Fighting overwhelm

Sometimes it’s not doing too little that hurts a startup. It’s doing too much at the same time.

One thing in common amongst early startup employees is a bias for action. We are the ones that, if you were able to pick us up in one hand, our feet would keep running in the air. Put us down and, boom, we are gone.

This kind of forward motion is perfect for the very early days where things are not settled and if you stand still you fall behind. As the company gets through this stage, this kind of frenetic activity needs to be slowly contained.

If it is not, it can completely overwhelm you.

It’s very easy to work harder and when that doesn’t work, to work harder again. 12 hour days become 14 hours and then 18 hours. Then you realize that there are only 24 hours in a day. It’s untenable to work more and be valuable to your family or the company.

When you reach this point — overwhelmed, fatigued — it’s beyond time to fight back by:

  1. Chunking your functions. You don’t have to execute on everything in real time. Compartmentalize and schedule common things (i.e accounts receivable) to one time per week and do it all then.
  2. Completing a single task at a time. Multi-tasking is bullshit. Simply don’t do it. Choose the task at hand and see it through start to finish. Turn off all notifications and get to focused work. If you can’t complete something from start to finish, don’t start it until you can.
  3. Simplifying what you are doing. We tend to overcomplicate what needs to get done. Overthinking everything means you are stalling on the simplest of things to get moving on. Don’t think about what it needs to look like at the end, just do the first thing that needs to be done now. Then do the very next thing. Motion quells the anxiety.
  4. Building rituals. If you are anything like me you’ve got an endless task list and a full calendar. To manage it all you have to live by rituals. For example my early mornings are for writing and workouts. I wake up and put on my gym clothes right away — this is my trigger. I schedule the coffee maker the night before and when my cup is full I start writing. Another trigger. Every morning. Monday-Sunday. It’s on automatic now.

This is how I started fighting back against my tendency to spend my days completely overwhelmed with activity. Be deliberate and controlling with your time, it’s this discipline that calms.