This is from Amy, a stationery designer:
I need to make more products. I need to work on the website. I need to send emails to retailers. I need to follow up on emails to retailers. I have production problems. Packaging issues. Shipping issues. I must get my Quickbooks in better order. The emails keep coming in. I have to weed through them to find the important ones.
But I want to have a life. My family actually expects to eat. My dog wants attention. I need exercise. A social life. Laundry. My house is a mess. There’s a to-do list a mile long. Help, I’m drowning!
Maybe you feel this way sometimes too?
Okay. Let’s see what we can do with this.
But first, let’s agree on some things.
I won’t tell you to observe your breath or drink chamomile tea. I won’t advise you to “power through.” And I won’t give you a few quick tips on positive thinking and act like the problem’s solved.
You’re a smart cookie. Like, scary smart.
If that stuff was going to help, I think you’d have done it by now.
Now let’s talk about your side of the bargain.
For the next five minutes, let’s pretend this isn’t your fault.
Because that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?
If only you were more organised, didn’t stay up so late watching Outlander, or did an hour of yoga every morning like you promised yourself back in January, you wouldn’t be in this mess.
We’re going to shelve that stuff for a little while, okay?
Let’s pretend that, in this situation, feeling overwhelmed is 100% normal and reasonable. Let’s pretend that if we took any grown-up, intelligent person and put them in your place, they would be struggling too.
Alright. Now let’s see what we can do to get you feeling better.
I’ll tell you what I do because it works for me. Hopefully it’ll work for you too. If it doesn’t, you can at least take comfort from the fact that you’re not the only one who occasionally locks themselves in the bathroom and screams into a facecloth.
I call it the Two Things Method.
Now, the way I see it, one of the first things that happens when you feel overwhelmed is that your risk perception goes on the fritz.
Let’s say, for example, that today you have orders to pack and take to the post office, three emails to send to stockists, some bills to pay, a blog post to write and a sketch of a new design to finish.
When you’re overwhelmed, every one of those tasks, plus a whole lot more, demands to be done right now.
The dashboard of your business is all lit up with red lights. The alarms are going off. A computerised voice is telling you collision is imminent, take immediate action.
Everything needs your attention at once.
Now, this is not literally the case. Sure, the orders need to go out and the bills have to be paid, but there’s a degree of wiggle room for the rest.
If you send the emails tomorrow and finish the sketch at the weekend, no lives will be lost. If you write the blog post next week, no-one will think badly of you – or even notice, most likely. There’s no terrifying downside.
But when you’re at panic stations, it feels like the stakes are much higher than they really are. It’s all cataclysmically important. Does that sound about right?
The second thing that happens when you’re overwhelmed is that you feel miserable.
You’re being pulled in twelve different directions at once. You feel incompetent for allowing this to happen. You’re ashamed you’ve got yourself into this mess.
In short, you’re in the worst possible frame of mind for springing into action.
So here’s where the Two Things Method comes in.
First, you have to recognise you’re in overwhelm mode. All the alarms are ringing and you’re freaking out, but it’s going to be okay. It really is, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now.
When you’re ready, scan what’s in front of you.
Out of all the possible tasks you could give your attention to, what’s the smallest thing you could accomplish today that would make a difference to your business?
The key phrases here are “smallest thing” and “make a difference.”
On overwhelm days, steer clear of huge, nebulous tasks like “fix website” or “design new wholesale catalogue.” They’re far too big and terrifying. We’re looking for the teeniest task which makes an impact on the well-being of your business.
So “fix website” is definitely out, but “deleting three old products from my online store” is probably in.
If you’ve got customers waiting for their orders, there’s nothing for it but to take them to the post office.
In this situation, that’s the least possible effort for the biggest reward. At other times, it might just be sending an email or ordering some more materials. Everything else can get in line.
This is the first thing in the Two Things Method. It’s taking care of your business in the most efficient, least threatening way.
The second thing is my favourite. It’s taking care of yourself.
Because even though it’s tiny, the first step still requires energy from you. You still have to be the grown-up. You have to be the one who thinks it through and goes “Crap. I absolutely have to take those packages to the post office today. Where are my shoes?”
Being a grown-up sucks – quite a lot of the time, at least.
Yes, there are watermelon margaritas, but there are also taxes and difficult phone calls and a million instances of you making what you want and need your lowest priority. The teeny task you’ve chosen is just the most recent example.
So in the second step, you get something you want.
Something that puts energy back in the tank.
It might be a biscuit. It might be going back to bed. It might be a bunch of flowers for your desk because this is really hard and you’re doing your best and you deserve to look at something pretty.
All bets are off this time. Choose whatever you want.
Two caveats, though. The steps have to go together. You do a tiny work thing, you get a reward. It’s a 1:1 ratio. And you get the nice thing right away. No deferred gratification. Pick something you can have right now and give it to yourself, no questions asked.
The Two Things Method lets you see the wood from the trees. The red lights will stop flashing and you’ll be able to tell what actually requires your immediate attention and what can wait.
And it will probably make you feel better.
Just a bit, perhaps, but that’s how we move forward. Get through today. Start again in the morning.
It may not feel like it, but you’re doing such a good job.
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