Let me guess:
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:
- Ongoing work – stuff you have to do every day, every week or every month.
- Backlogs – things you ‘should’ have done by now, and need to catch up on.
- Events – work related to one-off events, or events that happen at longer intervals than a month, e.g. an annual conference.
- 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
- 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.
These are things that you wish you had done earlier, but didn’t get round to. Common backlogs include:
- Admin of various kinds
The main causes of backlogs:
- Unrealistic workload
- 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).
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
- 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:
- Get a sheet of paper, turn it ‘landscape’ and write the four headings along the top, to form four columns.
- 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:
- Your workload looks more manageable, so you feel less overwhelmed and more motivated.
- Because of 1, you apply focused effort to the tasks in hand, and achieve more in less time.
- Each task or project you complete boosts your motivation further.
- As time goes by, you have fewer and smaller backlogs, unclogging your system and making you more efficient (cycling back to 1).
- 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.
This is an extract from Mark McGuinness’ book Productivity for Creative People – a practical guide to getting your real work done amid the demands and distractions of modern life.