My Plan to Deal With Overwhelm

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cc photo by J. Delp

This past week I stopped to visit with a colleague who has been absent from work due to a health issue. Our conversation began with college football but eventually drifted to work. “I’m just trying to get caught up,” he lamented (as he stared at his computer screen and what I imagined was an overflowing email inbox). I could see on his face that this was a statement that stemmed from stress and worry. I can relate. I almost always feel overwhelmed, and I am rarely absent from work. I passed along my standard advice, “Just take on thing at a time, and focus on what’s most important.” As the words were coming out of my mouth, I envisioned myself slapping my forehead and saying, “Doh! You don’t even do that yourself you idiot.”

It begs the question, why not? Why don’t I focus on what is most important and take things one at a time?

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that schools, organizations, and businesses are almost always facing some form of a challenge. If not, there is probably a good chance they have given up, or they are not working to improve. Our school is no different. We have our share of challenges.

Before we went on our fall break, I did a survey to get a better pulse on how people were feeling. I asked my staff to let me know if they had the resources and knowledge they needed to be successful. Some of it was hard to read, but I will definitely do this again. I received some great insights and while I’m not sure how we will solve all of the concerns, I feel better knowing they exist.

I wasn’t thrilled about having to work the majority of the break, but I will say this, most of the work I did was rewarding.  I suspect this was because I wasn’t spending all of my time answering emails and putting out fires. Instead, I was engaged in what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work.” I was actually engaged in meaningful problem solving that I felt was relevant and purposeful for me, my staff, and my school.

Now I have gotten a taste of that work, that’s what I want to do all of the time. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what aspects of my day I would need to change to make that happen. Not next semester. Not next year. But when I return to work on Monday. Tomorrow.

After giving it some considerable thought (see Go Ahead and Take a Break) I have come up with six things I will change to allow myself as much time as possible to do the creative and purposeful work that will really make a difference for my school community.

(1) Regain control of my calendar. I have allowed my calendar to run “rough-shod” over my time and in many cases, others dictate how I spend my time. I need to block off time when I am unavailable. Time I will dedicate to purposeful work that has a clear and substantial impact on our school. Greeting students each morning at the front gate, visiting with staff members, spending time in classrooms, and working on meaningful projects. This also means I am going to need to become more comfortable with saying no. The time I have to interact with students and staff members is limited and I can’t be wasting that time in meetings, training, or pursuits that don’t have a clear positive impact on our school.

(2) Be okay with okay. When I was in medical school (Yes, I attended for two years. No, I am not a doctor.), there was a saying going around, “C = MD.” Not exactly a reassuring mantra for patients who might be seeing one of those doctors, but it does illustrate that not everything you do has equal value. Sometimes you just have to get stuff done. Certain things require our best work, but a lot of what we are asked to do just needs to be done. For many of these things, “okay is okay.”

(3) Keep email in check. For me, email is a black hole of unproductivity. It is too easy for me to get sucked into spending hours sending and responding to messages. No matter how fast I work, they just keep coming.

From now on, I will be checking email only at designated times — once in the morning, around mid-day, and after school dismisses. I will be more cognizant of the number of emails I send — opting for more in-person conversations. Also, I am going to work to keep messages shorter. I’m not sure I am ready for three-sentence emails, but I’d like to try. Finally, this weekend I was listening to a podcast and heard about zzzMail — a philosophy used by an organization called Vynamic. 

Vynamic’s motto is “Life is Short. Work Healthy.” To Promote better balance, the zzzMail policy was created: employees are to refrain from sending emails to other employees between 10pm and 6am Monday through Friday, all day Saturday and Sunday, and all Vynamic holidays. In urgent matters, a call or text is preferred over email.

I process a lot of email on evenings and weekends and I’m guilty of sending email to staff members during both times. I am going to begin dropping those messages into my drafts or setting a specific time for them to be sent. I don’t want to feel like I have to respond to email on evenings, or weekends, and I certainly don’t want my staff members to feel that a response is obligated.

(4) Maintain a frustration folder. This was suggested to me by a wise person. I get easily frustrated — even angry — when I  see what I perceive to be injustice or inequity.  It happens a lot. The longer I spend in this job, the bigger the holes in my “filter” become and I tend to let people know I am upset. Being an advocate is one thing. Being a persistently angry advocate is another. So, this wise person suggested that instead of incessantly ruminating on my misgivings, I should record them and place them in a “frustration” folder. Once a week, during a scheduled time, I will review the contents and assess if there are any actionable steps I can take to diminish the problem/frustration. If so, I will do a few of them, but a few people, and then put the folder away until the next week. I may not solve a lot of the frustrations, and the folder may continue to grow, but at least the issues won’t be constantly rattling around in my head. I am really looking forward to making and using this folder (I’m decoration ideas).

(6) Keep a daily journal of humor and gratitude. Let’s face it. In a typical day, a lot more goes “right” than “wrong.” To maintain a proper perspective, it is important to make note of the good things that happen. As a bonus, junior high kids are hilarious. There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t laugh at something they do or say.

Student: “Hey Mr. Delp, are you coloring the sides of your hair?”

Me: “You mean, am I coloring it gray?”

Student: “Yeh.”

Me: “No. It just comes in that way. One of the benefits of being a principal.”

I might as well write these things down so that I realize things are actually going pretty well. Someday I might want to write a book.

(6) Take care of myself. I am more than a principal. I need to be sure I am investing in the things that give me life and renew my energy. I need to take time off, hang out with my family, go fishing, take pictures, walk my dog (Kosmo), travel, and write. I have been sacrificing my health for my job and that is not smart. It is time to ratchet down the stress and recognize when it is time to say, “Today, I’ve done what I can. It’s time to go home.”

There you have it. Six sure-fire ways to be more productive and less overwhelmed at work. Just kidding. But, I am going to focus on these strategies for the upcoming quarter. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What would you add to the list?

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