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Dealing With Overwhelm In A Small Business

About 3 years ago I read an article in a small business magazine that said over 70% of small business owners were overwhelmed by their work and responsibilities.

Do you think that got better or worse in 2020?

At the best of times, small business owners have multiple responsibilities and have to deal with multiple issues and decisions at any one time. Even the most well organised of us sometimes feel as if they are ten different people in one body!

Stress and small business owners are two things that always come together.

From what I understand, stress actually affects your body on a cellular level. The change it affects on your body makes you physically as well as mentally tired, and it makes you more and more unable to cope with stress. So, the more stressed and overwhelmed you feel….. the more stress and overwhelm you will feel!

And if stress is not good for you, a stressed leader is certainly not good for your business!

So it is more than worthwhile for all small business owners to organise their affairs and workflows to reduce stress and overwhelm.

The first thing to do when you feel overwhelmed is to get to feel like you are back under control and to reclaim some of your lost energy.

If you can (without it creating more stress) take some time off, even if only for a few hours one day or the next long weekend.

But don’t make the mistake of being “busy” when you take time off. Don’t “think about the future” or “get organised”.

Just take time off!

Clear your mind, go on a picnic with your family, or watch a movie, rest your mind and catch up on sleep.

If you can, check out some methods to focus on the moment (and not what you have to do next). You can do some mindfulness exercises or practice just being in the moment. You can try meditating using apps like MyLife, Mindfulness or Headspace.

The goal is not to be a Zen Monk but to gather your thoughts when you need to, to create a time in your day when you can separate yourself and take stock, and to regain control of your thinking overload.

Next, reduce some of the current incessant demands for your attention.



Switch off your devices for a short time each day. Turn off the email notices and choose set times each day when you will intentionally go into your email app and check email.

Turn these devices and apps into servants rather than masters.

Then, with some of this “off” time you have created, do some exercise.

Don’t run a marathon, just get some fresh air on a walk for 20 or 30 minutes. Breath!

A healthy body really helps with a quieter mind. Your physical strengths will be a help when you feel overwhelmed just simply because you won’t feel as tired and instead you will feel better able to deal with situations.

Okay, now let’s tackle the sources of overwhelm.

In a survey by American company The Alternative Board, they found that a major source of stress was how “time-grabs” affected people’s productivity.

They found that the top three time-grabs were poor time-management, technology distractions, and poor communication.

Let’s deal with each of these time-grabs.

To take some simple steps to take control of your time-management:-

  • Religiously use a diary or scheduler. Do not let people “just pop in” or say yes when they ask “have you got a minute?” If you let this or similar things happen, you are making their time more important than yours! When people ask for time with you, make the appointment at a time that suits you!
  • Schedule time with yourself in your diary or scheduler. Set up three times a day when you will read and respond to email. Ignore email until then. Schedule time you need to work on something, don’t try to “fit it in”.
  • Include a fudge factor in your scheduling. You know how your doctor’s appointments are always running late but your dentist’s appointments are on time? Believe it or not, Dentists tend to leave 15 minutes between appointments, doctors none.
  • Use a system of deciding if something is urgent or important and prioritise your tasks in that way.

Start with these simple steps, then you can search for “time-management” to find other articles that can give you tips that may be appropriate for you to instil a long-term time-management discipline.

You should have started to control technology distractions by following my advice above and switching off devices at set times and turning off notifications for email. Here are a few other things you can do to manage technology:

  • Learn to use your email app better. For example, in Outlook and in Google Mail, you can set up inbox folders and set “rules” for how incoming mail is handled. For example, you can set up reading material to automatically go to a “Reading” folder so you can catch up with reading material later.
  • Choose one method of text messaging and switch off other options after you have told your contacts. If you receive messages from SMS text, Facebook Messenger, Tik Tok, Instagram and WeChat you are really setting yourself up to be overwhelmed.
  • Set other people’s expectations by never responding to email or messages outside of work hours. If you respond whenever you receive a message, at whatever time of the day, you are on a slippery slope!
  • Do not take your phone to the bedroom!

The “poor communication” cited in the survey referred to misunderstanding or being confused about instructions and what was required. Imagine the time-grab if you asked someone to do something and they misunderstood you and did something else. Your time would be wasted in issuing new instructions, checking their work, and reviewing the second attempt. Their time is wasted because they did something totally unnecessary.

Try a few of these things:

  • Develop relationships so that you understand each other in different situations and how each of you may communicate differently. Some people need a verbal medium, others prefer graphic means.
  • Listen. Often, we are so busy thinking about what we want we don’t listen to clues showing someone needs help. Sometimes we are thinking about what we want to say next and over-riding what we hear.
  • When you ask for something, explain why you are asking and why you need it. Understanding the necessity and the desired outcome will clarify the end-result for the person tasked.
  • Avoid making quick assumptions. If someone consistently gets things wrong, don’t immediately assume they’re unintelligent or are a slacker. There could be other issues at play.
  • Follow up requests, and stay consistent with your expectations during the task. Some people leave the check-in until that task is finished, when it may be too late to correct any misunderstanding, and when they see it’s not going well, change the requested outcome to confuse even further.

Finally, make sure that your work-flow processes are working efficiently.

Implement simple procedures manuals on how simple things get done, so that everyone can refer to them to see what the step-by-step process is. Train people on their tasks and train them on how to use the procedures manuals in doing their tasks.

I have already written about how systems and procedures can build you a better life so I won’t go into it here. Just know that systems and procedures create efficiency, predictability and consistency. They scale the tasks and make them capable of being delegated. They allow people to “fill in” for others easily.

A well-implemented systems and procedures manual will reduce stress significantly because more and more, people will know what to do and can take over some responsibility, reducing your own.

“Small business owner” may be synonymous with a stressful occupation, but it does not need to be.

Take the steps and get under control.

Organising the growth of your business in a planned and clear way is the best way of reducing overwhelm, especially if this allows you to make all of your decisions against a well-defined strategic direction. If you know the road on which you travel, any decision about how to travel to your end destination becomes clear and easy to decide. So go to teikoh.com and find out more free tools and processes to get organised, how to plan for your growth, and how to implement procedures that will make that growth efficient and productive.




Cover image by Sebastian Herrman on Unsplash

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