This simple trick to dealing with overwhelm might seem too easy when I tell it to you. But it actually works like a charm.
When you’re in the middle of a storm of confusion and your day is filled with endless meetings, to-do lists, and a heavily clogged email box, there isn’t much time to think.
Your survival instincts kick in and you hustle like crazy to keep up. You chase down loose ends, scramble to put out fires, and try to keep your head above water.
The last thing you want to do is stop. That will just make things worse.
But one of the best things you can do in this situation is exactly that.
Because organization beats chaos.
Organized employees are more valuable
Think about it. Who would you prefer to work with, someone who is organized or disorganized?
That’s why organization skills are ranked right up at the top of the list of LinkedIn’s recent study on the soft skills employers want most.
It’s also common sense. Someone who has the hard skills and experience to do the job is less valuable than someone with those same skills and similar experience who is also organized.
Work is increasingly busy. It’s complicated. Also complex.
There is less and less clarity, direction, and prioritization in today’s workplace.
That sort of thing leaves me feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you too. Probably lots of people.
The best employees are the ones who can rise above the fray. The ones who can get a handle on things. Who can find the through line. Think critically. And make strategic choices.
That’s where you want to be.
And that all starts with getting organized.
You know what they say – if you want something done, give it to the busiest person.
(Because you know that person is organized, reliable, and capable. That’s the sort of stuff you want to be known for.)
Plus, it makes for a better day, week, month, and year.
Being organized makes you happier
There are very good selfish reasons to get organized.
With better organization comes an increased sense of control. The exact opposite of overwhelm.
And here’s the thing. You don’t need to be all super-ultra-organized to get these benefits.
Thinking this is an all-or-nothing game is the classic mistake.
There are levels. Organization is about iterating. It’s about incremental improvement.
Once you see improving your organization skills is an ongoing process, you will probably feel a lot better about it.
Just like you don’t go from cooking Spagetti-Os to a four course gourmet meal in one fell swoop, you shouldn’t feel pressure to get organized overnight.
(Yeah, I guess you don’t really “cook” Spagetti-Os, but you get the point.)
3 steps to getting better organized
1. Write things down.
Yep, you need to write more stuff down. Keeping it jumbled in your inbox, making “mental notes,” or even jamming to-dos into your calendar isn’t good enough.
When it comes to basic organization, nothing beats a good old fashioned list. And I do mean old fashioned. You may have heard all the buzz about the recent study that showed note taking on pen and paper was far superior to keyboard typed notes for students (The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard).
That same type of cognitive processing that helps comprehension, will help you to organize your tasks more effectively. Because you’re not trying to simply “make the doughnuts” you’re trying to see larger patterns and better ways of doing things. Writing everything down is probably the most effective way to get some momentum in that area.
2. Run a quick 80/20 analysis.
The Pareto Principle most likely applies to your workload. 80 percent of your work probably comes from 20 percent of the people you work with. 80 percent of your time is probably spent on 20 percent of your tasks. And so on.
Once you understand this, you can begin to find a more strategic approach to tackling things. Maybe you can adjust or influence one of those main streams. Perhaps you can satisfy a particular person or reach a certain milestone that will stave off further work for some time.
Whatever the case, you should go beyond simple listing and viewing all things as equal.
You can make serious headway toward dealing with overwhelm by better understanding the relative size, complexity, and importance of each item you are working. And this can only come from a complete view of things, which is why the list from #1 is crucial, as well as this strategic assessment.
3. Adjust your day, even just a little bit.
When your day is hectic, it’s important that you don’t just blindly dive in. Of course, some of the activity and demands on your time and attention are beyond your control. That’s modern work life.
But there are some things you can do to assert greater control. And it starts at the same time every day: first thing.
What’s the first thing you do? Well, it should be whatever is the most important thing to get done or make progress on that day.
With steps 1 and 2 under your belt (though constantly evolving), you can make a pretty good guess at what the most important thing for you to do today is.
Even better, think about this the night before.
Then, if you focus on making progress on that important thing, you can make a dent in something meaningful even if the rest of your day goes haywire.
And if that important thing is something that requires quiet time, consider starting before you go to work. A little time in the quiet of your home in the morning, or isolated via headphones on your commute, can go a long way. Even if you can’t really work while driving into the office, you can think. Shut the radio and use the quiet time to think through your big task of the day, or even your overall approach to becoming more organized and strategic in your work.
Planning is the antidote to work overwhelm
By getting a little more organized, you can plan much more effectively.
The key is to not let planning can become it’s own nightmare. You have lots of moving parts, changing priorities, and unexpected challenges to manage.
You’re not going for perfection. You are trying to stave off overwhelm. And then incrementally improve over time.
This means you can chip away at planning, in the manner above, to make things better a little bit at a time.
First you need a life preserver. Then, you can catch your breath. Soon you can gather some strength and start swimming for shore. Once you get to the island, you can gather firewood, build a hut, and hunt for food. It takes time.
The important thing is to make a little progress each day. To keep moving forward. To regain an increasing sense of control.
When you feel overwhelmed, it’s time to get organized.
Though the effort can seem a bit counter-intuitive, it’s the exact skill most employers are looking for. Because an organized approach is a strategic approach.
It’s also the best way for you to feel less stress. To feel more in control. Because you actually will be more in control.
The steps are pretty simple. And it’s important to keep them that way.
Write things down.
Do a little 80/20 analysis.
Adjust your daily plan of attack.
Gather some momentum by improving a little bit each day. Soon you’ll be happier, more effective, and a lot less overwhelmed.