHING but the items on that list until they are done. Reduce distractions. Turn off notifications. Stay out of email (for at least a few hours). Just hammer out that list. {You have heard me talk about this A LOT. It is a key strategy for me that I call: MTN = Move The Needle}

At the end of day one, hopefully, you’ve crossed off most of the critical items for the day. Review the other lists, update as needed, and create another version of List One for tomorrow. Be very vigilant about the lists. Don’t add anything to your list (other than throwing it on List Three or Four) until you have absolutely crushed the items on your first two lists. 

This system works for me every time. I have to fight my natural tendencies to try and tackle too much, but when I stick to this, it works extremely well. 

It is OK to be overwhelmed

As I said before, it is inevitable that you will get to a point where you are overwhelmed. It may come from negative issues piling up on your shoulders, or it may be you are showered with options and opportunities… but when you are overwhelmed, you need to recognize it, take a deep breath and follow this strategy. You’ll be back to focused execution in no time at all.