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Are You Ever Overwhelmed? Top 10 Secrets to Getting It All Done

How do you convince your team not only to embrace change, but actually lead the transformation? One of the most successful senior business communication executives of our time, Mark C. Thompson, CEO and co-founder of the Business Entrepreneurship Hub for Virgin Unite, shares his insights from studying the success of world-class companies that have confronted change. He shows audiences the factors that galvanize people to adapt to and lead change, and to generate teams that lead to unstoppable growth. Below, Mark discusses how to prioritize what matters when you feel overwhelmed:

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the blizzard of conflicting priorities at home and the office? Who hasn’t! That’s the number one complaint of the world’s most successful people we interviewed. One of the great struggles we face as human beings is our primal need to be creatively engaged—to be up to something that will result in some meaningful impact. If only those dreams didn’t generate so much spam!

The problem is that it’s easier today than ever to waste your life. We live in a perfect storm of attractive distractions that surround us: emails, cell phones, texting, games, and media that provide instant gratification or satisfy urgent matters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—except that it’s hard to have impact or feel you’ve accomplished anything tangible after spending dozens of hours doing nothing more than responding to small requests at work, posting on Facebook and Twitter, and keeping up with the Kardashians.

Of course, all of us have been feeling “the overwhelm” since long before the dawn of the Internet. Our primal brains are easily seduced by fight-or-flight urges, which means that anything that feels remotely like a crisis—and does not require deep thought—will be given priority. It’s far easier and more natural for me to respond like my dog does: I leap at anything that shows immediate support. And that will seem to trump deep thoughts and commitments that are necessary to achieving tomorrow’s opportunity or solving long-term problems no matter how important.

Vicarious Living—The Law of Distraction

Television, movies, internet surfing, critiquing others, or comparing yourself to everyone else—that’s all vicarious living, as our friend and leadership guru Dr. Carol Kauffman at Harvard calls it. While it may feel creative temporarily to analyze a supermodel’s latest publicity, unless you’re a reporter for a tabloid, spending too much time doing this means you aren’t investing precious time in reaching your own goals. You’re just living somebody else’s life—not yours. There isn’t anything wrong with watching television with the goal of relaxing, but when you go from show to show without any goal in mind – are you sure that’s the life you want?

The Myth of Multitasking

Many people perceive that multitasking actually works, but research shows it’s a disaster if you really want to accomplish anything meaningful. Stanford Professor Cliff Nass tested college students at one of the world’s very best universities, where many of the greatest technology breakthroughs were conceived; so you could safely assume these young folks might be at the top of their class when it came to using multitasking tools.

The surprise was that even here at Stanford we saw multitasking severely limit their memory, accuracy, and productivity in performing tasks compared with students who did one thing at a time. In fact, their concentration was damaged. They lost their ability to focus on any one relevant issue, and didn’t perform nearly as well as people who kept their eye on one meaningful outcome.

In another study with Discovery Magazine, Nass tested teenage girls who immersed themselves in social media. He found that they had lower self-esteem and lost their ability to socialize happily or effectively in real situations. It was supposed to be fun, but over time it actually inhibited their ability to learn how to read human faces (not just Facebook) or get along with others face to face.

From Entertainment to Addiction

You could argue that much of the online media we consume is harmless entertainment. Nielsen reports that U.S. monthly time spent on social networks and blogs topped a billion hours, with another half a billion hours on online games. Americans spend 15 million hours on entertainment news sites alone—almost half of that in the office.

There’s tons of good and bad content, but the risk in investing too much time here is that it could be empty calories. After all that time we spent, are we any closer to creating value or meaningful impact?

It’s supposed to be entertainment, but the huge quantity of time spent on these pursuits sounds more like an addiction. For too many people, this media consumption is being used like a drug to medicate our sense of isolation and lack of meaning. The irony of any addiction is not that it makes you feel bad in the moment, it’s that it seductively makes you feel good without providing any lasting meaningful impact when you’re done.

Here are 10 key steps that the world’s most successful people take to manage the overwhelm:

  1. Set Three Priorities for the Day. Find three main objectives for the next 24 hours. If we did all the things that self-help books told us we should do, we would need a 400 hours. Here’s one book that is a must-read: Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Workweek. While it’s likely to take mortals like us more than just a few hours a week to do what he suggests, the premise is brilliant and you’ll gain by taking his advice seriously! Our world is filled with opportunity and there are a lot of great things we “should” do but the most important things to do are those that matter to you. Break it down to the things that you care most about. What are the essential activities that are going to further your meaningful goals?
  2. Make some temporary sacrifices. The difficult thing is that there isn’t just one thing that is meaningful to you. Simplify as best you can, but don’t put things on the list without taking something off. I love a few TV shows but that doesn’t put food on the table and get me in shape. How about prerecording those favorite programs and using them as a reward while you walk on the treadmill? That’s why you’ll find Bonita has a pile of PBS documentaries she loves in the exercise room, and yes, if you really must know, Mark treasures Star Trek re-runs. You have to prioritize your portfolio of passions, no matter how misguided they may be. (I’m sure eating is also a passion.) You can have it all; just not all at once.
  3. Don’t get it all done. We have a dear friend and colleague who manages a large professional organization at Stanford. She’s a physician and has a husband and three fabulous kids; she travels internationally quarterly and finds time for knitting, dinner parties with high achievers at Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York state, and working toward her black belt in karate. When I asked Martha how she gets it all done she smiled. “I don’t. I have to select the actions that are going to give me the most return today.” She is a skilled and passionate cook, but sets an appointment to do that on special occasions and doesn’t try cooking every day. “I don’t chop onions; I buy them prepared. My family pitches in and learns valuable skills in the process. And I focus on what matters to me and I accomplish that.”
  4. Hiring and Firing Friends. We often forget that we actually do pick our friends, and it’s politically incorrect to say this, but we need fewer of some friends and more of the kind who help us find joy, meaning, and personal and professional growth. Mark has stopped short of maxing out on his 4,000-friend limit on Facebook, but he realizes it’s impossible to know thousands of people well enough to tend to all their needs.We make the best choices in friends when we base our selection on how well they support who we are. If we see ourselves as a businesswoman who has a family, we seek friends who support us in running our career. Or if we see our family as our primary role, our friends will more likely support our family role. We consider someone a friend if they help us become who we want to be, and that we, in turn, help them become who they aspire to be.
  5. Who’s Got Your Back. In his bestselling book my friend Keith Ferrazzi wisely advises you to Never Eat Alone—always plan a meal with someone who matters. Keith advises that you recruit a Lifeline group, much as Napoleon Hill counseled us to create Mastermind groups, which have grown all over the U.S. This is a group of caring mentors who support you and each other—people who’ve got your back. Seriously folks, there are people who drain our energy and people who give us energy. We need to prioritize to spend more time with people who inspire us. Who are the key people who can help you make a difference? Get time with them on your calendar.
  6. Streamline daily / weekly activities: Tasks that take ten minutes a day every day add up to a little over a work week every year! If you can streamline these routine tasks, you can gain a lot of time for doing tasks that really matter to you. Checklists, convenient workspaces, and automation are great ways to streamline routine tasks.
  7. Delegate: For the tasks you dislike go find a person who actually loves it. As a VC, Mark loves financial strategy but he hates accounting, so we treasure the woman who we found to lead our accounting. Search for ways to automate, eliminate, or double up on several tasks. Can you use Internet services to do errands for you? (Buy it on Amazon!) Are there services in your area that pick up and drop off dry cleaning so you can focus on what matters.
  8. Sharpen your skills. What a minute, we’re talking about streamlining work and you’ve just added a training class! Yes we are. Our national survey on what Americans most admire in leaders, companies, and you is competence. As our coauthor and mentor, Brian Tracy always advises: What one new skill could change your life the most? Become more proficient at that. Set aside time to learn a new skill.
  9. Reduce interruptions. Every time you stop a task and come back to it later you lose 5 to 15 minutes. It takes us a while to figure out what we were doing. It is also the number one reason we make mistakes. Find blocks of time you can complete tasks and determine ways you can minimize interruptions. Maya Angelou, poet and author, rented a hotel room and told the staff that she didn’t want anyone to refresh towels, or turn down bed. She needed to be left alone to write.
  10. Have a place to stash stuff that doesn’t matter. America’s closets, garages and ministorage companies are bursting at the seams, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. I have a hard time throwing stuff out that aren’t part of my current goals because I worry they might support a passion that I’m not currently working on. Have a place to stash these things so you can get to them if you need them.
Mark C. Thompson/December, 2014