Life Coaching

How to cope when the enormity of a project overwhelms you

Susan (a pseudonym) had been assigned to produce an elaborate manual for a new venture that her company was embarking upon. She came to me all flustered and panicky, although she had been excited by the challenge and the longed-for chance to ‘stretch her grey matter’ as she put it. However, the enormity of the project and the ‘how’s and ‘what’s felt overwhelming to her.

A good starting block in times like these is to relax, breathe deeply and know that you can do it. Would Susan’s boss have asked her to do the manual if he doubted her capability? A brisk jog can help to dissipate pent-up flusters.

Once calm has returned, or at least a semblance of it, accept that the venture is new and therefore represents unfamiliar territory where you definitely will feel foreign at first. Much like visiting a new country – you don’t know where you are but it’s exciting and interesting finding places. And before you choose and visit a country you do your research so you have an idea of what to look for, and in Susan’s case, the context and purpose of the manual.

Then it’s time to play. This is the phase where critics and judges are banned. Throw ideas around, no matter how bizarre or incongruent they may seem to appear. It’s playtime don’t forget; anything is allowed. Brainstorm with colleagues or talk it out aloud with your dog and keep a jotter or recorder close at hand. Have fun.

Quite a few novel ideas came up during Susan’s play time, but she still wasn’t sure how to combine them. Time for the large piece of paper or white board. Use different coloured pens and see how many ways you can link the ideas and what order of priority they deserve. With the main intention established, you’ll soon be able to decide on what to keep and what to discard. For Susan, this led into a rough structure for her manual which she remodelled and tweaked until she was satisfied.

With a structure in place, Susan was able to draw up a schedule comprising each little step of the process. Martha Beck advises filling in the end of the schedule first – in other words writing down the end product and its date. Then work backwards and fill in each step. It’s important to do a detailed breakdown so that every little step seems easily manageable to accomplish. For example, one of Susan’s steps was buying new software for her computer. The successful completion of each step adds impetus to your drive to continue.

Not every stage of the process is as enjoyable as others, so when you hit a particularly tedious one, include a little treat for yourself at its completion – anything from your favourite chocolate to maybe a round of golf.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of something that has to be done, remember that you cannot eat a whole big cake in one go, so just focus on one digestible slice at a time.