Get your head above the weeds
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
I never thought I’d say this but, after 10 years of working in corporate America, I learned valuable skills that translate to my personal life. Yes, even stay-at-home-mom life. This is part of a series about lessons from a corporate life. Listen to episode 4 of my podcast for another part of this series.
Do you know what it feels like to be flooded? There is so much going on that it feels overwhelming to the extent that you may physically react. Your breathing and blood pressure can change. You may feel dazed, tired, or emotional.
I hope you’ve caught wind of my learning style by now. I make mistakes until there is enough pressure that I could burst and then I do a 180 degree course correction. Enjoy my predictable story line: Last September, I bought a house, started a job, and found out I was pregnant all in the same week. We bought the home impulsively and didn’t have a plan to sell our existing home. We thought we could list it within a month or two. Wrong. Instead, we discovered a massive roof leak in our new home that required a huge roof replacement bill.
Up until this point, I had been treading water. I was tired, but breathing. Suddenly, the wave collapsed on me and I was completely flooded. The day we discovered the roof leak was the day I broke. This delayed fixing up and selling our old home. We were halfway through a kitchen remodel. When well-intentioned people asked me if I had the nursery ready or was “nesting,” I laughed to keep myself from crying. Of course I wasn’t nesting! At 8 months pregnant, I was on my hands and knees demoing tile and remodeling a kitchen. The home finally closed two days after I had my baby. Meanwhile, my job required regular 60 hour work weeks with a client who loved early morning meetings.
Over this past year, while pregnant, working, and owning one home too many (I don’t recommend this), I was often so overwhelmed I would panic. My poor husband bore the brunt of my emotional outbursts. I’d look at the list of things to do and unload all of my fears onto him. I usually hurt our relationship and would stall progress on the homes. Then we would go to the other house without a plan and were inevitably scattered and unproductive, making several unanticipated trips to Home Depot each time. The negative feedback loop of unbridled emotions plus poorly planned work efforts led to months of strife.
Finally, around two months before having a baby, I stopped waiting until I had a whole week free to finish the kitchen, stopped banging my head against the wall, and stopped complaining. I remembered what I had learned at work about increasing productivity even when you're overwhelmed and started to make meaningful progress.
At work, we called this “getting above the weeds.” It’s as though you’re in a field with tall weeds all around such that you can’t see your way out. But if you could just pop your head up and look around, you’d get out of the weeds. We get lost in the weeds when we aren’t intentional with what we do with our time and when we get emotional. If we are flooded with too much going on, it’s easy to feel pressured to start working on everything right away. This usually isn’t an effective approach though. You’ll end up with too many things “in flight,” meaning, you’ll have multiple projects running simultaneously and won’t make effective progress on any of them. And if you don’t have a plan, you might go too far down the wrong path and waste time, getting lost even further in the field of weeds.
Getting above the weeds requires an objective, intentional analysis of where you're at and where you need to go. You take a step back and take a break from spinning your wheels in order to make a plan, drive anything to completion, and lose your emotions. Your first goal should be to get anything done. Getting anything completed quickly is very important for your peace of mind and for your overall productivity. First, write down everything that you need to do. Writing it down will reduce your mental load and help calm your emotions. Then, make a note of things that have deadlines or need to be completed imminently to indicate priority order. Next, make a decision and just start working. Of the things that you need to do in the very near future, pick something to drive to completion. I recommend picking something that is already partially complete first. For example, all priorities being equal, if you have 20 tasks in flight and five of them are 80% done, tackle each of those five tasks one by one and completely ignore the other 15 until you’re done. By removing these nearly-completed tasks from your plate first, you will have more time and energy to devote to the uncompleted tasks later.
While doing this, it’s very important that you change your mindset on goal setting. There are two routes you could take. You could focus less on completing tasks all in one chunk and more on devoting time to tasks. At work, I would have said the opposite but that’s in an environment where people are paid to focus on work. Moms, on the other hand, are interrupted constantly so focusing on task completion can actually be demotivating and practically impossible. If you say “Today I will organize a closet,” but never have more than 15 minutes free, you might feel discouraged when you don’t get it done. Instead say to yourself, “Today I will devote 15 minutes to organizing the closet” and suddenly, it will feel more possible to make progress! If you give yourself just a few minutes here and there, you will complete it soon enough. Another tactic you could use to make a project feel smaller is to make it smaller! Instead of setting a goal to clean an entire garage, set a goal to clean a shelf or a box. One box a day, and you’ll soon have a clean garage!
As a mom, I’ve learned to get large projects done (like this website) with the smallest moments. The next time you’re feeling flooded with how much you need to accomplish, remember to step back and unemotionally assess your workload. Create a plan, prioritize your efforts, and drive anything to completion.
Hi, there! I go deeper into topics in my podcasts. Each are about 20 minutes long and they drop weekly on Thursdays. Please check one out here!