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Sticky notes and remembering: a productivity system or a symptom of overwhelm?

Do you use post-it notes? Write little messages to yourself because they are handy. Dot them on your screen before you leave work? Have them in the car? On the fridge? Does it work? I'm guessing not. And here is why...

All of us at some point need systems for staying organized, prioritising our actions and keeping on top of the most important things we need to tackle. 

But all too often our systems break, we fall ‘off-the-wagon’ and end up doing something that doesn’t work for a while. For example: using sticky notes. It seems like such a great solution at the time: write something and figure out how to file it later (code for never!).  Using sticky notes, aiming to remember the relative priorities and everything that doesn’t make it onto the sticky notes is one of many ‘I’ve fallen off the organization wagon’ red alerts. There are many. But they are just symptoms. 

What really is going on is overwhelm.

Overwhelm is real, and will rise up time and time again in your career. This is normal. How you handle it doesn’t have to be normal though.

When our systems fail, and productivity drops the underlying issue is that our mindset is off point. And when mindset goes, everything else drops. Productivity spirals down. Things get worse. Everything gets more out of control. Mindset takes another hit. Boom. Rock bottom. 

Of course, it doesn’t always spiral that far! Great. But what we all missed in this was noticing the real culprit: the thing that meant our mindset slipped in the first place.

Almost always, that is because you are overwhelmed.

Overwhelm can manifest and surface at the oddest times, but almost always first becomes visible when well established and useful habits get dropped.  And it doesn’t always occur when you think you are most busy. Sometimes the oddest things can tip the balance, such as something in our personal lives, interacting with a new/different person who takes a bit more of our concentration, or just not having taken some personal time recently. Whatever the reason, don’t stress about how little it took for you to feel overwhelmed, because that just makes it worse! Instead, we want to focus on fixing it.

First, watch out for the early stages of overwhelm. This might be:

  • You stop using your productivity systems effectively or at all;
  • You stop journaling, meditating, yoga – basically anything where you were actively working on your mindset before;
  • You avoid taking time off and find yourself working not just one evening and weekend but nearly all of them for more than a week in a row;
  • You can’t emotionally let go of worries outside of work, even the things that you know logically aren’t such a big deal;
  • You stop taking care of yourself, exercising, taking ‘me time’, whatever it is you do for just you (and not your family/loved ones).
  • You start to become more irritated with those around you, especially friends, loved ones and respected colleagues.

There are many other symptoms, but hopefully these highlight the types of things to look out for.

Next, we need to focus on fixing things when you get the early warning symptom so you don’t let it get out of control.

Here are my top tips for getting your overwhelm back under control:

  1. Identify the root cause. Is it a person, an activity or something entirely different?  It may be more than one. What has changed is a really good place to start. Many of my clients report feeling pulled in too many directions for example, but often they were ‘fine’ a few weeks or months ago. But something else changed in their workplace or personal life that meant that they no longer had the mental capacity to handle being pulled in so many directions (of course being pulled in many directions isn’t good, but more often than not it wasn’t the actual trigger for the immediate overwhelm).
  2. Address the root cause if at all possible. Sometimes it isn’t. For example, perhaps a loved one is going through a medical crisis – you still want to be there for them. And that is OK. So if you can’t address the root cause, accept that, even embrace it, and move on to step three.
  3. If you can’t remove the root cause, make adjustments to accommodate it instead. Actively seek to handle the issue in a different way. Can you take some time to be with someone you need to spend time with? Can you alter your schedule at work? Could you delegate work to others to allow you to focus on the thing that is causing the overwhelm?
  4. Get ruthless with your priorities. What really matters? Basically, for most of us it should be health, family, relationships and no more than one or two really top priorities at work. Then there is a second tier of things that if they don’t happen will be catastrophic to some outcome for our business, but potentially they don’t need to be your priority but someone else’s. This topic is a blog post all on its own, but hopefully, you get the idea! Get rid of what you don’t personally need to focus on!
  5. Prioritise self-care and your systems. Even though these were probably the first things to drop, they are also the most important to keep you on an even keel. So if you do one thing, get these back into your routine asap.

Finally, don’t neglect productivity. And to return to the somewhat flippant title: don’t rely on sticky notes and your memory. Your brain is the first thing to suffer when you are under pressure and stressed. So give it a break. Sticky notes have their place, such as allowing you to arrange your thoughts, but otherwise should never be used instead of a real system.

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