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If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed at work, the culprit can seem to be the whole messy bundle of activity before you. But executive coach Rebecca Zucker says to gain a sense of balance you need to pinpoint the primary source of the overwhelm. That starts by asking: What one or two things, if taken off your plate, would alleviate 80 per cent of the stress that you feel right now?

“While you may still be responsible for these items and cannot actually take them off your plate, this question can still help you identify a significant source of your stress. If it’s a big project that’s almost done, finish it. Or, if it’s the sheer size of the task or project that is overwhelming you, break it down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources or renegotiate the deadline if you are able – or all of the above,” she writes in Harvard Business Review.

She also urges you to set boundaries on your time and workload, and beat back your perfectionist impulses. Perfectionism can lead you to make tasks or projects bigger than they need to be, which in turn can create procrastination and psychological stress. “As things pile up, the sense of overwhelm grows, which can then lead to more procrastination and more overwhelm,” she says. Psychologist Linda Sapadin, author of It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them, advises perfectionist procrastinators to try to banish “shoulds” from their vocabulary and substitute “coulds” instead.

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Executive coach Scott Eblin highlights the importance of putting limits on your energy drainers. Start by making a list of your energy givers and energy drainers. Look at your calendar for the past month and identify the events or conversations that ignited creativity, enthusiasm and optimism. Consider what patterns emerge, which will indicate who the energy givers are. “On the flip side, review the record for energy drainers. You’ll know them when you feel them. It’s likely that just reading the name of the energy-draining topic or person is going to induce a little rumble in your gut, a tightening in your jaw or some other physical reaction. Those are clues you shouldn’t ignore. Any topic or person that sparks a visceral reaction is an energy drainer for you,” he warns on his blog.

Obviously you want to arrange your schedule so you spend time with those energy givers, using such opportunities to solve problems and brainstorm as well as just connect. As for the drainers, you won’t be able to eliminate them but he suggests a time and attention budget for them, doing your best to stick to that budget.

Sales executive and coach Randi Braun was overwhelmed with work, unable to find the time to think or handle all the tasks before her until she tried one simple scheduling trick. She took control of her calendar and held the first and last hour of the workday for actual work. “It was so simple but by having dedicated work time, I could suddenly get through all the little things on my to-do list that I owed to myself or to others,” she writes on FairyGodboss. As well as getting the little things off her plate she found more opportunity for “deep work,” thinking critically and handling bigger projects. The trick reduced not only after-hours work but also the end-of-the day scramble, easing her stress as a working mother.

One final nugget of advice as you ponder overwhelm, from entrepreneur Seth Godin: “Busy is a choice, productive is a skill.”

Quick hits

  • Try writing a Holiday Fun List to make sure you use your time in the next few months to hit the right notes. Productivity writer Laura Vanderkam creates such guides for each season, nudging herself to come up with some adventures to make the period memorable.
  • Big question to ask yourself: Am I choosing problems or trying to avoid them? Consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye say you shouldn’t waste time and emotional energy trying to avoid problems but instead focus on problems that get you closer to your goals.
  • On the wall at digital technology consultants ServiceNow is this guidance other teams might want to follow: “We debate like we’re right, listen like we’re wrong and then decide, commit and lead together.”
  • Web use researchers at the Nielsen Norman Group say people no longer look at search results as a list to be read from top down but instead approach them like a pinball machine, attention caroming about, driven by the visual weight of elements on the page.
  • You can change the colour of the gridlines on Excel spreadsheets from drab grey by clicking the advanced section on the Options dialogue box, and then scrolling down to Display Options for the Worksheet. You’ll find a Gridline Colour drop-down list with 56 different choices.

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