Overwhelmed With Work? Congratulations, You May Be On the Way to a Breakthrough
Updated: Jul 25
If you're reading this, you're likely a knowledge worker who has an impossible number of projects you're juggling, and an infinite number of other projects and ideas you could pursue.
I feel your pain. My calendar this week includes scheduled time for: researching business acquisition prospects for a client, recruiting a direct sales team for another client, and finding a manufacturing partner for yet another client—plus another 4 or 5 similarly complex initiatives. For any one of these I could use full days of focus, but of course my week is also interrupted with more than 15 hours of scheduled and requested meeting time.
Then there are the dozens of other idea fragments and initiatives that reside on the "back burners" or long-term issues lists of my various clients' Operations Documents, bouncing around in my brain or hanging inside of incomplete conversations with friends or colleagues: "Let's schedule some time to vet that idea!"
Needless to say, I don't feel as if I'm performing at my best on any of my commitments.
Working Hard on “Ill-Defined Problems”
To complicate things further, projects like mine and yours are what cognitive researchers describe as "ill-defined problems." Many of the problems we face we've never encountered before. They have unknown variables and non-specific, “directional” outcomes, with a propensity to change over time as new knowledge is uncovered.
It's partly for this reason that we are so poor at estimating how long a project will take, overestimating our own capabilities as well as the payoff for any given effort. This phenomenon was first observed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky as the planning fallacy.
Just yesterday, I commented to a colleague that I feel a "mile wide and an inch deep." I wondered if my various teams and I would be better off choosing one project, canceling all non-related meetings for two days, "knocking it out," and then repeating. In other words, time blocking my calendar in a more extreme fashion over the next several months.
As tempting as that sounds, I'm also convinced that it would be a complete failure. While blocking time on a calendar and turning off distractions is important, there are limits to how much deep, focused work is possible in a given day.
Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.
I've noticed that if I schedule more than 2 hours of work for any given complex project, the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear, making additional time invested mostly wasted. When I hit a creative block, my brain keeps returning to the same patterns of answers that aren't moving me forward. That's when I know that it’s time to set that project aside for the day and move on. At that moment, taking attention away from the project is the most productive next step.
Our brains work best when we focus deeply for a period of time, then defocus, and return later to the same task. The defocusing period allows our minds to integrate the work we've done and, importantly, build underlying connections to the rest of our experience, past and present.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, wrote a blog post on this topic in 2009: Focus hard. In reasonable bursts. One day at a time. In the article, Dr. Newport describes how he was able to write his doctoral dissertation in normal, 8 to 8.5 hour workdays. For most people, writing a doctoral dissertation involves 12 or even 14-hour workdays, sustained over many months.
“You have to apply hard focus, almost every day, over a long period of time. To me, this is the definition of what I call hard work. The important point, however, is that the regular blocks of hard focus that comprise hard work do not have to be excessively long. That is, there’s nothing painful or unsustainable about hard work.” - Dr. Cal Newport
In other words, Dr. Newport recognizes the law of diminishing returns of his own focus, whereas most of his peers do not.
Connecting The Dots In Reverse
I also have a theory (ill-defined at this point) that any single person's projects and initiatives, no matter how seemingly disparate on the surface, can have an underlying coherence and synergy to them, brought together by that person's unique personality. As long as we are deeply interested in our projects and serving others, working on many things to the edge of—but not succumbing to—overwhelm sets us up for creative breakthroughs.
Steve Jobs famously described this phenomenon in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University as "connecting the dots" in reverse. The projects life throws our way are all over the map...sometimes, they even seem to be at odds with our own interests.
Adding insult to injury, business partners break their promises to us, spouses divorce, and illnesses strike. But with time, even in the face of failure and heartbreak, the "dots" coalesce into something more interesting than we ever could have planned. Somehow, if we just keep saying "yes" and doing our best, life brings us unforeseen, surprising, and rewarding opportunities.
Working On Many Disparate Things Enhances Creativity and Mastery
Regardless of the long-term rewards, it's in the short-term that we experience the frustration of juggling too many disconnected things. Yet the science of learning reveals that working on many disparate activities not only enhances creativity, but also mastery of subject matter. Nobel laureates, for example, are much more likely to be polymaths compared to their peers, pursuing multiple interests outside of their primary discipline throughout their lifetimes.
This form of learning, known as interleaving, involves working in many areas at the same time, instead of sequentially "diving deep" into a single topic before moving onto the next. Even though we feel more confident learning in blocks, interleaving has been shown in multiple studies to be the superior learning strategy over the long run, even though it's frustrating and initially slower.
In other words, short-term frustration—or overwhelm—leads to long-term creative breakthroughs and, potentially, to your own "connecting the dots" moment.
Looking back at my own project list, perhaps feeling “a mile wide” is exactly what I need for my next breakthrough.