Handling the Overwhelm: sorting your chaos to get unstuck

Mo Fox Wicked Octopus Buckets Illustration

Well I asked a bunch of you what you wanted to know more about and, apart from the usual existential selection (finding career fulfilment, love, and obedient offspring), the most popular questions are looking for guidelines on running difficult sessions, handling obdurately complex thinkers in a patently wicked space, and recommendations re which are the simplest, easiest and most popular tools and frameworks you can use. So I’ll start with the tools and frameworks, then codify the other two and publish them later.

Somewhere in your life you are dealing with some wicked, messy problems.

Somewhere in your life you are dealing with some wicked, messy problems. Problems where you’re not really sure what’s going on, where everything keeps changing, where there are different people with different agendas or assumptions about how things work and what’s important. Where the phrases “Why can’t they just …” and “Why does this have to be so bloody hard …” reverberate through your brain in an echo chamber of frustration.

These messy problems could be anything. From getting a client to accept the advice they asked you for, trying to make progress while conflicting sets of legislators play ping pong with your strategy and budgets, motivating an under-resourced team, organising Christmas for the extended family or “just” getting your kids to do a bit of study, close the fridge door and clean up their floordrobe. Being reasonable and logical hasn’t worked, and you now know if you want to get anywhere, you have to get creative.

But where do you start? How do you fix something when every strand of this tangled ball of wool ends in a knot of other people’s arbitrariness or conflicts of interest? When you’re spinning in circles feeling the life force drain from your very marrow?

Cue overwhelm. And an all too familiar sense of helplessness and frustration. Which is a huge problem because despite what Hollywood would have you believe, overwhelm and stress do not prompt the everyman to get in touch with their inner hero and become preternaturally ingenious. They do the opposite, shutting us down and making us tight as we try to “get the situation under control”, and thus making doing or thinking in a new way nigh on impossible.

So before we can get creative — as we must to get functional in this space — we have to deal with the overwhelm.

Which is why this incredibly simple tool is so popular. It’s fast. It’s easy to use. And it works.

I call it the Serenity Buckets, after the prayer I was taught at school:

Lord grant me the patience to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the wisdom we’re after.

Process

This tool is about being accurate, rather than precise or “right”. Whatever’s on your mind is enough, and if it changes, you can do new  version. It can be done in a group, pairs or solo and can take 5 minutes to as long as you like. Allow 20 minutes to start, plus some time for reflection at the end.
This is best done with sticky notes, though a plain sheet of paper or whiteboard with coloured markers or highlighters works fine too.

Step 1:  Brain-dump

Think of your problem space. Look over the whole territory with your mind’s eye and see all the elements — causes, effects, blocks, mandatories, logistics, emotions, relationships etc. Anything that might be relevant. Now, without analysing any of it, write each element down on a separate sticky note (the usual 3-5 word point per note, no single word concepts).  If you’re working on a page or board, try scattering them randomly over the space — avoid listing. You want to break up any automatic associations.

Do not even think of categorising them at this stage. It’s inefficient (getting your brain to do opposite things at once) and you’ll get a worse result. Just do a random dump.

Go for quantity. You want at least 15. Give yourself 5 minutes or more as needed, but avoid over-thinking.

If you get stuck, ask questions like:

  • What aspects frustrate me the most?
  • Which aspects do I enjoy the most?
  • Which do I and other people think are important?
  • What are other people’s behaviours and points of view?
  • How would I know if things were on track?
  • Have I considered time, space, money, connections, expectations, history… ?

Break down any of the big pieces into smaller elements.

Some of these will be objective facts, some subjective perceptions, or beliefs and emotional responses. All are useful.

Let’s look at an example.

For your sins, your brief is to organise the most successful Christmas party the company has ever had. Sounds straight-forward when you think of it as a logistics exercise — just sort out date, venue, invites, booze, comestibles and entertainment and you’re done, right?

But the brief says it has to be the most successful party ever, which means that everyone has to love it. Which, given the wide range of ages and interests in the company, the number of remote staff who already feel neglected, the current low morale due to recent layoffs and salary freeze, and of course the fact that it’s just been made clear that your continued employment is riding on it, somewhat complicates things. Add to that that the chairman wants a family picnic, the COO (who owns the budget) is recently and evangelically tea-total, the account managers are determined to par-tay with live music, the entire marketing department wants a themed posh dinner and IT is threatening to boycott if there is a theme, and your task gets more challenging by the second.

Doing a brain dump of all the logistical issues as well as personal, cultural and political issues will yield quite a pile.

Step 2: Bring on the Buckets

Once you’ve dumped them,  you can start sorting. .

You need three piles or buckets.

  1. Pile One (left hand side): Aspects that are largely under your control. (eg. catering for allergies, when the invitations go out)
  2. Pile Two (right hand side): Aspects that are essentially out of your control. (eg. Top 3 venue picks are fully booked, the range of ages you have to cater for, the lack of pay rises and the recent redundancies, the fact that last year’s party sucked)
  3. Middle Pile: Aspects you might be able to influence in some way. (eg. Themed or not, choice of music, size of budget, how you involve people in the organisation and design of the event, how you get yourself out of this mess and so on. This is likely to be your largest pile.)

If using page or board, select different colours for each bucket and circle or highlight individual elements accordingly.

Move the pieces around and really challenge yourself. If you are doing this as a group you’ll find there are often heated disagreements about which pieces go in which bucket. For example, you might be able to make a unilateral decision about having a rap band at the Christmas party (technically can control it) but it might not get you the outcome you want (half the staff hating it does not spell epic success) so your best course is to try influencing. And while you can’t control whether the COO is evangelically tea-total, you can influence his opinions on whether the party should be dry too.

The most common realisations I see come when people shift from an all-or-nothing extreme (“I’m responsible for all of it”, or “I can do nothing about any of it”) to something in the malleable middle. Both extremes keep you stuck, especially if the situation is ambiguous. Realising something that has been causing you huge stress (eg. future legislation, another person’s behaviour) is essentially out of your control allows you to let it go, and to focus on things you can influence. Going from feeling helpless to realising there are some things you do have some influence over is similarly powerful. And when you realise you can’t, for example, control someone else’s actions or attitude but you can influence them, you change your approach. You stop trying to “fix” it, and start trying to move it instead.

You stop trying to “fix” it, and start trying to move it instead.

Step 3: Find a Way In — then come up with a plan

So what do you do with these piles?

  1. Pile 1(Can Control): JFDI — you have yourself an instant action list. Get on with it.
  2. Pile 2 (Can’t Control): Keep an eye on it. Mitigate and Reframe where you can. (eg. You may not be able to get the chairman’s  approval, but what if you made that unnecessary?) Then let it go and stop wasting energy worrying about it.
  3. Middle Pile (Can Influence): Decide what you can test (and how), and what you need to explore further. What might be your first step with some of these? If it’s a wicked space, the bulk of your efforts will be on this bucket, because nearly everything you’ll be doing will be about managing stakeholder expectations. This in turn means your first steps are likely to involve a pile of conversations with the people you need to influence. Not to get their “buy-in”, but to understand their point of view, and engage them in coming up with a way forward.

The objective here is movement. The wicked elements of messy problems tend to contaminate the rest, leaving us stuck. Movement un-sticks us. So go for the simple easy wins first. Whilst you can’t always tell at the beginning of the process how they will change the problem landscape, they can possibly open up new opportunities and understandings. Then start tackling the more involved aspects as you gain momentum.

Step 4: Review and Reflect

How do you feel about the problem now? Has your perspective and understanding of the problem space and your role in it changed?

While it’s tempting to charge straight into action, it is worth pausing here to take stock. Particularly if this is a gnarly personal issue. Remember it’s wicked, so the main question is always “What does this mean?” What does this mean in terms of your assumptions and beliefs? Your choices? Your relationships? What have you learned? What else has changed as a result? What will you do differently?

The more significant the issue, the more important it is to come back to this reflection and check in on yourself over the next few weeks, particularly as you take some of the steps you’ve identified.step 5: Repeat as necessary for pragmatic reality check

You’ll find things shift between  buckets and that new elements emerge as you take action. Something that was out of your control might be more susceptible to influence or might split up so that part of it is testable. It’s a fluid space and you have to surf it. The most important thing is to create movement. To get unstuck. It’s much easier to cross four lanes of traffic to make a right-hand turn if you’re already driving in the traffic rather than trying to execute that move from a standing start.

Movement and momentum, directed by awareness allows you to course-correct as you go.

And of course, this helps deal  with the overwhelm too. Just the step of identifying and absolving yourself from feeling you’re responsible for things that are out of your control (even if that’s nearly all of the elements), and then recognising the areas where you can do something is often enough to change people’s energy from despondent and stressed to excited and energised. Or, at the very least, to being functional and cautiously optimistic.

I have seen this exercise totally change people’s approach to their problem. They stopped thinking they were failing at their job and found a way to reframe what they were trying to achieve, or shifted how they related to their family or colleagues, or how they turned around a messy project or living situation. And one managed to keep her job and even get promoted by organising the best christmas party ever, against all odds.

So. Feeling overwhelmed? Got a messy wicked problem on your plate? Try the serenity buckets. I’d love to hear how you go.

2 Comments

  • Rick strukeli
    Just what I need right now. I'll give it a go and let you know how I get on.

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