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The Way Out of Overwhelm

The Way Out of Overwhelm

One of my current clients – I’ll call her Tonya – is struggling with a pattern that I see in many leaders. Tonya is a member of the executive leadership team of her organization, and she has too much on her plate, more than is humanly possible to achieve in the hours available to her. As a result, she feels overwhelmed. Things are starting to fall through the cracks – despite the long hours she’s working, she’s missing deadlines, making mistakes, and not responding to emails.

When I work with clients like Tonya, I’m always curious how it happens that all those plates get so full. Some of it is the nature of leadership, of course; there are constant demands on a leader’s time and energy. However, I also often find that the leaders I work with actively participate in filling their own plates. In Tonya’s case, she described how she volunteers to take on tasks, almost automatically, even when there are others who could easily do the work. Another client believed he couldn’t say no to his boss, even though his boss was telling him to do just that, recognizing that not everything was possible.

In a recent coaching session, Tonya talked about wanting to be more effective in how she managed her time. I suggested that she might get more traction if we explored how she managed her commitments. From my perspective, this was her essential challenge: she was not effectively making or keeping commitments, which is at the heart of getting work done in organizations. As a result, she was over-committed and overwhelmed, and her identity as a reliable leader was suffering.

The way out of overwhelm

Effectively managing commitments begins with how we respond to the requests that come our way. I asked Tonya about her perception of the range of possible options for responding to requests. She said, “well, there’s yes….” After a long pause, she added, “And no.” But then, with admirable honesty, she admitted that “no” was only a theoretical option in her mind – she never really actually said it in response to work requests.

Not seeing “no” as an option for responding to requests is certainly one of the ways you might end up over-committed and overwhelmed. However, there are also other possible responses to requests, beyond saying no, that can help with making and managing commitments more effectively. The key is to have as much range and flexibility as you can in your available responses.

Let’s take a quick look at each possible response to a request, all of which Bridgette Theurer outlines in her book Missing Conversations, which is a great resource for leaders.

Options for responding to requests

Seek clarification. As simple as this is, I’m amazed at how often my clients accept vague requests without a clear understanding of the parameters. For instance, Tonya described how she would drop everything at a request from her boss, without ever asking whether her boss needed the work done immediately, or if next week would do. Another client spent a week producing a report for his boss, then found out that it didn’t address the exact issues that his boss was expecting, which he hadn’t clarified.

YesAccept. This is self-explanatory. If you’re clear about the commitment being asked of you, and have the time and resources to produce satisfaction for the requester, say yes. The trick is to be deliberate when you accept a request, and not automatically say yes out of habit or discomfort with saying no.

Counteroffer. Making counteroffers is easier when you’ve sought clarification and asked the questions necessary to understand the reason behind the request. Then you can propose an alternative that would be easier for you to deliver, but that still meets the need. “I can’t attend the whole meeting, but I can be there for 15 minutes to describe the project and answer questions. Will that work?”

Commit-to-commit. I’ve worked with several clients who say that it’s hard to respond to requests in the moment – they need time to think it through and get clear in their own minds if a commitment makes sense. This is where commit-to-commit comes in. “I need to check with my team and consider priorities and resources before I know if we can do what you’re asking. I’ll get back to you by 5:00 today with a firm answer.”

Conditionally commit. This response is useful when you know that you don’t currently have the time or resources to meet a commitment you’re being asked to make. When you conditionally commit, you’re letting the requester know what you need from her in order to be able to successfully deliver. “I can lead that project, but I’ll need weekly meetings with you to make sure we are able to address challenges effectively. Can I count on you for that?”

NoDecline. If you want the commitments you do make to mean anything, you have to be able to say no to some things. Another client of mine, after assessing what took his time during an average week, realized that he was attending meetings and involved in projects that didn’t really need him. As he started to decline some of this work, he found more time in his schedule to focus on what were the top priorities for him.

When Tonya and I talked through this range of responses to requests, she identified commit-to-commit and making counteroffers as two things she could practice to get better at managing her commitments. She knew that if she could get into the habit of not responding to requests with an immediate yes, she would buy herself time to reflect on her true priorities and who else on her team could do the work, and then be able to give a more thoughtful response.

She also shared what she was learning with her CEO, and proposed that the entire executive team have a conversation about how they managed commitments as an organization, and how they could do better.

calm waterExpanding your repertoire for responding to requests isn’t a magic bullet – it won’t automatically make your life a calm oasis. But if you, like Tonya, find that your only response is yes, chances are you’re over-committed. As you practice with new possibilities for responding, over time you will find that you are more thoughtful about the commitments you make, and more effective in successfully meeting them. That’s better for you, for your team, and for your organization.

What about you? How do you do at managing your commitments? How does your organization do? What one thing could you do differently to be more rigorous in making and keeping commitments? I’d love to hear your comments!

Photo of waterfall (c) Mazzali, Creative Commons

Photos of Yes/No (c) Quinn Dombroski, Creative Commons

Photo of water and sky (c) Aristocrats-hat, Creative Commons

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