Ikea nearly pushed me over the edge. I’d dealt with overwhelm as an entrepreneur. But this was a whole new level. And it reminded me of a few key strategies to cope. But first, I’ll tell you the whole story. important strategIt was the hottest day in London, ever. The windows of my new flat were cranked open. Dry heat rolled through the unfurnished spaces in rhythmic waves. I was crouched among stacks of moving boxes and Ikea packaging like a hunted animal. Clients were waiting, the deadline to complete my MBA was looming, and there was no place for me and my teenage daughter to sleep. Or eat, or sit – until I assembled this furniture. Feeling crushed by the thickness of the heatwave and the urgency of all these needs. I knew how to deal with overwhelm as an entrepreneur, but was almost defeated that day. Until I was inspired by the simplicity of Ikea instructions.
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Inspired by Ikea Instructions
It was the hottest day in London, ever. The windows of my new flat were cranked open. Dry heat rolled through the unfurnished spaces in rhythmic waves. I was crouched among stacks of moving boxes and Ikea packaging like a hunted animal. Clients were waiting, the deadline to complete my MBA was looming, and there was no place for me and my teenage daughter to sleep. Or eat. Or sit. Until I assembled this furniture. I felt crushed by the thickness of the heatwave and the urgency of all these needs. I knew how to deal with overwhelm as an entrepreneur, but was almost defeated that day. Until I was inspired by the simplicity of Ikea instructions.
Ikea and Overwhelm
Actually, the overwhelm hit me hard when I was about 4 hours in on putting together a bed frame, when there was nothing about what I had built which remotely suggested a bed frame. In fact, I’ve taken apart and put together many beds – Ikea or otherwise – over the years of moving and raising children. 4 sides, a headboard, a middle bar to support the iconic Ikea bed slats. And though it should have been easy, and this wasn’t. There were 9 more pieces of furniture to put together after this. This was going to take forever, and I had other things to do. The awareness of deadlines and responsibilities was a slow, crushing fog.
Overwhelm as an Entrepreneur
This wasn’t the first time I felt overwhelmed. Running a franchise system and raising children can do that. And it’s well known how often entrepreneurs deal with it. Studies show that entrepreneurs are more at risk for burnout because of our nature, and habits, and the lack of definition between business and personal.
Next, I did some deep breathing, and noticed something. I saw the message of “simplify” in the cartoons of the Ikea instructions. So I decided to trust the process of assembly. And to be present with every step, on every page. I resolved to stop skipping ahead to compare where I was, with what the end result is supposed to be. Also, to stop watching the clock and judging where I was at. My intention was to just take one cam lock, screw, dowel, and pin at a time.
This acceptance felt like a release. I put on some podcasts, and got back to work. I knew that each step would eventually lead me to the end. Just as individual drops of rain will eventually fill a barrel, and the movement of one rock against another can create a hole. Eventually, I finished assembling 9 pieces of furniture.
5 strategies to cope with overwhelm
Overwhelm as an entrepreneur is not just about a deadline or transition or change. The feelings of overwhelm may not be linked to a specific event or circumstance. There may not be an obvious, identifiable way to know the cause, or the solution. Entrepreneurship is not like baking. There is no clear recipe to follow. Based on my many years of lived experience running a business, here are strategies to deal with overwhelm as an entrepreneur.
1. Have systems
Our bodies have many systems – circulatory, digestive, and so on. Being an entrepreneur also involves many systems. Your business needs systems and processes for marketing, customer service, managing staff, finances. If those systems are not well designed and up to date, overwhelm is inevitable.
Therefore, have systems for you, as an individual. Systems to manage your time and communication. Do you use a planner? How do you keep track of meetings, appointments, and deadlines? Keeping it all in your head overwhelms the brain. If you don’t have systems, or what you have is no longer working, then take the time to get it sorted. Streamline email, calendars, and task lists. Explore technology to see what fits your working style and is appealing.
Also, consider adding journaling to be part of your support system. Read this article for tips on how to use a journal strategically.
2. Have habits
Habits have a huge influence on your ability to manage overwhelm as an entrepreneur. Clearly, a framework of systems is useless without the habits to use them regularly. Similarly, it’s not enough to buy a treadmill – it has to be used regularly to get results. Just as going to the gym once is not enough for you to reach your goal of running a marathon, doing just one task is not enough to reach your business goals. Like those drops of rain filling a bucket, it’s the habitual repetition of actions and behaviours which add up to something.
Most of us have the technology available on our phones and laptops to keep track of schedules, and appointments. The systems are there for us to use. However, if you have systems in place but are not using them regularly, then explore ways to develop that habit. As humans we tend to overcomplicate things, but this can be really quite simple. For example, during a recent accountability session with a client, they mentioned they keep forgetting to do a certain thing in the evenings. I suggested using their phone to set an alarm, which is simple and effective.
3. Have priorities
Next, get clear about about your priorities. Because if everything is a priority, how to decide what to do first? The potential of each day is limited by time and energy. It simply can’t all be done at once, or at the same time. So, connect to goals and identify what actions are required to meet them. Also, know what is really important to you. And then recognize what you can let go of, or reschedule, or give to someone else.
Delegate to deal with overwhelm
For example, in working on my strategic case study to complete my MBA, I had a concept for how to present a chunk of my research. The data was important but not worth using up precious word-count, so I wanted a time graph chart which would present the information. I mucked about with different software options trying to get this thing to look the way I wanted. After a full day of working on it and producing nothing better than a hot mess, I decided my priority was to finish the paper, not learn new software. I hired a VA person who had the software skills to take my data and create the graph I wanted. That story is actually the perfect lead to my next 2 strategies for how to deal with overwhelm.
4. It’s ok to change your mind
Really. It’s ok. Even if you announced it to your family or your staff. It’s ok. You can move a project to another quarter, or another year. You can decide something isn’t working like you expected, and be willing to reevaluate it. Creativity and flexibility are traits of entrepreneurship. Keeping your priorities in mind, be willing to make changes.
At the end of Day 1 of Ikea furniture assembly, I had zero furniture assembled. So that’s what I did. I took a deep breath and knew my priority was for us to have beds. The one I’d been working on for hours still looked more like an abstract art project than a structure to hold a mattress. It may have been the heatwave warping the wood, but I could not get 2 of the sides together. So I changed my mind. I ordered a different model, and arranged to return the lopsided art piece. That new bed was put together in a couple of hours and saved me a load of time and energy.
5. It’s ok to ask for help
After all, who said we have to do it all alone? Humans are pack animals. We’ve been cooperating in groups for thousands of years. It’s ok to ask for help. I made a list of what needed assembly, then did a little Youtube research for instructions. Next, I checked in with my priorities. After balancing out what item we needed first (beds!) and what was the easiest to put together, I made some decisions. I focused my energy on the stuff I could easily do, and then hired someone to assemble the sofa. After all, the value exchange made sense. Because that decision saved me at least 9 hours of assembly time and energy. And it felt good to support a self-employed local with experience putting together that exact sofa model. I used a company founded by a savvy woman entrepreneur, who later sold her business to Ikea. Love these full circle moments!
Best 3 books to learn how to deal with overwhelm
The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People This 1989 book by Stephen R. Covey was my first introduction to the structure of weekly planning. It breaks down the circle of concern and the circle of influence, which links back to my earlier tip of identifying priorities. “Start with the end in mind” is one of my favourite quotes from this book.
Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out For a deep dive into the ways we get in our own way, read this book by naturopathic Physician Dr Samantha Brody. She is very real about the pressures and expectations imposed by society and social media. “You can’t fail at self-care” is solid advice for anyone feeling burdened by perfectionism.
Atomic Habits If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things you feel you must start doing, or stop doing, then this book is for you. This connects to my awareness that with each turn of each bolt, I was moving towards the end goal of having assembled furniture. As author James Clear says, all big things come from small beginnings.
Obviously, there is no one answer for each person, or each situation. And explained above, entrepreneurship is not like baking. There is no tried and true recipe which can be followed by everyone and get the same results. And there is no one answer to help you manage overwhelm as an entrepreneur. You are an individual. Therefore, experiment with strategies and ideas to see what works for you. Finally, be ok with something new feeling uncomfortable. Don’t abandon it without giving it a real chance. Remain curious, and explore the why behind the why something didn’t work for you.