Have you ever felt overwhelmed and task-saturated by the sheer volume of information and to-do items at work? Does your organization seem to struggle to make headway in any single direction? If so, this article can help you fight through being overwhelmed by focusing on what is important.
Overwhelmed individuals and teams
Upon taking on an Executive Officer position of a battalion (500-800 people), I immediately felt overwhelmed. It was immediately clear that the unit was in a perpetual struggle to try to keep its head above water. We were constantly reacting to daily emergencies and seemed to be running in several different directions simultaneously. At first we tried to put in more hours to stay ahead of the work. During my first week on the job, I noticed soldiers starting to lay out equipment at 6pm! They would not be going home for at least a couple more hours. It felt like we were losing ground each day. Something had to change.
Lots of Activity with Little Progress
As an organization, we had some significant problems in many different areas ranging from administrative actions, logistics and maintenance. Not only did we struggle to make progress in these areas, but we were failing in a few as well. As we tried to uncover the root causes of the organization’s issues, we discovered a pattern that repeated itself. Once we started to work deliberately through one systemic issue, an emergency would come up in another area. While solving the second issue, inevitably, a third issue came up and our focus would change yet again. We were overwhelmed with the number of emergencies that popped up which made us extremely reactive and prevented us from getting after the root problems. Furthermore, we were tripping over our shoe laces and couldn’t seem to get on our feet.
In hindsight, the pattern described above reflected a lack of focus. We had to find a way to break out of this overwhelming cycle of reacting to emergencies in order to truly improve the organization.
Focusing on Everything Equates to Focusing on Nothing
The scenario described above demonstrates how attempting to react to urgent rather than important issues becomes problematic. We tried to tackle nearly 100 different tasks a day, but we could truly only improve a few at any one time, realistically.
In an attempt to stop the madness, I listed out all of the areas of effort that were under my personal responsibility. The list consisted of 72 different items that ranged from administrative actions to logistics to the Family Readiness Group. Looking at the giant white board filled with 72 items, left little wonder as to why we felt overwhelmed. I knew there was no way any one could focus on 72 items simultaneously, nor would the organization be able to make any real headway in any one direction if we tried to juggle too much. If you try to focus on everything, then you really focus on nothing.
Simple Plan towards a Solution
Once we took the following five steps, we were able to make tremendous gains in problem areas:
- Identify the root cause of an issue rather than address the symptom
- Prioritize all tasks or areas of responsibility,
- Focus on those top priorities; choose the important over the urgent
- Temporarily assume risk on non-priority tasks in order to truly focus
- Ask your boss to provide top cover to shield your organization
The danger to responding to an issue immediately off the cuff is that you are only addressing the problem at a superficial level. It takes some time, persistence, and curiosity to get to the root cause. When our organization struggled with vehicle maintenance, the issue initially seemed to be lack of compliance by subordinates, but proved to be a lack of institutional knowledge of processes when we looked beneath the surface.
Prioritization and Focus
It was my opinion that we would be better off to focus on a few key items and make significant improvement in a few areas, than try to tackle almost everything with imperceptible change. I showed the list of 72 areas to my boss and highlighted 5 areas that I thought we should focus on. I selected the 5 areas that would most impact the organization. Admittedly, choosing 5 areas to focus on was an arbitrary number, but it was starting point to try to make real gains in the unit.
Top cover and assuming risk
Further I asked my boss for top cover to assume risk on the other 67 items. He approved the Top 5 list and agreed to provide top cover and demonstrate patience on the other areas. I wrote the top 5 on a 3×5 index card that I kept in my pocket. I warned my boss that if he gave me another task outside the scope of the Top 5 areas, that I would pull out the 3×5 card and ask him which of the Top 5 to deprioritize. He agreed to the plan.
Of the top 5 items we decided to focus on, the organization realistically gained traction in only three areas at any one time. Once we made sustained progress in the top 3 areas, we shifted focus to areas 4 and 5 on the list.
While the organization started off in disarray and struggled with executing routine things routinely, we were able to fix the culture by becoming intentional with our time and focus. Once we prioritized our responsibilities, focused on a select few, while consciously assuming risk in other areas, were we able to make significant progress in problem areas. Our organization went from being one of the worst in administrative actions, logistics, and maintenance to surpassing other battalions in the brigade and winning a Department of the Army level award.
- In what ways are you and your organization overwhelmed?
- What solutions have you found successful to avoid feeling overwhelmed?
Please take a minute to comment on the questions above.
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 Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less