Feeling Overwhelmed: A Manager’s Guide to Helping your Team Focus and Beat Burnout

Many years ago when I was in my first year of working at Distilled as an SEO Consultant, I walked into a client’s office and say this printed on the wall:

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

Mario Andretti, the race car driver, is credited with the saying and it’s something that has stuck with me over since that moment back in 2010. 

It set the tone for how that particular client worked and therefore, how I worked with them. They were a young and growing technology company, so the quote made perfect sense for their culture at the time.

Generally speaking, I’m a supporter of this mindset but in moderation. If everything seems out of control all of the time, you’re probably going too fast and likely to burn out. If you’re going to adopt this kind of mindset, you also need to know how to recognise the feeling of being overwhelmed, along with knowing what to do about it.

This is especially important if you manage people because at some point, one of your team will come to you and tell you that they feel overwhelmed with their workload or responsibilities. Knowing how to help them is a crucial part of being an effective manager.

Not to mention, this process will be very useful for you as well!

Five steps to beat feeling overwhelmed

Here are five steps that you can take to help a member of your team to take stock of everything that is overwhelming them and to get on top of things again.

​​Write down broad areas of responsibility

Start by getting some top level perspective on the big areas of responsibility that your team member has. You’re not looking for specific tasks here, it’s the big areas or projects that someone is part of or leading. 

For example, if your team member works at an agency, each of the clients that they work with will be its own area of responsibility. In addition, they may help with things such as new business development or internal training, as well as their own development. So you may end up with a list that looks like this:

  • Client 1
  • Client 2
  • Client 3
  • New business development
  • Internal client management training
  • Personal development of presentation skills

Once you’re done, you should have a list of all key, but broad areas of responsibility that your team member has.

Write down the key priorities for each area

Next, we need to go deeper on each area so that you can start to map out the key priorities within each one. Again, we’re not looking to go too granular here, but you do want to go more granular than the previous step.

For example, perhaps a key priority within new business development is a proposal that is due in two weeks. Or perhaps a client has an annual project review coming up next month or a key piece of strategy that needs to be worked on.

Remember, we’re talking about priorities here – not every single tiny task that needs to be done – just the key priorities. 

Assign deadlines to the key priorities

This is where we give those priorities some context. 

It’s very important to get context because our minds are very good at mixing up “urgent” and “important”. Chances are that all of the priorities that you’ve listed are important, that’s why you listed them. But they may not be urgent.

When someone feels overwhelmed, it’s often because everything is urgent and important.

Of course, this isn’t usually the case, but when we’re stressed, our minds can’t tell the difference and it leads to that feeling that we need to do everything right now.

At this point, every main priority should have a deadline, even if it’s an approximate deadline, attached to it.

Sidenote: it’s usually at this point that your team member starts to breathe a bit easier because they’re getting context on everything and realising that things aren’t as bad as they felt. Almost every time that I’ve done this with my team over the years, the reaction has been along the lines of “oh, it’s actually not that bad.”

Make a plan for executing against those priorities

Next, we need to make things concrete and make a plan that your team member can be in control of. The goal should be to take the priorities and plan the next week or so of work for them. You can go further and do a few weeks if you want, but at a minimum, I’d recommend planning a week or so. This breaks things down for them and gives them a point of focus.

This plan should be realistic and broken down into daily priorities. It also needs to take into account things such as:

  • Meetings or leave.
  • Time for “stuff” such as emails, ad-hoc tasks, lunch etc.
  • Buffer for tasks taking longer than expected.

Once you’ve done this, focus on the first day of the plan and ensure that your team member is aligned with the plan being a fair reflection of their priorities. Quickly revisit the broad areas of responsibility and double check that nothing is still on their mind that isn’t covered somewhere. 

Execute the plan

Finally, it’s time for your team member to take ownership of the plan and to execute against it. At this point, their focus should be solely on the plan and getting through the next few days of it. Of course, their work and responsibilities extend beyond this timeframe, but in order to get back a feeling of control, they should just focus on what’s in front of them right now and forget about everything else for the next few days. 

You can check in with them daily (briefly) if that helps them stay on track but don’t be tempted to do their job for them. It’s fine in the short term to carry out this kind of exercise to break your team out of that feeling of being overwhelmed, but don’t become a crutch for them – they do need to be able to do this themselves too. 

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