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Coming up for air

(October 2, 2023 Newsletter)

“How could it be that no matter how much I accomplish I have more to do, not less?” We all know what it feels like to have a to-do list so long that it seems better to not have it at all.

  • Maybe you’re preparing for a big conference.

  • Maybe your big product launch is right around the corner.

  • Sometimes clients gripe that it’s not in any one project in particular; rather, an organizational culture that implies that everything is equally urgent, all the time.

Whatever the circumstance, if you’re be barreling full speed ahead with a tightening pit in your stomach, how might be asking yourself: “How long can adrenaline sustain me before I crash?” Let’s start with the bottom line: It’s essential that you come up for air – otherwise you are, indeed, in danger of burning out before reaching the finish line. Like marathon runners who drink those packets of electrolytes without slowing their pace, here are a few things that can help you in periods of high intensity, volume of work, and pressure:

  1. Pick a word other than “overwhelmed” – Telling yourself you’re overwhelmed when you’re actually feeling overtaxed, overstretched, stressed, crunched for time, or overloaded can make it worse. The more accurate your diagnosis, the more accurate your solution can be. Back in the day I had a mantra that helped me immensely – in periods of high pressure, I’d say out loud “Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you have to be stressed… just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you have to be stressed…”

  2. How’s your body? Start to notice where you carry your stress: is it a lump in your throat? A pit in your stomach? Does your chest tighten? Or maybe, like me, your upper back and neck muscles signal that you’re reaching your danger zone. Doing a quick body scan (hands off your keyboard, face away from your screen, and close your eyes) can work wonders – eventually you can start to notice those signals earlier and earlier and take them as a sign that it’s time for a break.

  3. Measure your progress – Knowing how far you’ve come and how far you still have left can be an extra motivator. This is true at the project level, but if you have cascading responsibilities that seem to never end, it can be helpful too in seeing movement across the board.

  4. Retain your good habits – You likely have good organizational habits that start to falter when your workload tips from reasonable to unmanageable (or what feels unmanageable). Some habits I see people throw away too quickly include:

    • No pausing between meetings, which means no time to organize to-dos from meeting A and prep for meeting B.

    • To-do list mayhem: it can lead to throwing the list away or it splintering into several tiny post-its instead of one unified list.

    • In before out, meaning you procrastinate on assigning things you need from others and instead focus first on what YOU can get done (which leads to bottlenecks as deadlines approach).

    • “I’ll just do it myself” by taking things away from team members or peers when you really need all hands on deck.

If this is the case for any of the above habits, consider the following questions:

  • Which work habits are non-negotiable for you? What’s so important to you about them? How will sticking to them help you achieve your goal?

  • Which work habits falter first for you? Why do you think that is? What could help you maintain them?

  • What’s the connection between your answers to tips #1 and 2 above and the habits that fall by the wayside?

Notice the order… All of these tips are designed to make it easier to get air into your lungs when you feel like you’re drinking from a firehose. The first two focus on your self-awareness - checking your inner narratives and somatic responses - BEFORE we get to technical suggestions in tips #3 and 4. Don’t skip 1 and 2, please.

It’s hard (though doable!) to start implementing them when you’re already underwater, so if you’re reading this and you’re not “there” at the moment, scroll back up and consider what you want to start working on now for the next time the pressure’s on. Inevitably, it will be, so best to start preparing now.


The Coaching Corner Acknowledge before responding Considering much of our interactions are around tasks, pausing to acknowledge the person before the project can lower the heat on a potentially heated exchange. What could that acknowledgment sound like?

  • “It sounds like you’re upset.”

  • “I know how important this project is to you.”

  • “I saw how thoughtful you were about this draft.”

  • “I love this question.”

  • “I appreciate you bringing this up.”

  • “Sounds like an interesting dilemma.”

It doesn’t take much, but that little reflection signals “I see you” before diving into the nitty gritty.



  • When Diversity meets Feedback. A beautiful summary of the important cultural, gender, and generational nuances when giving feedback. A must-read if you want your feedback to "land" for each and every team member, in their own way.

  • Why Meetings Suck and How to Fix Them. The latest episode of Adam Grant’s podcast, “Work/Life” dives into some of the reasons why meetings are inefficient uses of our time and how to rethink them. My favorite tip - phrase agenda items as questions so people can come prepared with answers.


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