9 Questions Great Leaders Ask Themselves When Overwhelmed or Unfocused
I have a never-ending impulse to procrastinate, nap, and otherwise fritter away my days with trivialities. If I have ten important things to do in a day, it’s nearly guaranteed nothing important will get done that day. My focus it pulled in too many directions. The weight of having so much on my plate feels overwhelming. Those two things — lack of focus and a feeling of being overwhelmed — are killers when it comes to being efficient and productive.
As a means to squaring my to-do list with my penchant for procrastination, I’ve begun asking myself two questions about each thing I need to do:
- “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”
- “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
These questions are vital to how I prioritize my life, focus my energy, and ultimately accomplish important tasks. But the reality, there are people out there who know much better than I do what questions to ask when you’re feeling overwhelmed and unfocused — leaders, investors, authors and brilliant thinkers who have spent a career (and in some cases a lifetime) honing this skill. Because I craved that knowledge, I reached out to over 100 of these people, folks I consider my Tribe of Mentors, to ask them what they ask themselves in moments when they’re feeling unfocused and overwhelmed.
1. What do you need right now in order to be happy?
When we’re feeling overwhelmed, we tend to take our eye off the ball. And when you take your eye off the ball, you’re going to swing and miss every single time. In other words, if your endgame is happiness then you must remain cognizant of that at all times and be thinking of how you can achieve that goal. Sharon Salzberg, the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and a New York Times bestselling author sums it up like this:
I stop and ask myself, “What do you need right now in order to be happy? Do you need anything other than what is happening right now in order to be happy?” That orients me right away toward what I care about. I also try to remember to breathe. I’ve seen that if I feel overwhelmed, I freeze, and my breath gets quite shallow. “Just breathe” is also something I say to myself if I feel chaotic. Or I shift my attention to feel my feet against the ground. Mostly we tend to think of our consciousness residing up in our heads, behind our eyes. What I’ve learned I have to do is start by gently bringing my energy down, so I’m feeling my feet from my feet. Try it!
2. What would be the worst thing if the outcome doesn’t go the way you want?
Taking into account all of the ways any given scenario could play out is one of the most crucial things to consider. It helps eliminate your blind spots. And envisioning your worst case scenario actually happening is perhaps the most important scenario of all to think through. Graham Duncan, who co-founded East Rock Capital, an investment firm that manages $2 billion for a small number of families and their charitable foundations told me:
I ask myself “what would be the worst thing” about that outcome not going the way I want? I had started using it out loud with my kids, and recently my eight-year-old daughter started asking it back to me. I really like to be punctual. We were late to drop her at school and I was impatient, so she asked me, “Dad, what exactly would be the worst thing about being late?” It completely shifted my mindset in the moment. I like the question because it often surfaces a hidden assumption.
Esther Dyson, an active angel investor, best-selling author, board member, and advisor concentrating on emerging markets and technologies, asks a herself similar, outcome-based question:
[When I’m] overwhelmed: Ask, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Fear of the unknown is generally far worse than fear of something specific. If it’s not the death of yourself or those you are responsible for, there’s probably some reasonable set of options you should consider calmly and thoughtfully.
3. What does this feeling feel like as a bodily sensation, right now?
Leo Babauta is the founder of Zen Habits, a website dedicated to finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. When I asked Leo what he does when he feels overwhelmed I was stunned by how profound yet practical his response was:
I drop into my breath and the sensations I’m feeling in my body. When I feel overwhelmed, I ask myself, “What does this feeling feel like as a bodily sensation, right now?” Not a narrative about my feeling, but actual sensations in my body. I try to stay with those sensations for as long as possible and be curious about and open to them. This works with fear, distraction, procrastination, frustration, and more. Once I’ve meditated on this, I ask myself, “What’s the most loving thing I can do for myself and others right now?” Then I get to it.
4. Are you on track and just frustrated? Or do you need to change tactics?
We all get frustrated on the journey to accomplishing our goals or producing the work we need to produce. But it’s essential to ask: Am I frustrated because the work is tedious? The progress is slow? Or am I frustrated because I’m not heading in the right direction. It’s a crucial distinction to understand. As Strauss Zelnick, who founded Zelnick Media Group (ZMC) in 2001, which specializes in private equity investments in the media and communications industries told me, this is the question he asks himself in moments of uncertainty, confusion, and frustration:
I try to take a break and not be too hard on myself…I’ll ask: Am I on the right track and just frustrated at today’s lack of progress, or do I need to reconsider my approach? If that doesn’t yield anything helpful, I’ll pose those questions to close friends I trust and my wife. And if none of that helps, I’ll try to put the thoughts aside for 24 hours. A day later, the smoke usually clears and things make more sense.
5. Is it in your power to make a difference right now?
It’s vital to consider the action you’re capable of taking right now rather than think about your actions ten steps away. Eric Ripert, an Emmy Award winner, bestselling author, and chef recognized as one of the best in the world, told me:
In stressful moments, I try to take distance from the situation, take time to reflect. Whatever the problem, I typically ask myself, “Am I able to make a difference right now?” If I don’t see a clear way to make a positive impact, I reflect further. I think that patience in problem-solving can often be underrated.
6. Are you the best version of yourself right now? And where should your attention be?
Adam Robinson has made a lifelong study of outflanking and outsmarting the competition. He is a rated chess master and has been awarded a Life Master title by the United States Chess Federation. For him, being able to focus is quite literally his livelihood, so I was especially keep to learn what he asks himself when he’s feeling unfocused:
When I am feeling unfocused, the first question I ask myself is, “Am I rehearsing my best self?” And if the answer is no, I ask myself how can I reset. Each day presents us with 86,400 seconds, which means each day presents us with virtually countless opportunities to reset, recover our balance, and continue rehearsing our best selves. If I realize my focus is off, and certainly when I’m experiencing any negative emotions, I ask myself, “Where should my attention be right now?”
Almost always, the answer is “my mission,” which is like a beacon that always beckons. But sometimes I take on too many commitments. Because I sometimes have trouble saying no to others eager to work with me, I can become overcommitted and overwhelmed.
When that happens, rather than attempting to do everything badly, I ask myself, “What activity or commitment can I cut out right now that will free up the most time?” It reminds me of this news story I read ages ago about a small European town (I won’t say what country, lest I offend it unnecessarily) in which the postal workers had trouble keeping up with their deliveries.
7. Will worrying help you?
Too often, I worry about what I need to get done. And it’s a vicious cycle — once I start worrying, I then worry that my worry is distracting me from what I should be doing. I’m sure you can relate. But worrying is, often times, completely irrational and counterproductive. It just doesn’t help any situation to worry. As Andrew Ross Sorkin, a financial columnist for The New York Times and the founder and editor-at-large of DealBook, explained to me:
Whenever I’m feeling like I need to prioritize what I’m doing or overthinking a particular situation that is making me anxious, I try to remember this great exchange in the film Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer, asks his client, who is being accused of being a spy, “Aren’t you worried?” His answer: “Would it help?” I always think, “Would it help?” That is the pivotal question that I ask myself every day. If you put everything through that prism, it is a remarkably e ective way to cut through the clutter.
8. What is your ultimate destination?
This is a close cousin to asking yourself what you need to be happy. When you keep your ultimate destination in mind you have a Northstar, something to always guide you in the right direction. Without it, we’re lost. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, an international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author, shared with me that he asks himself this question when he’s overwhelmed and unfocused:
What did I key into the sat-nav system of my life [where do I want to be 10, 20 years from now]? What is my ultimate destination? You have to look at that every time you feel overwhelmed. Remembering that destination will help you make the single most important distinction in life, which is to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted.
9. Are you sleeping? Eating right? Exercising?
The simple reality is that physical well being massive impacts cognitive ability. If you’re short on sleep or fuel for your body, you’re simply operating at a suboptimal level. Much more difficult to see things clearly and much easier to feel overwhelmed in that state. Dr. Brené Brown, whose 2010 TEDxHouston Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has been viewed more than 36 million times and is one of the top five most viewed TED Talks in the world, told me she asks herself this series of questions (As a bonus, she also asks herself: Am I resentful because I’m not setting or holding a boundary?):
Always these questions:
3. Healthy food?
If you feel the counterproductive and — despite your best efforts — unfocused, remember to ask yourself these questions. Your answers to them will get you back on track, shed some clarity on what you need to do, and ease some of the pressure you’ve placed on yourself.
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