Episode: Feeling Overwhelmed? Here’s Your Action Plan

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt, and this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Megan Hyatt Miller is still on parental leave. She’s home with her adopted daughter Naomi, so I’ve asked Suzie Barbour, our director of operations, to join me today. Hey, Suzie.

Suzie Barbour: Hey, Michael. Good to be here.

Michael: In this episode, we’re going to talk about a feeling that a lot of high-capacity leaders know all too well: overwhelm, and we’re going to show you how to end it. Suzie, can you relate to this topic? Have you ever felt overwhelmed? And why do people feel overwhelmed today, it seems like more than usual?

Suzie: I feel like we have a busy crisis on our hands. We hear from our coaching clients, executives and leaders we’re mentoring, all the time. That’s their biggest pain point. They’re just overwhelmed. I’ve certainly felt that myself as a leader. I think it comes down to we’re kind of working in this virtual world that’s still a little bit new for everybody, if you think about it on the grand timeline. We’re plugged in all the time with our smartphones.

It can start to feel like you don’t have business hours. The first thing you do at 5:00 a.m. when you get up, if you get up at 5:00, or whenever, is hit your email, sometimes from bed, and you’re doing that at night before you go to sleep. The problems of work can invade your life all day long and on the weekends, and our jobs are higher pressure, maybe, and that is in combination with parenting and your personal life and trying to take care of your health. And it does. It just becomes overwhelming.

You start to hear people say when you ask them, “How are you doing…?” If you get beyond the “Fine,” “Good” surface-level answers, you can start to hear leaders almost always say, “I’m really tired. I’m really busy. I’ve been really busy.” What’s the worst is that people start saying that like it’s a badge of honor now. It’s like if you don’t say you’re busy and overwhelmed…

Michael: You’re slacking.

Suzie: Are you slacking? It’s almost like you’re bragging about being exhausted. So I feel like we have a busy crisis on our hands.

Michael: I used to feel this on Sunday afternoon. I’d go to church, I’d come home, I’d take a great nap, I’d wake up, and then I’d start thinking, “Oh my gosh.” The dread would start to settle in as I thought about the week coming up. I’d look at my calendar and go, “How am I going to get it all done?” especially when I had five girls at home and a big job that kept me busy. I didn’t know how I was going to get it all done. I wish I had known then what we’re going to be sharing on this episode, because we’re going to provide a solution today, and I’m super excited about it. We’ve invited Larry Wilson, as always, to join us and to guide us through this conversation. Hey, Larry.

Larry Wilson: Hey, Michael. Hey, Suzie. Question for you, Michael. Do you still get that feeling sometimes of being overwhelmed?

Michael: Yeah, I do. To be honest, I felt it this morning. We had a busy day of podcasting planned, and I’m thinking, “Okay. We’re going to record six episodes today,” and I’m thinking, “Wow! Do I really have that much content to share?” Thankfully, I have people like Suzie and people like you, Larry, joining to help out, and of course, Nick is producing the whole thing and guiding us through it, but I forget that sometimes. The weight of it sometimes feels overwhelming. So I don’t really get so much overwhelmed by the workload these days as I do just by the responsibility. But yeah, it does still sneak up on me and bite me sometimes when I least expect it. Can I say that?

Larry: Yeah. You just did. There’s proof this is a problem everybody struggles with. So, we have four actions you can take when you feel overwhelmed. Let’s begin with the very first one: focus on your highest-leverage work. I almost feel like this is going right back to the basics.

Michael: It is, because the secret to ending the overwhelm is to do less, not more. I think sometimes when we feel overwhelmed we just roll up our sleeves, redouble our effort, think we’re going to power through it, and that’s the exact opposite of what we need to do. What we have to do is do fewer things, the things with greater impact. The reason you and I get overwhelmed is because we’re trying to do too much. We have limited resources, limited time, and (this is a key thing) limited emotional energy.

We don’t have unlimited emotional energy. Even if we could work 24/7 or we could figure out how to get by on less sleep, which I do not advise, we still have limited emotional capacity, and we have to be aware of that. So to gain control, you have to get back to the basics. The first is to get clarity on where your best leverage is. What I advise people… I talked about this in my book Free to Focus. What is your passion, and what is your proficiency?

I call that the Desire Zone, where those two come together. The things you love, the things that get you up in the morning, the things that get you excited… When you wed that with the things you’re really good at, that you’re highly skilled at, where you feel confident… You put those two things together, those are usually the things where you’re going to add the most value, create the most leverage, and deliver the biggest results.

So, what are those things for you? They’re going to be different for everybody. Suzie, your Desire Zone activities are different than mine. Mine are different than yours. Larry’s are different than both of ours. If we don’t do that, then all work just kind of levels out and becomes the same, and then we have 20 things to do today instead of “What are the three highest-leverage things I can do?”

One of my favorite quotes is from Dawson Trotman who founded an organization called The Navigators. He said, “Never do anything of importance that others can or will do when there is so much of importance to be done that others cannot or will not do.” So, what are the things you’re uniquely qualified to deliver? And then the rest of it… If you can get it done, great, but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter quite as much, because the important stuff is getting done. Does that make sense?

Suzie: It does. It absolutely makes sense. First, I just have to say I love the whole concept of where your passion and your proficiency come together. That is where the magic happens. I love this kind of counterintuitive thing you’re teaching here. For me, I know it’s a warning sign when I decide I’m going to get up at 5:00 and work and do that first before I exercise or before I read or before I have breakfast, or if I notice, “You know what? If I just put in a few more hours on Saturday morning when everybody else is not working, I’m going to get ahead.”

So I just love what you’re saying here. It’s not about putting in more and putting in more and putting in more, because you have a finite amount of time, but you’re saying here, instead, do less and do the most important things, the things that are the most high-leverage. One technique I love to do with leaders whenever they tell us, “Hey, I’m overwhelmed” (and this is my go-to when I feel it myself) is to do a brain dump with an analog tool and a trusted mentor.

Michael: You’ve done this repeatedly with me, and you’ve done it with Megan. When we’ve felt overwhelmed… This used to happen to me a lot when you first started and our business was growing so unbelievably fast. It’s still growing as fast, but we have better tools now. In those days…oh my gosh. I would be overwhelmed just looking at the calendar. So you would have us get it all out, and then we’d start sorting through it and say, “Okay. What’s the high-leverage stuff? Let’s do that.”

Suzie: Yeah. And thanks so much for being vulnerable, Michael, about the fact that you, even when we started the business, even still today, even this morning, struggle with overwhelm. What we’re saying here is not that it’s a bad thing or that it’s abnormal for you to feel overwhelmed. We’re saying that most people feel that way on a regular basis. Even the most successful leaders feel that way. What we’re saying is what matters is what you do when you feel that way.

Michael: That’s right.

Suzie: One of my hacks for that is always to get in a room with someone who knows you well and is a trusted mentor or partner in your business and in your life who can help you do a brain dump on what is overwhelming you. For me, I love to get in a conference room with a whiteboard and say, “Tell me everything that feels overwhelming, personally and professionally.” Write it all down on the board, and then let that person who you’ve invited into the meeting speak into, “Okay. Actually, you don’t need to be doing half of this.” We can talk about strategies of what to do with what’s on the board in a few minutes, but I just think that is a game changer.

Larry: You said many high performers or many leaders feel this way, this overwhelm. The research says actually 40 percent of American workers at all levels… So not just executives, managers…all levels of the workforce feel this overwhelmed feeling. I have a question for you, though. You said use an analog tool. You mentioned the whiteboard. I don’t think you meant a typewriter, but that would probably count. Why not do it on your computer?

Suzie: Because a lot of times I feel like technology is contributing to our overwhelm. If you get on your computer to write out your task list and, all of a sudden, you’re getting a ton of email messages, you’re getting a ton of Slack messages, notifications are popping up, you’re seeing your text messages on your screen, it’s so quick to slip into your calendar and try to get those things done and get even more overwhelmed. So I love going to my Full Focus Planner, a good old page of notebook paper, or a whiteboard and a marker and just writing it all out and getting it all out of your head without those distractions, and then really evaluating what you see.

Michael: I want to say something about that too. I think it’s really important to externalize it, because this is like a lot of things. As long as it’s in your head, it’s bigger and scarier than it really is. There’s something about getting it out, whether it’s digital or analog. I agree with you, Suzie. I’d rather do it analog, just get it on a whiteboard. Once you get it out there, you go, “Oh! That’s not as big and scary as I thought,” because it’s smaller now. I’ve made it concrete. I’ve made it real. But inside of my head, it feels bigger. So I like getting it out too.

Suzie: I also think something that happens that’s really magical in that moment when you invite other people in is we can set high expectations for ourselves for the things we have on our plate and set unreasonable deadlines and just feel like, “This is so important. This is so critical. This is going to make or break my business.” Sometimes, especially when you’re in a fatigued state, that’s not true, and you need a trusted person who can say, “We really don’t have to do this project until next year.” You never know what might be on that list.

Michael: We’ve done that plenty of times. One of the things I want to mention here, too, is the law of three, that when you get all that stuff up there… Of all of the things that are up there, what are the three most important? We teach this in our 3×3 matrix, where you say, “Okay, what are my three most important goals for the quarter? What are my three most important priorities for the week? And especially, what are the three most important tasks for today?”

Now, you may have 20 things you need to do, everything from running errands to making phone calls to, whatever, but there are probably only about three that are going to really drive the results that are going to move your business forward. We call that the Daily Big 3. If you can reduce it to that, that’s a game you can win.

If you try to take on 20 things today and you’re not going to consider it a win unless you can check off all 20, that’s a pretty tall order. You’re going to feel overwhelmed when you start the day, and you’re probably going to feel defeated at the end of the day, but if you can set your intention on three, three that really move the needle, then you can win. You can check those off and feel like, “Hey, I won the day. It was awesome. I didn’t get everything done, but I got the three most important things done.”

Larry: So, the first action when you feel overwhelmed: focus on your highest-leverage work. The second action may be kind of corollary to that: identify your three biggest productivity sinkholes.

Suzie: Your productivity sinkholes are the things that are taking you down faster than anything else, and oftentimes you don’t realize it. These are going to be different for everyone, but these are the activities that fall squarely in what Michael calls the Drudgery Zone. If we’re talking about in your Desire Zone, where your passion and your proficiency meet…you love it and you’re good at it…the Drudgery Zone is essentially the exact opposite. You hate this stuff and you are not talented or skilled at it. You shouldn’t be doing this stuff. Usually, that’s the stuff that’s dragging you down and causing you to feel really overwhelmed. Michael, what are some of your Drudgery Zone activities?

Michael: Before I get to that, I want to say one thing. I think, unfortunately, because these are in our Drudgery Zone, we dread these things.

Suzie: Dread is the feeling we’re trying to avoid as leaders.

Michael: Exactly. It’s the kissing cousin of overwhelm. We dread this stuff, so we procrastinate, and then we feel guilty, and that adds to our sense of overwhelm, especially the emotional overwhelm component. For me, that would be things like processing a whole bunch of email or booking my own travel (that really overwhelms me, all of the options and everything) or managing my calendar. I can screw up my calendar so fast.

Suzie: You can. I used to be your executive assistant.

Michael: You didn’t have to agree so quickly. Yeah, I can double-book myself. I don’t take into account the context, what I was doing the day before. I just see that there’s an opening there. I’m not good at those things. I don’t have any proficiency at it, and I don’t have any passion around it. In the past, I felt like I needed to do that. If I was an effective executive, if I was disciplined, if I was efficient, then I ought to be able to do that stuff.

I was a big champion of inbox zero, and I had to do it myself. Honestly, it overwhelmed me, and I wasn’t that good at it. I preached it, because I think mostly I was preaching to myself. So the big takeaway here is that you want to identify that stuff. This is why getting in a room with a trusted associate or with a mentor can help you put this into perspective and say to you, “You know what? Why are you even doing that?” or “How could we…?”

This kind of goes to our three strategies that I talk about in Free to Focus. How can we either eliminate, automate, or delegate those Drudgery Zone activities, get them off your plate, so that you can eliminate these productivity sinkholes? That contributes to a lot of the overwhelm, and if you can get rid of those things…phew! All of a sudden, you feel like you can breathe.

Larry: It’s interesting to me, as we talked about these first two action items (focus on your highest-leverage work and identify your three biggest productivity sinkholes), how much you guys were talking about emotions…dread and overwhelm and this kind of internalizing the feeling by not objectifying it, putting it outside of yourself. It’s really amazing how much of this boils down to self-awareness and self-leadership.

Michael: Well said.

Larry: Let’s move on to the third action: do the delegation math.

Michael: I think sometimes we’re penny wise and pound foolish and think that, somehow, we’ll save money by not delegating. “I don’t need an assistant. I don’t need to outsource this. I’ll just suck it up and do it myself.” It’s really stupid. If you can hire somebody (and I’m just making up these numbers for illustration’s sake) to do something for $20 an hour but your billable rate is $100 an hour, that’s stupid.

Suzie: Yeah. People will say, “I can’t afford it,” and it’s like, “Really? If you look at what you’re actually spending to get this done, you need to do this so you can afford that.”

Michael: And if you’re doing that thing you could pay somebody $20 an hour to do, then that’s an hour you can’t bill for, that you can’t use in advancing your organization’s objectives, and even if you have to pay somebody $20 an hour and you could bill at $100 an hour, you’re coming out $80 ahead. That’s what we talk about when we talk about delegation math.

Suzie: I have a confession on this. I lead, as our director of operations… I used to be Michael’s executive assistant when I first started. I’ve spent most of my career leading teams of executive assistants, training them and mentoring them, and I lead and mentor our executive assistant fleet here at Michael Hyatt & Company. So I have spent years training executive assistants how to be email management ninjas. I have an executive assistant myself this year, and I did a couple of these whiteboard sessions when I was feeling overwhelmed. You know, I’m a working mom of two little girls.

Michael: You?

Suzie: Yeah. We’re in a super rapidly scaling busy season, stuff going on personally and professionally. So I got in a room with my assistant. This is the magic. I know how to do this. I know how to make it happen for other people. Every time we would do this, I would say, “Well, I have a lot of email,” and I would put it on the board, but I would say, “But I can’t give that over to you. I can’t give that over to you.”

Larry: Suzie Barbour!

Suzie: I know.

Michael: I love this.

Suzie: The hypocrisy. I literally just realized I had control issues with my email because I am such an expert at it. I wouldn’t say it’s totally Drudgery Zone, because there are parts of achieving inbox zero that I love, but it’s just not the best, highest use of my time. It’s not where I add value to Michael Hyatt & Company, and I was getting overwhelmed by it and wasn’t doing it as well as I used to be able to do.

Then when you do the math on this… It was like, “This is a dumb decision about where I can add value and produce results.” So I finally practiced what I preach and delegated my email, and it has been a game changer, but it took me a minute to get there. Yeah, when you do the delegation math, it helps you make the hard decisions.

Michael: Thank you for being vulnerable on that. Honestly, I think every leader faces that. Every leader has to confront it, and it’s a hard thing to face. I think I’ve told this story before, but I had a client a few years ago who was insisting on doing his own web development. He said, “This is really taking a lot of time, and that’s why I don’t have time to make the sales calls I need to make to build my business and do new client acquisition.” So I said to him, “Why are you doing that?” and he said, “Well, basically to save money.”

I said, “How much would it cost you to hire a WordPress developer?” He said, “About $50 an hour.” I said, “Well, based on how much you expect to make this year, what do you think you’re making an hour?” He said, “Probably about $150 an hour.” I said, “So, in essence, you’re paying a WordPress developer $150 an hour, and it’s a WordPress developer who, by your own admission, isn’t very good.” The light bulb went off, and he said, “That’s it. I’m hiring a WordPress developer,” because that would free him up to do the very thing that would grow his business.

Suzie: Yeah. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re feeling this sense of fatigue and you’re not sure what to do and you have that sense of dread and you’re getting back to those emotions, the counter-emotion to those… When you finally solve that problem and get those things off your plate, the relief you feel is so worth getting rid of some of those pet projects and things that are hard to let go control of and even financially investing in those things. It’s so worth it. You’re probably saving yourself a lot of money, and just think about what it would feel like to not feel overwhelmed.

Larry: Quick question for you guys. I know that “I can’t afford it” objection looms really large, and we’ve said often on this program that there are some affordable ways to delegate, short of hiring a staff member, which is maybe the most expensive option. Why don’t you tick off three or four of the entry-level ways to start delegating if you don’t have an assistant who works for you.

Suzie: Sure. First of all, if you already have existing staff, you can start there. You don’t always have to hire new staff. I think starting with existing staff is a great way to do that. You can also see if work can be reassigned internally. That’s something I’ve done before. I’ve had to go to Megan, who is my direct supervisor and our COO, and I’ve had to say, “I have all of these projects and these deadlines, and I can’t do this. This isn’t something I can delegate to my team, but I actually feel like another leader, another director, is uniquely positioned to take ownership of this, and it will allow me to produce these results if I can get this off my plate.”

She’s always really receptive to that, and most leaders are, especially if you can talk in terms of results with them. So I think you can always ask to have work reassigned internally. Another thing is I think a lot of leaders don’t think about enlisting interns or volunteers to help them in their business. You can be surprised by how much something like that would work.

And then my favorite, which I’m always pushing, if you’ve read our book Your World-Class Assistant, is you can hire a virtual assistant. It’s actually way more affordable than you think. Our favorite partner for that is BELAY Solutions, but definitely check out hiring a virtual assistant. I know people who hire virtual assistants personally with their own money outside of their business.

Michael: I did it before myself.

Suzie: Yeah, totally. To help with just their personal stuff, get more off their plate, even if their supervisor won’t approve a budget for a virtual assistant. You can start with as little as 10 hours a week. It’s more affordable than you would think.

Michael: Yeah, that’s the way to start. There’s really no excuse. I would just say to people, like I always say, try it as an experiment. That’s how I talked myself into it. When I started with BELAY eight years ago, I said, “I’m going to hire somebody for 10 hours a week and just see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, then I’m done, but if it does work, awesome.” And oh my gosh! The hours quickly escalated because the value was so incredible.

Larry: That brings us to our fourth and final action when you’re feeling overwhelmed: schedule your most important tasks.

Michael: Here’s why that’s important. I think in many organizational environments, the workday is reserved for meetings, and people are dragging their work into their evenings or getting up early to do it or it’s jammed into their weekends. One of the best things you can do is to schedule your important tasks and treat them like an appointment or a meeting. What gets scheduled or what gets calendared gets done.

So put it on your calendar, and when somebody asks you for that time, you can simply say, “I’m sorry. I have another commitment. Could we try for another time?” You don’t have to go into detail about what that commitment is. You don’t have to explain yourself. Nobody cares. People understand when you say you have another commitment. They will respect that. So, respect your own calendar and respect yourself enough to make that commitment to allow that time to get your work done on work time. That’ll free you up from dragging it into the rest of your life.

Suzie: I love that, because it’s really keeping a promise to yourself. It’s putting it on the calendar, committing to it, and keeping a promise to yourself and to your business that you’re going to do this high-leverage work that you’ve identified. One of the things I love about using my Full Focus Planner is that it allows you to see your Daily Big 3 right next to your calendar, away from all of the screens, away from all the noise of technology.

Something I always watch for is if I have three big projects or priorities in my Daily Big 3 and no room for them on my calendar, that’s a warning sign. There’s no way I’m going to be able to get those things done. You can see them right next to each other on the daily pages in the Full Focus Planner, which is one of my favorite ways the planner adds value to my life personally.

Michael: I don’t know if you do this, but there are some days I don’t actually have a Daily Big 3. I might have a “Daily Big 1.” Like when I’m teaching BusinessAccelerator, me just showing up and teaching… That’s my big one. Today, recording the podcast, because we’re recording six episodes today… It was “Record these podcasts.” I just had one item to do. I’m not going to try to squeeze in anything else. I have on my schedule date night tonight with Gail. That’s plenty for a day. I don’t need anything else.

Suzie: Oh, absolutely. I can get so geeky about the planner, but one of the things I love to do with the Daily Big 3, too, is if I’m going to have a Daily Big 1 or Big 2, I love to be able to give myself permission to use one of those for personal things. As a working mom… I have a 4-1/2-year-old and a 6-1/2-year-old at home.

I remember I used to try to have three big projects, five meetings on my calendar, and I have a parent/teacher conference or I really want to be present at the play they’re putting on at their school or there’s a big doctor’s appointment I need to take them to and it requires commuting back and forth into Nashville or something like that. I would always be overbooked.

The planner has given me the ability to say, “You know what? It’s not just about work.” We’re talking about winning at work and succeeding at life at Michael Hyatt & Company, and this is my first position as a working mom where I’ve felt like, “You know what? Number one is going to be to record the podcast with Michael today, and number two is going to be to show up at that parent/teacher conference, and that’s okay. Those are my big priorities, and if I get those two things done, I feel like I’ve won. I’m winning.”

Michael: I often have a personal item as one of my Daily Big 3, because there’s more to life than work.

Suzie: Right. It’s so important.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that you can end the overwhelm by doing less instead of more. You can regain your margin by taking four actions: focus on your highest-leverage work, identify your three productivity sinkholes, do the delegation math, and schedule your most important tasks. Suzie, Michael, any final thoughts for our listeners today?

Suzie: Yeah. I would just say overwhelm is common in our culture today, unfortunately. I think we’re just plugged in. It’s kind of a 24/7 virtual game we’re playing. I said this earlier, but I really want to stress that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you don’t have to feel ashamed about that. It’s what you do when you feel that sense of overwhelm that counts as a leader. So I hope we’ve given you some resources here today that you can act on that are practical. We’ve used these ourselves. We know they work.

Then I’ll add one other tip as we close out, Michael. You mentioned earlier the “roll up your sleeves” concept, when you’re so busy and so overwhelmed you just want to do more…work weekends, work nights, get up earlier, work harder. While this is all well and good…reevaluating your tasks, delegating, all that…I think we have to be careful, as leaders, not to take off the table that what we might need most and not feel overwhelmed is to unplug.

You’ve talked a lot in other Lead to Win episodes about self-care. So if you’re listening to this and that resonates with you, go check out some of those episodes. I think sometimes we might just need to give ourselves permission to take a day off and leave everything on the table or to take a weekend off or maybe it’s to the point where you really need two full weeks away from work, unplugged, to rejuvenate and just watch how much that overwhelm disappears, and you can kind of bring your best thinking and clarity back to your work.

Michael: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I was thinking about this. Overwhelm is inevitable, and the reason we need to figure this out and the reason we need to have a process for dealing with it is because we’re going to all face this from time to time. The problem with overwhelm, particularly if you’re a leader, is that you’re basically inaccessible to your team when you’re overwhelmed.

You become very self-focused. You become very inward-directed. Sometimes that just happens, but we’re not accessible, we’re not useful, we can’t really be a resource to our team when we’re in that situation. That’s why we have to work through this so we can model it for our team and so we can be available to lead them, because that’s what’s important.

Larry: Well, Suzie and Michael, thank you for sharing these practical, valuable insights. I feel better already.

Michael: Thank you, Larry. Thank you, Suzie. This has been a lot of fun doing this together, and thank you guys for joining us on Lead to Win. Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen, and join us next week for another great episode. Until then