One of the themes that consistently emerges across my coaching sessions is around overwhelm. Essentially, too many plates spinning in the air at the one time. How to get through everything you have to do but not only that … how to get the important things done when there just isn’t enough time in a day to even get near them. You know that feeling, right? We’ve all been there. Some of you might even be there right now!
So, let me tell you part of a live story of a real client who came to me on overwhelm and share with you one simple action that she has integrated into her working life, as a result of the coaching, that has really helped her produce results, in the face of these pressures.
So, settle back and relax. Here comes the story…
Once upon a time … in a coaching room … in a land not so far away….
…Joan Bloggs arrived into her coaching session. The first words out of her mouth when I asked her how she had been were “I’m overwhelmed. The last few weeks have been a blur!”. So we started right there, on the overwhelm and the blur.
I invited her to fill up the space in the room with all the things that were in the overwhelm and the blur – projects, tasks, life, anything she felt was in that mix. And with that invitation, she poured them all out. And do you know what? They did fill the room. Almost every nook and cranny was filled and I could feel her overwhelm too. But together we found a crack of light, a shaft of clarity and action to cut through the density of it all.
As a Director in her organisation, she had a huge and ambitious programme of work, she managed a team and she felt that both herself and her team spent a lot of time in reactive mode, due to the accepted norms of the organisational culture. This will also sound familiar to a lot of you, I am sure, as you read this. She was overwhelmed by the constant fire fighting and she felt that the tasks and days were blurring into one another. As a result, she felt like she just couldn’t get to do all the things that needed to get done. Because of this, she found it challenging to create space in her head and in between all the things that she had to do. She was also particularly overwhelmed because one important project had not moved forward in eighteen months. Its status had been appearing as static, on the Board of Directors report for all that time, but she felt she just couldn’t get to it, with everything else that was going on. When we tapped into her own feelings about this project it became apparent that she was deeply passionate about it. When she first suggested and committed to this project eighteen months ago, she had been excited about the potential of it, for herself, for the organisation and for their stakeholders. But because she repeatedly couldn’t get to it, she felt defeated. And every time, the Board Meetings rolled around again, she said she dreaded them and felt sick. She spent time trying to justify the other things she was doing to show why it was impossible for her to get to this project. As she shared and I listened, she realised that as a result, her communications with the Board were defensive and somewhat closed. She wanted to change things and she wanted to find a way to begin working on the project. But she couldn’t see how.
So, we talked about a solution that might fit practically into the reality of her working day. I told her about a technique that I used with other clients and also in my own life to make consistent progress on projects – be that working on financial reports, planning a large event, writing a book, creating a five year strategy, tidying a room, essentially any body of work that you are finding hard to get to. The technique is called “The Five Minute Take-Off” and comes from a chapter on procrastination in a book called “Choose the Life You Want”. The author, Tal Ben Shahar, is now an author and speaker, but was previously a Positive Psychology Professor at Harvard. Apparently his classes at Harvard were the most popular and attended of all classes in the history of this prestigious University.
The “Five-Minute Take-Off” is designed around the idea that it takes an aeroplane approximately five minutes to take off on a runway. In practical terms, what this means is that you block out five minutes … yes five minutes – to work on a project that you have been avoiding or just cannot fit in. It almost feels counter-productive to say that you will book out five or ten minutes to work on a body of work but as the Tesco slogan says “every bit helps”. And this is what this practice works on – it helps you get started on projects and sustain consistent progress by chunking it down into small bite-sized pieces. Interestingly enough, what generally happens after the five minutes is that you have broken the ice on the task and you might feel like literally taking off with it, i.e. staying longer at it.
It is also a wonderful approach for work that you are procrastinating over, i.e. too much to do, too big a project, what do I know about this, who do I think I am to do this etc, etc? Just start on it, and then factor in five minutes consistently from there to maintain progress on it.
My Personal Approach
What I personally do is set an alarm (usually for ten minutes) and work away on my project for that allotted time. I usually turn my phone onto “aeroplane mode” (excuse the pun!) and just focus intently for that short period. I don’t judge myself for only working for five or ten minutes. I am always grateful that I am now five or ten minutes further along than I had been. I also find that my brain continues to work on the project in the background throughout the day and so I can continue to add to it, as the insights and clarities come. I also know where to pick the project up the next day, rather than huge chunks of time passing in between tasks, where momentum is often actually lost.
I have chipped away at two big projects in my own working life, in this way, over the past year – writing the first draft of a book (literally ten or fifteen minutes a day over an entire summer) and another project that I am currently working on, on performance mindsets. Day by day the body of work builds and as I often say to clients, five or ten minutes is better than zero minutes. It’s actually very rewarding and inspiring to see what you can get done when you are focused for short amounts of time on a consistent basis.
The Client Result
So what was the result for my client? Well, following the coaching session, she began taking action in this way in January 2016. She committed to doing ten minutes three times a week on her project. She reported back in our next Session in February that she often found herself extending this to twenty or thirty minutes and sometimes even forty five minutes. She found that after the first ten minutes she very often felt in flow and wanted to keep going. She just re-set the alarm clock and kept going for another short burst, when she could. She also said that she found that she really looked forward to working on the project and came to view it as a break from some of her other more operational and fire-fighting work. She said the progress she was making encouraged her to keep prioritising those ten minutes in her diary and she was energised by it.
And guess what? The most rewarding thing of all. For the February Board of Directors meeting, she could report significant movement on the project and so confident was she with her new approach to consistently working on this project that she committed to a finish date for the end of March to the Board.
She was so excited that a project that she had not moved forward on for eighteen months was now going to reach completion in three months! She was energised about the results that her consistent chipping away or “taking off” yielded and she felt more confident in her ability to deliver as a Leader. As well as the accomplishment, she also felt a HUGE sense of relief and we all know how that helps us relax better, sleep peacefully and focus more.
So How Can You Get Started?
Decide on the project or task that you want to work on. You will know what this is. It’s something that you’re just not getting to and that you feel some pressure about or that you have been procrastinating about for weeks, months or maybe even years!
Next, set your alarm for five minutes (Yes! Five minutes) and work for that time on that task. It could be tidying a room that you just can’t seem to clear, a project, a book, a competition you want to enter. It could be that those first five minutes are drawing a mindmap of your ideas, reading one article, listening to a short podcast, tidying one drawer in a room, making one phone call. I bet you won’t be able to believe it when the alarm goes off. Five minutes literally flies (ha ha, sorry the puns are coming so easily as I write this!). If you feel to continue after the alarm goes off, go for it for another five minutes. Then finish up and commit to doing the same thing again tomorrow for five minutes…and the next day…and the next day.
Just get started and see where that first five minutes takes you. Then keep doing that every day and chip, chip away on it.
I hope this has been practical and helpful for you. Please do let me know how you get on. As always, I love to hear from you.
And enjoy…taking off.
Bí chomh iontach is atá ar do chumas
Be the Best You Can Be.
P.S. There are only a couple of spaces left on the “Call to Purpose” Workshop on Friday 20th May, in Dublin. This is the only public Workshop I run and the next one won’t run until September so if you are feeling or hearing “the call”, please reserve your place here.