How to overcome overwhelm quickly.

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Feeling overwhelmed is great.

It is a sign that we have gotten into the weeds with a bunch of different things. It is an opportunity for us to reset and re-prioritise.

If we don’t deal with it though we will get completely drained and stressed.  We lose our ability to focus. We lose creativity. And longer-term it leads to burn-out too.

Over the years of working with senior product leaders, I came up with a super simple 3-step process to overcome overwhelm quickly.

It’s easily summarised and remembered in three words: breathe, list, do. It fits on a tiny sticky note.

Even with strong productivity systems in place I sometimes get overwhelmed. I keep a tiny reminder sticky note on my screen as a handy prompt.

I’d like to share with you how to get the most value out of this quick 3-step process in this episode.

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– “Feeling overwhelmed is great. Maybe not in the moment, but it is a great prompt that we have gotten into the weeds with a bunch of different things. There are too many items, too many tasks in our mind, too many things to keep track of and we carry a lot in our head. So I always see that as a great sign that we want to use that as a prompt in order for us to reset and reprioritise. 


If we don’t deal with that overwhelm, you know how that feels, right? At the end of the day, it’s just completely drained. 

It just feels very constricting in your body. And there is so much on your head and it’s actually quite stressful. And when it’s stressful, we can’t really operate at our best, can we? It also, if we don’t deal with that overwhelm and we continue with that, it can actually lead to burnout too and we don’t want that. I don’t want that for you. So what can we do about it? 

Over the years of working with senior product leaders and also learning more and more about how we work, I’ve actually brought it down to a super simple three-step process that can help you overcome overwhelm quickly. I always summarise this in very simple terms, in three words. And I actually have something that I have taped to my monitor, breathe, list, do. Those are the three steps. I’m going to share with you a little bit more about them. So you know exactly what to do when you feel overwhelmed. 


Step one, breathe. When we feel overwhelmed, we actually forget to breathe properly sometimes. 

So zoom out, deep breath in, and then a very slow, slow, slow breath out through the mouth. If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed and stressed, do that for a couple of minutes, short breath in through the nose and then long breaths out. It really helps to reset the system. We become more relaxed through this act of purposeful breathing and we put ourselves into a better state. We need to be in a better state so that we can move on to step two. What we’re doing through this breathing technique is we are, as I said, resetting the system.

What we’re doing is we’re reactivating the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that helps us to be in a relaxed state. When we’re overwhelmed, we are more likely in the sympathetic nervous system usage. That’s where we’re very focused and very, you know, high octane and trying to get things done as quickly as possible. But that also leads us to not being able to use our full capacity. 

So we want to shift our state and put ourselves in a position where we can actually use our full capabilities. And that’s why we need to do this breathing technique. Short breath in through the nose and then long breath out through the mouth. And do them proportionally, at least once, two, maybe three times. But if you’re feeling particularly stressed, do give yourself a couple of minutes and just allow yourself to breathe. Take a breath, right? Not a problem.


Step two, list. So this actually dates back to something that I came across many, many years ago. 

I think it was in GTD, Getting Things Done, which is a very old methodology for getting things done. And they have a process that they refer to as Mind Clearing, I believe. And basically what you do is, I prefer to use Sticky Notes for that. Take a Sticky Note. Take a Sharpie and all the things that are on my mind, I put on a Post-it. And one thing per Post-it, one thing per Post-it and just keep listing, keep listing, keep listing. One thing, write, put it down, write, tear it off, put it down, write, tear it off, put it down, write, tear it off, put it down. Just keep doing that until everything that is on your mind is out of your mind and on each and individual piece of Sticky Notes, right? So doing that, will not actually take all that much time. It feels like a lot, when we have everything in our mind, but it doesn’t take all that long to get it all out of our mind and put it on a larger surface, on a desk where we can work with it or on a wall where you can see all of the items. And that enables us to move on to step number three. 


There is something that is quite important about step three. It’s just two letters, one word: do.

But something important to consider here. You are in the product space. What do we optimise for and what do we prioritise by? Value, right? So what is the one thing that you can start with next, that you can do next in order to make everything else simpler, right? You can remind yourself of your overarching, optimising question. What are you optimising for? What is your overarching goal? What is the one thing out of all of these Post-its that would make half of them go away? What is the one thing that really makes a huge difference? That is the one thing that I would recommend for you to pick up and do next, even if it’s just the start. Sometimes that can be an item that is not necessarily very comfortable for us to work on. However, I guarantee once you do at least a few outlined bullet points, right? Just say, “Okay, I’m going to work on this for five minutes and then I’m going to stop.” That’s all you need, because that is what your mind needs in order to create momentum around it. That is the motivation that develops once you start to get going. 

So you need to invest a little bit of willpower, if that particular item that you’re picking up, that makes all the other items easier, is not entirely comfortable to work on, but just time-box it, five minutes. And who knows, you might find out after three, four minutes, before the time is up, that actually you’re now in the zone and you can start to do more work on it or you may decide, actually it’s all you needed. You needed to do an outline, an overview and you can now plan it in because you need more time than you currently have available, okay? 

So that is my three-step process, breathe, list, do. If that was useful to you, I would like to encourage you to check out some of these videos that should be popping up somewhere over here. 

Thank you very much and bye.”


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From the desk of Georg Fasching, passionate purveyor of Product Flow, and seasoned executive, team, and organisational change coach.

For his high-leverage, curation of methods and instruction, visit https://get.teamgenius.eu/.

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