Whether your team has been downsized by layoffs, you're in a fast-paced start-up trying to tackle everything at once, or you're working with executives who are struggling to truly prioritize, at some point leaders have all felt the dreadful sinking feeling in their stomach when we realize they're on a one way train to failure town because there is an overwhelming amount of work.
The balls are starting to drop. You're forgetting things. You're noticing errors in your work. Your eye is twitching, you've got insomnia and your jaw is never unclenched. You've relinquished your optimism of working a few more hours on the weekend to catch up. Now you're just "in it" and desperately trying to get out alive because what you're doing isn't sustainable and your wellness is tanking.
The Real Talk
We've all heard the phrase: "if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority." It's one thing to know it, and another thing to dig yourself out of it. It can involve navigating internal politics or your own hang-ups around completionism, perfectionism, disappointing others, being likable, being competent, etc.
The real talk here is simple. No one is going to get you out of this but you. So, let's figure it out together.
1) Figure out which gods you're trying to please.
Whether it's power, profit, relationship, perfection or politics, figure out which "gods" you worship and serve them intentionally. This becomes your decision-making criteria. If you haven't been given criteria by your leaders, do your best to create it and then test it out with a few colleagues. Know the business and the company's culture. What initiatives or leaders thrived the last time this happened? Ask why and how. Then, get to know how you and others operate under stress. Once you've got your prioritization criteria, let your team and others know how you are using to make decisions about what work stays, what work goes and what gets pushed out.
2) Check yourself (and with your team) about what is realistic.
What was normal and realistic yesterday, may not be today. Test all your assumptions about what you believe is a "normal workload" or should be a "reasonable expectation." Timebox how long you'll work under your new assumptions, and mark your calendar for when you will check in on them again. Talk to your executives about this and get their alignment so you are on the same page.
3) Line 'em up. This one comes from what I've learned from my Sifus at Seven Star Women's Kung fu for when you find yourself outnumbered. Figure out who is most dangerous... or in a business case situation what is the single most important thing to keep track of. Then, no matter what, always keep your sights on that person, situation, project, metric, etc. Everything else? Line 'em up so you're only ever fighting/addressing one thing at a time. Don't try to multi-task. Rank them in order by which you will address them, one at a time.
4) Go on the offensive. This is not the time to sit back and wait for someone else to tell you what to do and how to do it. Find or create a way to step out of the stream of the firehose for just a moment so you can breathe. Cancel a meeting, take a day off, or call your therapist. Make space to breathe. Shift your mindset from defense to offense. Sitting back and trying to deflect all the balls coming your way won't help you make headway. Now's the time to know what your priorities are, tell everyone what your priorities are, and go after them.
5) Primary targets. In Kung Fu self-defense situations we often tell folks to only go for primary targets, or in other words, only take action when it has a clear, intentional impact. Don't block, don't defend, don't flail, and don't attack targets that won't create the exact effect you need - only act in ways that have strong, clear, intentional impact. Don't waste your precious time on actions that won't get you results. (It's easiest to do this when you have are clear on your criteria).
6) Good enough is good enough. Decide what you're going to give up (quality, speed, detail, risk assessment, process, etc.) in order to mitigate what's coming at you. Let folks know what you're sacrificing in order to meet the criteria you set. Then really go for "good enough" and timebox when you will check back to see if your temporary standard of good enough is really still good enough. Pro tip: Don't sacrifice relationships.
Finally, these tips work best in acute situations. They are not meant to keep you resilient and strategic in chronic understaffing or long-term chaotic/toxic situations. We'll Drunk OD together about the chronic situations another day.