Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This…

feeling overwhelmed

Oh boy do I get it. Trust me.

The #1 reason people burn out in any job is because they’re constantly feeling overwhelmed. It’s the source of so much that’s negative in our day-to-day lives.

And for those of us in the nonprofit sector? The level of intensity and sense of urgency is just different. It’s more.

You know how it goes.

Every email feels urgent…

Everyone has a question that will take “just a second…”

You’ve got a high-maintenance donor who wants something you can’t give her. And somebody you need to apologize to….

Probably both.

In the episode of my podcast called, “A Day in the Life of an Executive Director” my friend Marea Chaveco spoke about having a plan and watching it go to (as my mother would say) “hell in a handbasket” the minute she walked through the door.

Even Marea, who is an AWESOME leader, admitted that even though she walked into work prepared to control her day, often her day controlled her. Talk about feeling overwhelmed! It’s really easy to do.

So today I want to offer you a quick win — three easy things you can do. Right now. Today. This week.

If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, be really proud of yourself if you do 2 out of 3.


I have discipline.

I have discipline.

It was discipline that got you this leadership gig. Without it, you’d have come across as a hot mess in an interview. No one would have said, “He MUST be our new board chair” or “Sign her up as our next ED!”

You prepped for your interview. You prioritized what was important to say. You were impressive.

You still are impressive. So reintroduce yourself to that person and bring her to work with you.

Leave the hot mess version of you at home. That person would never have gotten the job. And that person will not ensure your success.


First, if you’re more of a video person and less of a reader, here’s a Facebook Live I recorded about all of this.

If you follow me on Facebook you can see more of these videos.

1) The Friday Morning Huddle

I suppose this is an oxymoron. A huddle assumes more than one person. Nevertheless, for 30 minutes, every single Friday, even if you are traveling, you need to do this task.

Put this in your calendar as a recurring event. Just you. If you need your email to complete the task, fine. But you may not read or respond to emails.

All you need to do is answer one question:

Next week will be a successful week if I _____________________________.

Create a task list. Keep it to fewer than 10 items. If it’s more than 10, you’re too in the weeds here.

Then, I want you to do whatever is your equivalent of printing it out and carrying it with you. Make it the background on your phone, put a big post-it on your iPad. It must be with you at all times and you must be able to see it.

I am a geek with a white board in my office. I use that for the Huddle list. The white board stares at me every day. Sometimes it feels menacing but mostly it keeps me focused on the things I cannot NOT do next week.

Each subsequent huddle begins with a review of the list.

2) Instill Discipline in Your Staff

If you can do it, so can they. Enough already with the “Do you have a quick sec? Just want to update you on….”

You need something by Thursday close of business from every staff member that reports to you. One short email (like if you were to print it out it would fit on a single page.)

It has four categories.

  1. Key Accomplishments
  2. Priorities for next week
  3. Flags on the Field
  4. What I Need From You Next Week

That’s it. A snapshot. If you are a fan of jargon, call it a dashboard. I prefer “snapshot.”

And guess what? It will help you in your Friday Morning Huddle. Guess what else? It will demand that your staff create their own huddle every Thursday.

3) Month Control

You can’t just plan week to week. You must have the discipline to plan further ahead. I’m not suggesting a daunting 90-day plan (although I do like those a lot). This is easier and will organically lead you to longer term planning.

On the 15th of each month, allocate an hour for a single purpose: to review the month coming up.

It’s like the weekly huddle but it’s about a month and it’s about meetings.

So you look at the month and what is currently booked. What do you need the month to look like? I believe there are certain activities that need to happen every month. This exercise insures that you control the month and not the other way around. And it gives you two weeks before the month begins to make that happen.

What do you need to do every month? Probably something like:

  • Meet with X donors. I would argue that there should be 1-2 stewardship meetings and a few where you make an ask.
  • Meet with Y board members (could be in person or Skype). But it only counts if it is an intentional outreach in which you appreciate him, pick his brain about something, and tell him something you are excited about.
  • Writing / Recap Time. Put a minimum of 15 minutes into the calendar after every meeting with a board member or donor. Get what is in your head into the institution’s brain (Raiser’s Edge maybe?). Write a thank you note that is personal and is better because the meeting or call is fresh in your head.
  • Board Chair Meetings. I encourage no fewer than 2 each month.
  • Prep Time for Board Meetings / Committee Meetings.
  • All Staff Time
  • External Visibility
  • Friday Morning Huddles — if they are not in your calendar they won’t happen. And if they don’t happen, you’ll see it in your calendar and feel bad about it. Guilt can be a great motivator. 🙂

You can do this. You HAVE to do this.

Invite your inner control freak to join you at the office for some of these activities, leave the hot mess at home, and take things one step at a time.

Let me know if they help. Did you try any of them? Are you doing somewhat better now or are you still feeling overwhelmed?

And more importantly, share your tips and tricks below.

All of us (including this white board geek here) benefit from the wisdom of our colleagues.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Jean Gazis

    What does “Flags on the field” mean?

    • Jean. Oh sorry! It’s a football reference. A challenge. An obstacle. Something you are worried could go wrong.

  • Lia O’Donnell

    #2, the Thursday staff quick emailed report, sounds very similar to the format of a standup meeting following Agile (a software development methodology). We’ve adapted the Agile standup meeting format for our weekly staff call as we all work remotely. Each person gets 5 minutes max to report 1. What they’ve accomplished in the past week, 2. What they’re working on in the coming week, 3. Any roadblocks. No questions, no discussion. The call is quick and painless, and since we’ve started it our communication has been 100% better than in the past. I like the idea of “what I need from you” and our team is small enough that we might be able to add that element. But I’m cautious to mess with success!

    • I LOVE stand up meetings btw. Sounds like you have your bases covered!!

  • Julie Harding

    I love this idea, especially the weekly question of, “Next week will be successful if I _____________.” I use Donald Miller’s Storyline productivity schedule every day and I think this is a great question to ask not only weekly, but daily.

    • Tell us more about Donald Miller!! Include a link and share with us! Joan

  • Karleen

    This is so great! Thank you!!

  • Denice Hicks

    Thanks, Joan. The timing of this post was perfect. Just what I needed at this time of our season. I appreciate your generously sharing your wisdom, expertise and sense of humor with all of us. Onward! =Denice (Executive Artistic Director, Nashville Shakespeare Festival)