How to Tell if You’re Really Overloaded (and What to Do About It)

Let me guess:

You’re busy.

You receive too many emails.

You’ve got people coming at you every day, asking for things, urgently.

You’ve got a head full of great ideas, but there’s never enough time to work on them properly.

Every time you go near the internet, you find even more demands and diversions.

Even in your free time, you find it hard to stop thinking about work.

You’re feeling overloaded.

If I’m anywhere close in my guesses, don’t despair: you are not alone.

I’m finding more and more coaching clients asking for help with an overloaded schedule and the feelings of overwhelm that go with it.

And to be frank, with projects and clients coming thicker and faster each year, there have been times in recent months when I’ve felt pretty overloaded myself.

Now, if you’re pursuing a stimulating creative career, it’s normal to feel overloaded from time to time, but it’s not a good to feel chronically overwhelmed by work. Because if we’re not careful, overload can turn into creative burnout.

On the other hand there’s a big difference between feeling like you’re ‘always’ overloaded and actually having too much to do.

Time for a reality check

If you’re feeling overloaded, the first step is to do a reality check:

Exactly how busy are you right now?

Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?

Can you manage it, or do you need to do something about it?

To answer these questions, I find it helps to divide your activities into 4 categories:

  1. Ongoing work – stuff you have to do every day, every week or every month.
  2. Backlogs – things you ‘should’ have done by now, and need to catch up on.
  3. Events – work related to one-off events, or events that happen at longer intervals than a month, e.g. an annual conference.
  4. Asset building – investing time in creating something that will generate ongoing value in the future.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.

1. Ongoing work

These tasks are not going away – they are essential elements of your daily, weekly and monthly routines.

Here are some of my core ongoing tasks:

  • Delivering coaching sessions
  • Email
  • Blogging
  • Writing exclusive content for the Creative Pathfinders
  • Doing accounts
  • Maintaining my websites
  • Keeping my office (relatively) tidy

Depending on your line of work, your ongoing tasks might include some of the following:

  • A weekly show
  • Writing a column
  • Band practice
  • Weekly meetings
  • Monthly reports

Things to bear in mind about Ongoing work:

  • It must be manageable.
  • If you have nothing else on your plate and you’re struggling to deal with Ongoing work, you are definitely overloaded and you need to do something about it.

2. Backlogs

These are things that you wish you had done earlier, but didn’t get round to. Common backlogs include:

  • Email
  • Accounts
  • Admin of various kinds

The main causes of backlogs:

  • Disorganisation
  • Unrealistic workload
  • Illness
  • Holidays
  • Events (see 3 below)
  • Building assets (see 4 below)

The end of 2012 was pretty intense for me: having spent several months writing a book (asset building), followed by the book launch (event) and running my annual Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap course (event), I ended up with a backlog of email, accounts and guest articles I’d promised various website owners.

This wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t a big problem as I knew what my priorities were, and had a system in place for catching up on the backlogs. Without that, the backlogs could have got out of hand.

Things to bear in mind about backlogs:

  • In an ideal world, they wouldn’t exist, but this isn’t an ideal world, so you probably need a way to deal with backlogs.
  • They clog up your system – just think of that overflowing inbox – so the quicker you separate them from the rest of your system, the better. Treat them as separate projects (e.g. an email ‘backlog’ folder) and tackle them in dedicated time.
  • Backlogs due to disorganisation and unrealistic workload are avoidable and should be tackled ASAP.
  • Backlogs due to illness and holidays are unavoidable, so budget for them.
  • Backlogs due to events and building assets are manageable and even desirable (see below).

3. Events

Events take place on specific dates, leading to deadlines and deadline magic/stress (delete as appropriate). They are exciting to be involved in, and have a tendency to swamp your schedule.

Here are some of the events in my business:

  • Launching my book Resilience
  • Running the Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap course
  • Speaking at a conference
  • Running a live training for a corporate client
  • The public training I’ll be running in London later this year

And here are some types of event that may feature in your working life:

  • Showing your work in an exhibition
  • Performing in a live show
  • Pitching for new business
  • Attending/speaking at a conference
  • Launching a new product or service
  • Running a webinar
  • Running a seasonal or occasional sale
  • Applying for a job
  • Applying for funding

Things to bear in mind about events:

  • They consume a lot of time and energy, so the payoff needs to be worth it, whether in money, PR, fulfilment, impact or some other measure.
  • Because they swamp your schedule, they tend to create backlogs; but if the payoff is big enough, a backlog is a small price to pay.
  • Because they consume a lot of energy, you need to allow time to prepare before and recuperate afterwards – one event after another is a recipe for burnout

4. Creating assets

This is where you invest time in creating something intended to generate ongoing value for relatively little future effort.

Here are some of the asset-building tasks in my business:

  • Writing a book or creating a new product to sell
  • Writing free ebooks to spread my ideas and raise my profile
  • Creating my free 26-week Creative Pathfinder course
  • Building / rebuilding a website
  • Search engine optimisation (SEO)
  • Writing sales pages
  • Learning a new skill

All of these things take a lot of time and effort, but once done, they add value to my business for little ongoing effort, often while I’m busy doing other things.

Here are some asset-building opportunities that may be relevant to your business or career:

  • Creating artworks or products
  • Building a website
  • Compiling a portfolio of your best work
  • SEO
  • Writing a series of autoresponder emails to grow your mailing list
  • Studying and practising to acquire knowledge and skills
  • Gaining a qualification that will open doors for you
  • Growing your network

Things to bear in mind about asset building:

  • There’s always a risk – your product might fail, your qualification become redundant, your search engine rankings plummet, and so on.
  • It’s hard to carve out time for it – it feels easier to respond to email and other incoming demands, which keep you ‘busy’ and give you external validation.
  • If you do it right, the payoff can be massive. E.g. Having a website or portfolio that wows potential clients and employers; a search ranking that helps the right people find you; a product that earns money for you while you sleep; a free report that people enthusiastically share with their contacts.
  • As with events, if the payoff is big enough, a backlog is a small price to pay.
  • The more assets you have, the easier life gets. If it feels good having one best-selling product or high-ranking website, how much better will it be when you have three or four? If you’re seeing good results with a basic proficiency at a new task, how much better will it be when you’ve mastered the skill?
  • Different types of asset can combine to produce outsize results. If you’re an artist, producing art is your foundation. If you then learn how to present your work effectively in person, and to raise your profile online, those same artworks can reach a bigger audience and have more of an impact.

How to tell if you’re really overloaded

So those are the four types of activity you could be engaged in. Now we get to the first critical question:

Exactly how busy are you right now?

To answer this:

  1. Get a sheet of paper, turn it ‘landscape’ and write the four headings along the top, to form four columns.
  2. List everything you currently have to do, placing each task under the relevant heading.

So what does this tell you?

If you’re feeling overloaded and most of your tasks are in the ‘Ongoing’ column, an alarm bell should be ringing – this is a clear sign you’ve got too many commitments! So you need to rethink (and if necessary renegotiate) how you spend your working life. Urgently.

But if you find your tasks are scattered more evenly across the different columns, it’s a good sign, because it’s telling you that a high proportion of your work is temporary, so things can (potentially) ease up in future.

If you’re in this situation, and you don’t have an urgent deadline looming, here’s an experiment worth trying:

Spend a week or two doing nothing except Ongoing tasks. This will give you a ‘baseline’ sense of how much work you have to do to keep the show on the road.

Whenever I’ve given this task to coaching clients, they almost always cheer up: they feel lighter and more energised, and find themselves getting far more done than usual.

And they often feel so motivated that they confess to having done ‘a few extra things’ once they had completed the day’s work, either to reduce a backlog or to prepare for an upcoming event.

How to reduce overload and build a better future

Now that you’ve got a sense of how busy you really are right now, here’s the second critical question:

How can you reduce your current sense of overload, and ensure you achieve more with less effort as time goes by?

To answer it, I’m going to give you a rule of thumb:

Sustainable workload = Ongoing tasks + ONE Backlog, Event OR Asset-building project at a time

So if you have a big event coming up, forget about clearing a backlog or creating a new asset; until you meet the deadline, just focus on the event + doing your minimum ongoing tasks.

Or if you have a big backlog to clear and a big new project you’re eager to start, don’t try to do both at once. Pick one, and do that + ongoing tasks, until it’s done.

No, it’s not easy to stick to this rule, but if you do, you should notice the following benefits:

  1. Your workload looks more manageable, so you feel less overwhelmed and more motivated.
  2. Because of 1, you apply focused effort to the tasks in hand, and achieve more in less time.
  3. Each task or project you complete boosts your motivation further.
  4. As time goes by, you have fewer and smaller backlogs, unclogging your system and making you more efficient (cycling back to 1).
  5. As time goes by, you have more assets that make your life easier in different ways, so that you achieve more with less effort (cycling back to 1 again).

And so on… reversing the vicious cycle of overload, so that you become more efficient, motivated, effective and creative as time goes by.

When you’re preparing for an event, clearing a backlog, or building an asset, you may feel under pressure and work longer hours than usual – but that’s very different to crippling sense of ‘always’ being overloaded. When you know the pressure is temporary, it’s a lot easier to handle.

Over to you

How helpful is it to divide your workload into Ongoing, Backlogs, Events and Creating Assets?

How do you deal with overload?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach and the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Brilliant.

    I’ve done this exercise mentally in the past, and I’m fortunate enough to have my Best Beloved doing all my admin stuff, so I rarely feel overwhelmed.

    But this is the solution for 99% of my clients and friends. They’re all getting links to this.

  2. This is exactly the article I needed to read right now! I am relatively organized, but I always try to complete too many tasks at once. My problem is that I treated every task as ongoing work and I ended up exhausted. I will try this method of planning, I’m sure I’ll get good results!

  3. Hi Mark

    This is well written and a thought-provoking article. I’ve just recently started my own business. Although not yet overwhelmed, I find this a great structure to use to keep me on track and focused. Especially the asset-building feature. Something I’ve been doing all along, but never saw it as an asset! :) I only saw it as a necessity. An internal alarm which bugs me every week. Now, as simple as it seems, I have a term for it :) Thanks very much for this!

  4. Fab article, Mark. But having comments by two people NOT feeling overwhelmed was gobsmacking. I thought every creative person felt overwhelmed by that incessant muse lurking in the ether. You know the one that keeps sending ‘great new ideas’ into the brain? Or is that just me? Anyhoo, I’ve never thought of planning with those four categories before. Looking forward to giving it a run (on a Palladian four-columned organisational lead). Thanks a bunch.

    • Pesky Muse. ;-)

    • I commented below about managing the overwhelm of ideas, but wanted to say a few words about the overwhelm I took Mark’s article to be about.

      Best Beloved and I have intentionally created a life with very few possessions. We need very little income to be gloriously happy, and can live anywhere we want because we’ve created a business around our art which lets us work anywhere there’s an internet connection.

      A simple life has to be chosen, sought, engineered, planned. My days are filled with empty spaces for expansion and down time, because we’ve spent a very long time making it so.

      As for the muse, oh yes indeedy, if I gave vent to every idea that came, I’d be paralyzed. By filtering, I’ve managed to write 150+ songs in the past 7 years, write 10 books in the past 5 years, and live as a nomad for 2 years along the way. Choosing fewer dreams means you get to live more of them.

      • Choosing fewer dreams means you get to live more of them.

        And requires the daily exercise of discernment. Very nicely put.

      • Joel, thanks so much for sharing how you have simplified your life. My partner and I have just sold our house and half of our possessions so we can spend the next few months as nomads – still online, so we can still operate our businesses.

        • It’s a marvelous challenge, Megan. Every day, you get to live with intent, to choose what comes next, what comes along, what gets left behind.

          I’d love to hear how your adventure goes.

          • I have to say, Joel, that your words have become a comfort touchstone for me. The discipline you described to live simply resonates strongly with both me and my partner, Jeff. I think I might write about it on my site: http://www.MyBurnoutThing.com – because it may be a viable option for some who are looking to lead healthier lives.

            • Wonderful. (I LOVE your job description on Linked In; thanks for connecting.)

              Most of my life, I lived to “be productive.” When I wasn’t working at real work (meaning a job) I was fixing something, making something, building something, anything to be productive so nobody would think I was lazy.

              Took me a very long time to develop the ability to putter meaninglessly. Best Beloved and I go for drives, just to look at stuff. I write music just to enjoy it and maybe play it for friends. I’ve even discovered that play time with no goals is *vital* to productive creativity (such as writing my mysteries.) (Thank you, Rosanne Bane, for “Around the Writer’s Block.”)

              Having less has made me infinitely happier. Doing less, that is, having less *scheduled* time, has done the same.

              I rarely pay any attention to what day it is, what time it is, or whether or not money is changing hands. Most days, I do stuff I love all day, and sleep well at night. (And, oddly, have plenty of cash to pay the bills, sleep indoors, and still eat a couple or three times a day.)

  5. This is in response to Megan… if I may :) … I know those ‘great new ideas’ that bombards your mind all the time. I’d rather be overwhelmed by good new ideas, plus actioning them, than overwhelmed by the work itself. Otherwise the creativeness goes out the window, just as Mark said, and the robotic mode kicks in. On the other hand, I just started out so there’s lots to be experienced/learnt in the near future, and perhaps my comment would differ in 3 or 8 months time. Or perhaps not. I hope it never does.

    • I can totally relate to having too many ideas/not enough time to execute them all.

      I find it helps to capture them (e.g. in a dedicated folder) and review them from time to time.

      Firstly, because it lets the Muse know you’re still listening, and open to having more great ideas sent your way.

      And secondly, because taking a bit of time for the ideas to ‘marinade’ often helps to sift out the truly great ideas from the ones that only look great at first glance. :-)

      • In addition to your system, Mark, I’ve helped avoid overwhelm by doing an idea analysis, the way some of us were taught organizational skills in the office: handle each piece of paper once, with the exception of the small pile you “later”, a verb made up by Liz Franklin (http://www.mizlizonbiz.com/.)

        When an idea comes to me, I pause to look it over. Is this worth pursuing? No? Toss it. Yes? Okay, does it actually interest me? If yes, do I have the skills to execute? If so, am I the best person to execute it?

        By the time I’m done, I’ve spent 5 minutes ruminating on an idea, and 90% or more don’t make it through the filters. The remaining few go in a folder.

        Even on the days when I’m flooded with a dozen new ideas, it takes less than an hour to filter them all. Those days are rare, and usually days I’ve taken off work anyway to go for a drive with Best Beloved.

    • Thanks, Sharna. Yes, good to have some underpinning structure to make the most of those more organic good ideas.

  6. Totally! Thanks for the good advice.

  7. Great article. I ran a Creative team at a major radio network for many years, and found that creative burnout was a real issue. We worked fast and hard and continually had to shift direction for new clients and/or events.

    Early in the piece I discovered that the 2 biggest burnout triggers for my team were overload caused by disorganization, and the fact that my team’s passion for their work stopped them from taking a breather. They simply wouldn’t slow down!

    Fixing workplace disorganization was (relatively) easy, though required constant monitoring from my end (trust me, radio is a slippery beast). Getting my people to take a step back was harder.

    I actually found that assigning each an occasional ‘passion project’ helped. It pulled them away from the day to day issue of constant idea generation and gave them a focus point. I pushed them to work away from their desks, and to take the time to research and read without distraction before proceeding. Small elements that shifted them away from the working ruts they slipped into. At the end, we would have a great new promotion or client solution, and the individual team member had enjoyed a few days (or weeks) away from the daily grind.

    • the 2 biggest burnout triggers for my team were overload caused by disorganization, and the fact that my team’s passion for their work stopped them from taking a breather.

      This is a classic double whammy in the creative industries. Some leaders take advantage of creatives’ passion by using it as a lever to get them to work ever harder. Which risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

      Great to see you taking steps to stop their enthusiasm tipping over into burnout.

      Reminds me of the time I interviewed David Amor, Creative Director at Relentless Software – he expects his team to show up promptly at 9 in the morning, but won’t let them work later than 5 in the evening… he reckons it’s great for productivity as well as creativity and morale.

  8. Kathleen says:

    I have to say you’ve done a good job with the SEO part. That’s how I found your creative pathfinder course, I was searching for something like creative jobs, or inspiration for creative people, and what I found was much more than I had hoped for! Thank you!

  9. This was very helpful. Thank you. Just reading it helped to ease my overwhelm. I look forward to implementing the categories. They allow me to see that all the things i do that don’t yield immediate or visible results are still quantifiable and necessary. In other words, i’m not just wasting time – which is sometimes how i feel.

  10. Thank you, Mark! This could not have been more timely for me. As a creative I have a hard time with organizing my tasks and milestones into manageable bits. This is a great take-away. I am trying to build my own design product line business while I work full time as a designer for another company 5 days a week. The challenge for me has been to balance what little time I have left after my day job to focus and build my own thing. It can be overwhelming to pump out creativity on demand, so having a task list of other things I can accomplish toward my business, such as practical, day-to-day stuff (and seeing the overall picture) helps ease the anxiety. It certainly is a personal mindset that either aids or alters your perception of workload.

  11. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! Not to mention timely, what with three course/product launches coming down the pipe AND working to get my first book written (and promoted, crowd-funded [which is its own event!] and self-published).

    Your suggestion to choose ONE, event or asset-creation, is giving me pause. I obviously can’t go full steam ahead on both/everything at the same time, but I’m afraid putting the book completely on hold will make me lose momentum, and holding off on the launches would mean no way to generate needed income.

    Serious mulling ahead…

    Meanwhile, I’m sharing this with all my peeps! Thanks!

    • Thanks Melissa, as always (and for sharing).

      Re the book / event – sometimes alternating between different and complementary activities can be energizing in itself, especially if you can find a way of separating them into different times of the day (or days of the week).

      E.g. Working on the event during the day, then ‘relaxing’ by doing some writing in the evening or at the weekend.

      What you obviously want to avoid is for the two projects to be competing for the same time on your schedule, which can lead to a logjam. (And what Frank O’Hara called “Practically going to sleep with quandariness.” ;-) )

      • I’m considering the days of the week thing, and/or making “writing the book” a 15-minutes-a-day project until launches are done.

        A commitment to just 15 minutes a day making art (“playing in the Creative Sandbox”) is what took me from over a decade of ZERO art for me (only ever for clients, which = burnout) to over 150 pieces of art in 2011.

        Honestly, I *want* 2 hours a day for the book, but for now, with the other stuff more immediately income-producing (and hence much more urgent!), I may have to settle for 15 minutes. As long as I can sense *some* forward motion, though, I won’t feel the despair of inertia!

        • Wow that’s a lot of art in 15 minutes!

          Yes, forward motion is the main thing – much better to do 15 mins and feel like you’re getting somewhere, than to get frustrated about not having 2 hours (and likely do nothing).

  12. Lots of good “slap to the head” thoughts. Sometimes you just need someone else clarifying what has been rattling around in your brain.

    Now…what are people’s favorite ways to stay on track, organize, conceptualize…? I will share a couple of mine.

    Do.com. I use their free level (since I really just need their “Project, Tasks, Notes”) It lets me create various projects, assign and organize tasks and more. Love the simplicity of the interface.

    Evernote – downloaded on my phone and desktop it lets me capture notes and organize thoughts. Another freebie.

    Scrivener – intuitive way of organizing large writing projects. Drag and drop to reorganize. Lots of different ways to think about your project (virtual cork boards, index cards, etc.)

    Google Drive – work on a document anywhere you can log in to Google

    (I get no compensation of any kind from any of the vendors I have mentioned – just like their products.)

    What do you like to use?

    • I second Scrivener – I used it to write my book, now I can’t imagine writing anything longer than a blog post without it.

      I’m a recent convert to Instapaper – fantastic way to process content from my feed reader and the web at large, and actually read/share more of it.

  13. Tiffany E. says:

    GREAT article! I often feel this way and it often debilitates my productivity because I don’t know what to work on first. Thanks for such great advice.

  14. Hidayati says:

    Mark, You read my mind. I was just thinking “I have a lot on my plate, where do I go from here??”. Then i opened my email and * cue drum roll in my head*: You answered my question! Going to do this and see where i am at. Thank you for this, it is practical advice to see our ideas/project/work organized and it will redirect us to take action(s) at the right time without overwhelming ourselves.

  15. Wow, Mark, you are always insightful but this article takes the cake! I now understand myself better. I like events, and my work always has events coming up since I am a performance storyteller, poet and teaching artist. But now I see that events are keeping me from the other important parts of my business. I always have crazy backlog because I thrive on the excitement of events/projects. But I run myself dry without the system I need in place to reduce stress. And thank you to everyone else who commented. Hearing your methods and priorities gives me new goals to work toward! I will be revisiting this page many many times.

    • But now I see that events are keeping me from the other important parts of my business.

      Great insight. When you start to see the type of things you spend your time on, it gives you more choices than seeing it as amorphous ‘stuff’.

      Hope the new approach works out for you!

  16. Hi Mark,
    Read the article yesterday evening. First thing in the morning I started to re-shuffle my excel planner sheet with these 4 columns added.
    Wow, what a difference! I always had it in one sheet with prioritize numbers like I learned in your Time Management for creatives booklet.
    Guess I was ready for the next step in organizing, as I kind of drowned in my events lately. They are all good, like exhibitions, but to many things going on gives me an unrestfull feeling.
    Timely advise and as always clearly written down. Thanks!
    Helga

    • Thanks Helga, nice idea to turn it into spreadsheet columns. I guess you could also do it with different coloured tasks on a calendar – so you could see at a glance what kind of tasks dominate the week…

  17. Perfect way to organised work, big thanks Mark!
    There is just one think for me, i need to think out how to divide all different kind of tasks that i do in proper category :)
    best wishes from Aleksandar

  18. Jay Locklear says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for writing this. Most days, I’m living this sentence: “You’ve got a head full of great ideas, but there’s never enough time to work on them properly.” I was at a staff retreat today and left with a couple of ideas that I wanted to flesh out, but didn’t have time to get to them today. I’m using Evernote and Dropbox to collect ideas and bits and pieces of ideas, but I usually don’t make a concerted effort to go back and work those ideas. Your four categories and your definition for sustainable workload will be helpful going forward in prioritizing time and making space for those ideas. Great post!

    • Good idea to capture those ideas and I know how frustrating it can be when you don’t have time to do anything with them.

      One thing it’s worth doing is taking a few minutes to review your ‘ideas folder’ every now and then. Even if you don’t have time to act on them, it’s good to remind yourself of them, and to delete any that don’t look so great on reflection.

      This signals to your unconscious mind that you are paying attention to the ideas it sends you – so it should keep sending more!

  19. This is such a helpful article, Mark.

    I run two businesses (one is ‘author/publishing’ and is a partnership) and I quickly learned that I needed to be super-organised or I’d sink! I work with lists such as these on a daily basis now, so I can see if the balance is right. Being a spreadsheet and organisational nerd, I colour code the tasks for each day, too, so that I can identify ahead of time if I’m setting myself up for overload.
    Still, every so often, I have to take a step back and trim or update. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s helpful to have a flexible approach!

    I don’t often comment – and am catching up with hundreds of emails – but I do find your posts of value, so thank you. :)

  20. I believe that overwhelm normally associates to being dis-organised, and not sufficiently completing one task at a time.

    The art for completing tasks is especially important. When we complete a task we release the attachment to the goal, and therefore free up productive energy for other work.

    If we build up too many incomplete tasks then can become lost within the piles of work, which in turn become distractions to the mind. So I found that the best way to avoid overwhelm is to plan in advance the day, and to keep going until the task is complete.

    I use Evernote to record my creative ideas so I can be return to them at a later stage.
    Evernote is also great for keeping action/to do lists organised. In particular, I also brain storm my ideas onto mind-maps to help clear the clutter of the mind.

    What I also find useful is to plan committed quite time whilst giving advanced warning to the people who can often distract me. It sometimes requires a lot of assertiveness to get people to understand and appreciate the value of peaceful productive time. I sometimes hide in my garden cabin to get away :)

    In particular, I find that playing soft piano music (which is what I produce and share on my website as a musician) helps ease the mind for focused productivity.

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