Day 51 – Overcoming Overwhelm – A Very Simple Technique


If you notice yesterday’s diary update was one where nothing took place (again!).

I used the excuse that it was the weekend and that being out on the motorbike was more preferable to standing at my desk and working on this project.

Well if truth be told, it was because I was starting to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of things that had to be done.  Not only on this project, but also with the other stuff going on in my life.

You are probably aware that as human beings we have certain behaviours hardwired into our brain.  It is likely you are aware of the Fight or Flight mechanism that has enabled us to survive as a species throughout the millennia.

Well we also have another hardwired behaviour – Freeze.

This is when faced with overwhelming information, rather than run away or turn to fight, we will stop in our tracks and do nothing.

This is a feature of our make up that appears in all sorts of places. I was reading recently of an extreme example where some of the people who survived an initial collision of their plane with another didn’t exit the aircraft (they just sat in their seat) and were later killed by the resultant fire that swept through.

Sometimes this happens to us all though fortunately not with such tragic consequences.

And I think that is what happened over the weekend – it all became too much and it was easier not to.

Understanding The Causes of Overwhelm

Now at this point I want to roll out two of my very favourite quotes:

“Resistance is Often The Lack of Clarity”
Chip and Dan Heath

“Complexity is the Enemy of Execution”
Tony Robbins

I use these quotes a lot (ironically) when I am teaching leaders how to be more effective.  But as I have come to realise over the years, knowing stuff is very different from being able to apply stuff.

And I think part of what happened over the weekend is that my resistance to moving this project forward was because of my lack of clarity on what needs to be done.

I have the ideas at a high level, but not at the level that requires the ability to execute.

Fortunately I was able to realise what had happened and so I took advantage of a rather long train journey to sit down and get a greater degree of clarity and make things more simple.

Every project can be broken down into milestones; every milestone is formed of a number of deliverables; every deliverable requires the completion of a series of tasks; every task has a set of discrete steps.

When we put the effort into moving the project forward we will expend our energy on the individual discrete steps.

Take the steps and complete a task; stack up the tasks to create a deliverable; deliver the deliverables to complete the milestone; and then hit the milestones to finish the project.

So progress is made at the discrete step level.

But sometimes that discrete step is not always clear.  And as Chip and Dan Heath’s brilliant quote says – “Resistance is often a lack of clarity”.

So in order to make a project happen we have to get down to the discrete step level and that requires us to do something that our brain will resist – effortful thinking.

We like to generalise and think at the big picture level because it is easy to do so – it allows us to make sense of lots of information – the technical term for this is “Chunking”.

But as we have seen, if you stay at the big chunk level, the little chunks won’t get done.

I see this a lot in the corporate leadership development work that I do – lots of leaders talking about things at a high level but never making or enabling that transition down to the low level of activity.

This means there is usually a lot of talk, and very little useful or meaningful action.

Which sounds very much like me last weekend.

Breaking Free of Overwhelm – One Step At A Time

So what did I do?

Well I simply reviewed the things I had to do and then broke them down into micro-steps – small discrete, one step actions that required very little thinking to implement.

And to capture it all, I gathered my thoughts on my trusty iPad in Grafio.  Here’s what it looked like:


I brainstormed everything I needed to get done at a high level and then worked through each to start narrowing down exactly what I needed to do.

My very good friend Gail Biddulph has a process she calls “Before That…” where you look at the end result and ask yourself the question “What needs to come before that…?”.  Then you work backwards asking the same question each time until you get to where you are right now.

Then all you need to do is follow the steps you have created.

By getting this level of clarity, resistance disappears (in fact it becomes a joy to do the work) and by creating this level of simplicity, execution is easy.

And that is exactly what has happened – since then things have moved forward at a much greater pace.

Your 5-Step Action Plan To Overcoming Overwhelm

So if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, follow these simple steps:

Step 1 – Brainstorm all you need to do on a high level

Step 2 – Order those high level projects and activities in the rough order you need to do them

Step 3 – Break down each activity into discrete micro-steps using the “Before That…” approach.

Step 4 – Start on your first micro-step until it is done

Step 5 – Rinse and Repeat


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