Overwhelmed? How to Balance a Billion and One Things

There’s one rule to balancing a billion and one things: you can’t.

A “billion” is a large number.  Duh.  We know that it’s large.  We know it’s considerably bigger than a million.  But when you literally try to picture its scale, it’s mind-boggling.  If you could count 10 numbers per second (which is really quite fast), it would take you over 3 years to get to a billion.  No sleeping or eating along the way!

So clearly, you alone cannot balance a billion things.  Which implies there must be a limit to how many things you CAN handle. I wonder what that quantity is?  And how do you improve to get to that “and one”?

What is a thing?
One of my top 5 favorite movies is Inception.  I liken the idea of each dream layer tier being a developer’s ability to work through deep, complicated problems at peak levels.  The deeper a passionate developer gets, the more zen it is for them.  And any distraction is the “kick” which halts the momentum and requires the time needed for accelerating back to that zen-speed.

One of my goals is to make the team happy and thus, as best as possible, buffer them from those incoming “kicks”.  This means I’m getting kicked all the time.  And when you add children to the mix, this all becomes quite literal.

These “kicks”, the “things” I’m talking about, they’re anything that you have to use a brain cycle for.  It’s that surprise phone call, someone striking a conversation, a growing email queue, reviewing a creative deck, planning a vacation, getting milk on the way home, checking the latest score, picking your nose.  All. The. Things.  You’ll notice I’m not just talking about work items.  Very quickly you find you are simply surviving, not thriving.

Why are there so many things?
Life has very little regard for our well-crafted schedules.  Bad days are undoubtedly in our future, whether tomorrow or years from now.  And when work starts to spill out of your nurturing hands, Life has a tendency to make it pour.  It’s how Life rolls.

As we know, projects go through ebbs and flows as they proceed and as portfolios evolve.  There are a lot of forces that can turn a project sideways.  Before you realize it, you discover you are on the wrong side of your threshold of keeping it together.  This isn’t necessarily you failing at your role, just the nature of software development chaos.  Increased demand doesn’t equal reduced complexity.  How you respond to this pressure is the key to excelling at this role.

Okay, but HOW does one deal with all these things?
Dealing with a lot of things is a skill.  You can only get better at it by doing it.  I’m no master, but I’ve improved considerably.  Most importantly, I’m vastly better at keeping the stress levels down and taking inevitable chaos in stride.  And don’t confuse dealing with a lot of things as improving your ability to multitask.  Science basically says more multitasking equals reduced IQ.

Here’s the set of tricks I do:

1. Clear my mind
Being overwhelmed is a state of mind.  The first reaction of most inexperienced managers who are presented with an overflowing plate is to go into reaction mode.  They get to the end of the day exhausted and not really sure what they’ve accomplished.  It’s important to stay calm and make sure the right stuff is getting done and the right stuff is falling off.  I’ll take five minutes to meditate or get a big, deep breath of fresh air.  It might seem weird to pause before tackling what is growing around you, but it can bring a calm that lets you conqueror the important stuff with haste.

2. Protect my time
It’s good to be friendly and available.  But this can be costly and when push comes to shove, undisturbed time is the key to knocking things out.  I’ll put on some headphones, set Do Not Disturb on my instant messenger, shut down email, flip a light switch, whatever gets the point across.  If people still swing by, I’ll ask them if it can be discussed later.  If they are persistent, I am stern but apologetic.  I’ve got a billion things in front of me and I’m in damage control mode, some people are just going to have to wait.  Remember, you’re not doing these things because of them, but for them.

3. Escalate
When a project is showing signs of going south and I see an uptick in hurdles, I’ll raise a flag.  It’s not the red flag of “oh crap” and it’s not the white flag of “all is lost”, just a flag to indicate that something is up.  My leadership and peers greatly appreciate knowing that the cup is dangerously full and might become directly their problem.  It’s also good for them to know I am actively working on it.  If it can’t be contained, the next level of escalation becomes easier and they are more willing to help than being frustrated at it becoming their burden.

4. Delegate
Delegation in itself is a thing and can be time-consuming.  This often leads managers from ever handing something out because they decide they’ll take it on themselves. And then they never get around to it because it’s too low on their totem pole.  But it’s high enough to look bad that it didn’t get done.  Delegation takes trust and letting someone answer it in their way.  I will attempt to serve it up to the right person and challenge them to fill in the blanks as they see fit with a contained amount of direction.  Either it works great or it doesn’t pan out so well.  If the latter, I’ll figure out why and learn from it.

5. Hyper-prioritize
I write down all the things floating around in my head and separate them out into groups of when they need to be done.  Then I do it again.  I want to know what I need to do before lunch or the next meeting.  What has to be in a good place before I can go home?  What can wait for tomorrow even if it seems like a today item?  Then I’ll go grab a drink or talk with a coworker for 5 minutes.  One last time, I’ll look at the immediate list again and see if it can shrink at all.  Then, it’s time to bust out my favorite “get stuff done” done playlist and have at it.

6. Set alarms
Time flies in “get stuff done” mode.  Whatever list I’ve made, if it’s a “get done before the meeting at 2:00pm” or “by the end of the day”, I put one or two forced stopping points.  Am I still on track when those points occur?  No?  I’ll reconsider my plan.  If I’m in an impossible situation, I’ll own it, think through the repercussions and start planning for those instead.  Sometimes battles are lost no matter what you do.  I’ll seek a silver lining, even if it’s simply learning from my mistakes.

7. Use Tools for Organization
There are a billion organizational tools.  Well, maybe not a billion (e.g. see explanation above), but there’s certainly a lot.  Personally, I recommend Trello.  I need to get things out of my head and into a format where I can quickly drag and drop them in a way of sequential priority.  Every second something stays in my head is a second of opportunity for something else to come in and push that something out.

Ideally, as a manager, the goal is to prevent chaos.  But real life scenarios tend to unfold in unexpected ways.  If work becomes overloaded, your work-life balance and peace of mind will be put at risk.  Sometimes you have to buckle down and get things done but it should only be a relatively minor tunnel, one that you could manage holding your breath through.  One day your going to look back and reflect on the sum of your life and I’m willing to bet most of those things around you now won’t be significant enough to remember then.  So step outside, take a big, deep breath, go back in with your head held high, point to the light at the end of the tunnel and run full speed.  You got this.