Three Ways to Keep Your Head Above Water

When was the last time you felt overwhelmed? We all have those days, weeks, or even longer seasons of life when we struggle to “keep our heads above water.” Having worked in public accounting, I am all too familiar with the tax time “busy seasons” when the work is piled up high.

During those times on the job or in other areas of life, we can either give in to feelings of stress and exhaustion, or we can intentionally conquer the workload with a plan of action. Here are three tips that can help:

      • Survey the Landscape — I once had a mentor tell me that he sometimes heard the criticism early in his career that he needed to more capably “see the bigger picture.” Over time he came to understand how to keep his communications with senior executives at a “high level” and focus on the larger strategic purpose rather than getting lost in the details. Whether you are a line employee, a middle manager, or the CEO, it is critical to understand the purpose behind what you are doing and how it fits into the larger context of the organization. If you don’t have bigger goals in mind than simply accomplishing the multitude of tasks in front of you, your work can be drudgery and you will find yourself burned out.
      • Determine Your Priorities — Once you understand the strategic purpose, you can translate this “bigger picture” understanding into a defined set of priorities for your day, week, month, and so forth. Your priorities will change depending on the needs of the organization. A finance professional might be inundated with day-to-day transactional details during a few months of the business’ busy season, and during slower months the focus might shift to careful cash flow management and longer-term strategic initiatives. Be clear on your priorities, and don’t get overwhelmed by trying to tackle everything of lesser importance at once when more pressing concerns loom large. 
      • Tackle the Details One at a Time — We might like to fancy ourselves to be great multitaskers who can jump from one project to another like honeybees in a clover field. However, staying focused on one detail at a time can lead to traction and momentum. Think of the difference in how you feel when you start ten projects and complete zero, versus seeing two significant tasks through to completion. Knock off your to-do items in bite-sized pieces.

I recently saw the effectiveness of this approach when I was working on a small piece of a larger project with my wife. We “surveyed” what was before us and decided how much of the project we wanted to “bite off” at that particular sitting. If we started to lose focus or feel overwhelmed with the details, we reminded each other that we would systematically handle one detail at a time until we saw the objective through to completion. That simple plan made the difference between frustration and giving up, versus the eventual satisfaction we felt in completing our task.