8 Tips for Managing Business Owner Overwhelm

This week, we have a guest post from a freelance writer who has some useful tips for helping busy business owners avoid chaos and get things done! If you’re interested in similar content, you can check out our recent entries on motivating your team or creating a positive workplace culture.

Overwhelm is something I deal with regularly. 

I am a 30-year old middle school teacher and freelance writer. I have been an educator for six years and a writer for eight. In the early stages of my career, I found issues I’d had as a child crop up more and more: panic attacks, negative thought loops, intense sensitivity to perceived “rejection,” and a complete lack of productivity despite feeling like I’d worked all day long. I was frustrated, burnt out, and feeling hopeless.

Three years ago, I began working with a therapist to help me overcome these hurdles. One key point that I expressed was my constant restlessness, both internal and external. My administration recently chastised me for my behavior during faculty meetings, staring out of windows or pacing around the back of the room instead of sitting and listening.

 After three months of working together once a week and several diagnostic tools, I was diagnosed with ADHD, one key symptom of which is a lack of intrinsic motivation. While most adults are able to do things just because they need to be done, I cannot. I would spend hours after work laying in bed desperately wanting to get things done, constantly thinking of all the things I needed to accomplish, yet completely incapable of making myself do them. 

The condition goes hand-in-hand with a lack of our natural “reward” hormone– dopamine. Brains produce a dopamine rush when you achieve something, even if it’s small. From wrapping up a report to washing the dishes, those without ADHD get a little rush of happiness from achieving a task. 

That doesn’t exist for me. There was no light at the end of a task tunnel. Even offering myself extrinsic rewards, like purchasing something I wanted or doing an enjoyable task after a hard task, wasn’t enough. Instead, my rewards manifested as hyperfocus on personally stimulating activities (like tapping, interest-based research, and “doom scrolling” through social media). 

It’s been three years since I began treatment, and while it is not perfect, it works for me. 

Through that process, I’ve uncovered strategies to reduce overwhelm and keep pushing myself forward. It changes often, and I constantly seek new ways of thinking to add to my toolbox when a learned strategy doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore. 

I hope that you’ll find something useful to take away from this or that it will encourage you to invest in your methods for reducing your daily stress so you continue to find satisfaction in your role as a leader, entrepreneur, and business owner!

Find a Planning and Organization System That Works for You

As a freelancer with a separate full-time job, I had never made a better investment in personal success than when I stopped wasting money on purchasing pre-made planners and took the time to make my own.

It took a lot of research, trial, and error, but eventually, I settled on a very simple to-do list and color-coded pens according to the particular “area” of my life a task applied. 

I also found that, despite the push to go digital with every aspect of my life to take away clutter and distractions, there were very few times throughout my day when I took the time to open my iPad to look at my digital planner. 

Paper was necessary because I internalize information better when I write it down. I also realized I have to have my to-do list in front of my face at all times to maintain focus.

Prioritize the Night Before

Waking up and trying to plan my day was a disaster. It hiked up my anxiety to stare down at a blank page, desperately trying to remember everything I’d thought about the previous day while desperately trying to get ready for my day job and out the door on time. 

Worst yet, there were mornings I’d walk in the door of my job without a to-do list in hand, further making my mornings feel unstructured and unproductive. 

When I switched to nighttime planning, things changed. I’d set aside 30 minutes in the later evening to block out my day, which led to me waking up with a sense of purpose and direction. 

Try Out Timers

I am a huge advocate for Pomodoro planning, a concept based on chunking large projects into time slots with breaks built in. The standard procedure calls for 25-minute work breaks, followed by 5-minute breaks. Every four “cycles,” you take a longer 10-minute break. 

The beauty of this is that there were many instances where I worked harder to “beat the clock,” calling on the thrill of competition to surge forward with hard-to-do tasks. 

On the opposite end of that spectrum, particularly when dealing with tedious or mentally taxing tasks, knowing that I only had to do them for 25 minutes before I could stand up for a stretch break was encouraging. 

Keep Your Space Free of Clutter

Our brains can only handle so many stimuli around us before we experience overwhelm. Clean desks are happy desks, particularly when you take the time to organize according to a particular task.

For example, I like to use small drawers or binders to gather all of the resources I need for a project the night before. Then, when I’m ready to check that particular item off my list, I am not wasting time or brainpower frantically shuffling around for a document or desperately searching for a phone number. 

Take Scheduled Breaks Throughout Your Day

Along the same lines as my Pomodoro strategy, you have to take some time throughout your day to stand up, breathe, stretch, refill your drink, or anything else that will help you keep up your productivity trajectory. 

I would also advise using a timer for breaks. Otherwise, you may be more prone to getting sucked into a task that is irrelevant or not a current priority. I know that there are times I’ll go to warm up my coffee and end up scrubbing the inside of the microwave rather than cracking on with my to-dos. 

Learn Your Peak Productivity Hours

I have always been a strange hybrid of early bird and night owl, even when I was a very young child. I was my brightest-eyed and bushiest-tailed when I stayed up all night, easily transitioning from home to school if I pulled an all-nighter and was consistently netting wonderful results until the inevitable crash around noon. 

Over time, I realized that my personal peak productivity is from 9:00 in the evening to 6:00 in the morning. Unfortunately, the field I work in doesn’t function according to my body’s preferred time clock. To capitalize on my brain’s craving to be wide awake while the world sleeps, I rearranged my life to accommodate, falling asleep immediately when I get home from work. 

Now, I am not so naive as to realize that people with children find that concept laughable. I recognize that I am in a unique position of not having children, a spouse who works from home, and the resources to pull this off. 

That being said, I think that you should use this anecdote less as an “instruction” and more as a gentle encouragement to stop pushing yourself to work your hardest when your brain isn’t wired to be productive. 

Afternoons are dead times for me. They are disheartening, unproductive, and fruitless. Working at that time only works to discourage me. If you’re not a morning person, don’t push yourself to do your hardest tasks in the morning. Over time, it can certainly chip away at your sense of self-efficacy. 

Avoid “Toxic Positivity”

Toxic positivity is a newer term I’ve recently seen cropping up quite a bit. It references those infinitely optimistic people who tend to lean on “Just stay positive!” as their go-to advice when something stressful occurs. While I wish that this attitude worked for me, it adds to my burden. It makes me wonder why I can’t handle a problem rather than what steps I should take to solve it. It makes me question my capabilities. 

When I feel like something is just too much for me to handle, I give myself room to say, “I cannot do this yet.” That last word is critically important. The power of the word “yet” is that it tells your brain that there are solutions and that you will find them. It also permits you to take the time to find those solutions, rather than just giving up altogether or pushing through when you’re not ready. 

That’s not to say that you should give negativity the spotlight, but recognizing something is stressful, frustrating, or difficult isn’t a bad thing. It can feel even more gratifying once you achieve a task when you know that you had to push yourself along the way. 

Seek Out Mentors 

As an introvert, I like to reflect on myself, my work, and my concerns alone before seeking out others. But, there are times when I hit a stand-still, getting caught up in a thought loop that only further frustrates me or puts me behind. 

Those are the times when I ask my mentor out for a coffee, jot down a list of topics I’ve been pondering recently, and enjoy a chat. She’s been in the business for twenty years and has experienced exponentially more situations than I have. In many cases, she has dealt with the same hurdle and shares her methods for overcoming it. In other cases, she pushes me to consider whether the issue is actually what I think it is or if it’s the effect of another situation I am facing. 

Either way, it gets me thinking, gives me something to chew on, and holds me accountable to being a problem solver. I want my mentor to see that her time and efforts are invaluable, so I try very hard to put into action her advice. The next time we have time to visit, I get to share that with her. 

Wrap Up

The most important tip I can give for avoiding overwhelm is recognizing that there is no paved path you have to follow. There are an infinite number of resources, tools, and advice that you can piece together, forming a quilt of comfort that you depend on to structure your day. Once you realize the value of investing in a working system that meets your needs, complete with a toolbox of routines to ease overwhelm, you will maximize your time and reap huge results. 

No matter what line of business you find yourself in, having someone to talk to along the way is worth the investment, especially if they are an expert in leadership, management, and the day-to-day stressors facing modern business owners.

While we primarily focus on the data side of the business, we emphasize the value of intangibles, like strong leadership and culture. We work with many owners and executives to improve their leadership, management, and general communication skills.

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