Handling the Crush

The typical strains associated with the run up to Christmas highlight what can happen when one gets overloaded. The challenge is – how best to handle it?

Let’s look at the causes that tend to exacerbate the pre Christmas crush:

•    There’s what I call “clear the decks mentally” whereby, everyone’s trying to get everything done and up to date before the break. This tends to happen before any holiday – it’s just in the case of Christmas the impact is multiplied as the vast majority are all heading off at the same time

•    The Year End factor encourages businesses to strive extra hard to hit the December targets for sales and profits in order to hit their annual goals

•    Then there’s the cumulative impact of all the extra activities associated with Christmas – parties (at work and home, and the impact of any associated hangovers…) and the extra domestic duties, to name but two

All these are not helped by other seasonal factors such as the hassle of coping with bad weather that’s particularly pertinent this year.

The consequences usually amount to frantic scrabbling about to get everything completed – so how best to cope?

I work on three simple steps which sound obvious but I find can take focus to put into practice when the heat is on:

1)    Keep calm. A mind that’s full of issues spinning round is much less effective than a focused one – compounding the overload problem. From the aviation sector, there’s a great example from Captain “Sully” Sullenberger* (who successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River). Once he’d lost all engine power he said the thing he did that day that made all the difference was that “I forced calm on myself ”.

Deep breathing, meditation, T’ai Chi or similar practices are all things that you can do to develop your ability to switch on a calm state at will.

2)    Ruthless prioritisation. My personal tip is to do a brain dump of all the tasks and issues onto paper, ideally sleep on it, and then cull the list with a straight forward question “Would the world stop if I didn’t do this?” Learning from the aviation sector again, I recently had the opportunity to hear the former fighter pilot Justin Hughes talk about handling information overload. In the world of fast jets the priorities are “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”

In other words, fly the plan, know where you are and let others know where you are. In the business world that could translate into items such as manage cash, serve existing customers and respond to prospects. You could develop whatever is best for your business. The point is by having a framework, you’ll find it much easier to prioritise a long list of seemingly pressing issues.

3)    Focus on solving problems. In a case where the overload is coming from unplanned events, it’s easy to get sucked into a blame game about why things have gone off track. It could be you’re even blaming yourself. The fact is that that behaviour doesn’t resolve anything so focus on what will! Once the problem is fixed, it’s highly valuable to go back and understand any learning points and things to do better next time.

One phrase always stuck with me from early in my training as a Mechanical Engineer.  Having made a mistake by over machining a part and having to scrap and remake it, the tutor said “the guy who never made a mistake never made anything.” In short, stuff happens so best to crack on with what you can do.

These tips are not just for Christmas! Use them whenever you need to, or even better, make them part of your operating principles to increase your performance every day. May you have a calm Christmas and productive New Year!

*   Interview with Captain Sullenberger in “Toastmaster” magazine,  December 2010