I think of overwhelm in two ways: internal and external.
There’s a type of person who doesn’t procrastinate, they’d rather get the items on their to do lists crossed off, the order doesn’t really matter, they just go down it line by line. Workhorses. Finishers.
My wife is one of those people.
The incentive for finishers in finishing is that there is some freedom after the work’s done. Freedom in the sense of not working anymore, of having the rest of the day to yourself, or getting a well-deserved break to do something you’re looking forward to.
For these types, overwhelm only happens by having too many things to do.
The solution for these kinds of people is really simple: have less things to do. This might mean learning how to say no, extending project timelines, or cutting non-finite work things altogether. Basically reducing the external demands that lead to feeling overwhelmed.
Then there are people like me. “Starters,” procrastinators, perfectionists, perceivers. People like us don’t really have that external overwhelm problem because it’s not about “finishing.”
“Freedom” isn’t not working for me. Too much of my identity is tied to work. I like new work things too much. So I don’t get overwhelmed when there is a lot to do, I get energized by it.
It’s easy to be excited by possibilities, a new project, new thinking on an existing project, but half-way through whatever it is I’m ready for the next thing.
The more things I start the more unknowns get introduced. I get a general sense of dread, awareness of my lack of focus, and then ultimately overwhelmed by thoughts about all the unknowns.
I can’t really do much about some of it.
Honestly, the winter just kicks my ass. It’s amazing I’m getting anything at all done. It’s a rough time of year for me energy-wise. I know that will pass and there are things I can do to manage my energy better. But right now I’m just hanging tight. The shortest day of the year is only two weeks away and I’m very much looking forward to getting over that hump.
Getting overwhelmed by racing thoughts and the unknown I’m learning to manage pretty well though. I just break the unknowns down into chains of knowable things.
I’m on (another) deadline for a big (for us) website project. The launch date we’ve been saying is Monday the 9th. That’s in three days and I have somewhere between 200 to 400 things to do to get there.
Ann’s approach is to ask, “whats the most important thing?” I tell her, “the media page: lots of content types, taxonomies, governance, and content need to be outputted with a lot of conditional logic.” To which she said, “Great. Just do that.”
At which point I say “Okay,” sit down and start browsing my email subscriptions.
That approach just doesn’t work for me as a procrastinating starter when I’m completely uninspired and low energy.
I would much rather be writing you emails or learning about shortest path algorithms and how I might apply them to better understanding how to organize a disjointed body of content.
The problem with just sitting down and doing the next thing is I can’t see the end at all. It’s an unknown amount of work.
What helps me reduce internal overwhelm is:
- knowing what needs to get done so I can do some structured procrastinating
- increasing my own accountability typically through manufactured accountability and pseudo deadlines
- and connecting the dots of how getting the sucky things done gets me closer to the desired outcome of getting to do cool things
Structured procrastination (original article here) is a concept developed (or maybe just actually put into words first) by John Perry who also wrote the Art of Procrastination. In both he describes having an awareness of all the things that need to get done as good pressure procrastinating on those things to get yourself to do other things. It’s a way to use procrastination to be reasonably productive.
Lots of things seem important and urgent that are really not at all either of those things.
I interpret it this way: the urgent things go on the top of your list. You give yourself a keen awareness of those things. Next are somewhat urgent and also somewhat important things. And then you have never urgent always important things. And finally, whatever things you can think of to write down that have to be done at some point.
It’s a bit of a scale from seemingly urgent to actually important then the braindump is really just there to add some additional perceived pressure.
You procrastinate on the urgent (which always feels important) by doing the things that are important (which never feel urgent — unless, of course, you’re like me and deeply worried you’ll never achieve the measure of success your younger self expected of you).
But simply by having everything I have to do written down, with time estimates that are almost always underestimated by half, and putting it in some order, I can give myself some productive pressure to start working on something. With enough pressure I can often get some adrenaline to start working on something with good fervor.
That’s the structured procrastination part.
The artificial accountability and deadlines thing almost always needs to be self-imposed. I’ll generate a “soft launch” target date for a site launch. Somewhere between a few days and a few weeks before that “deadline,” I’ll start getting really serious about thinking about getting big chunks of work done for it.
At some point (like now on this 9th deadline) I’ll start thinking about what actually needs to be done to present to the client. I’ll review the proposed scope of work to make sure I’m doing the most important scoped things.
We’ll be completely unready to launch and launch, probably the 10th or 11th and then I’ll have good pressure to actually do mobile and cross-browser testing.
We’ll also have everyone on the client side’s complete attention and almost instantly, a well organized punch list of changes from them, saving us tons of time in client management and chasing different people down for different things.
The connecting the dots thing (how getting the sucky things done gets me closer to the desired outcome of getting to do the cool things) also stems from task planning but it’s trickier still and I’ve been experimenting with it.
I went through this exercise with Ann (who is eternally helping organize and direct me). Right now I have about six projects with about 20 to 30 tasks each. We decided that I’d start the daily emails writing at night and prioritize client work of getting a queue of sites launched through December.
By finishing all of our current client work by December’s end, I’d be free to take January off from client work, which would look like taking a week or so off-off, and spending another 3 to 4 weeks purely on Content Audience.
The starting my day with client work and finishing with my daily email hasn’t worked well. I haven’t written a “daily” email in weeks.
And it’s gotten me feeling pretty disconnected, hesitant, uninspired, overwhelmed by the new direction of contentaudience.com.
To be fair, my energy in the spring would be much better and I’d probably be able to get another 2 to 3 hours of solid non-client work done a day if the seasonal stuff wasn’t kicking my ass right now.
The other part, getting the client work done, is actually going pretty well. I’m maybe a few days behind where I’d like to be, which for a procrastinator is basically way ahead of schedule.
The carrot of getting a break from design/development has been helpful, but maybe more importantly, the fear of not getting things done in a timely enough manner to have a clear enough January to really make some strides on the research project, knowledge graph learning, and maybe even a course or content asset, has been helpful in reducing the feelings of overwhelm.
If you’ve read this far, thanks for reading! I just had to get something out and slowly trying to get back into the regular daily weekday emails soon.
I’m hoping to share some real life content strategy tips in a next email.