by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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“I am just overwhelmed. Nothing seems to be going right. I feel like everything in my life is a struggle. My car wouldn’t start the other morning and the bill is huge to fix it. My son is struggling in school and I have to meet with his teacher. My house is a mess and I don’t have time to clean it. I haven’t worked out in weeks and am feeling less healthy by the day. A group of parents at my school are rallying against my recent decision on Math classes. My teachers took over our last staff meeting with complaints about our school and me. It seems everybody on Facebook is having fun and taking vacations while I don’t have time for anything. I am working hard. I am getting in early and staying late. I feel like I work every day, every night, and every weekend. I am always behind. I can’t catch up. I feel like nothing is going right in my life. I am just overwhelmed.” This was the opening statement in a recent coaching session from one of the principals who I have been coaching. It is not surprising to have one of my coachees, especially after we have developed an effective coaching relationship, to open up and share what’s going on in his or her life. But this was more than just the basic school- or job-related issues that many share with me – this was heartfelt, this was someone overwhelmed by society, this was stress.
Stress has become an all too familiar part of our lives and we tend to get overwhelmed very quickly, through a pattern of getting hit with a first wave of bad luck or a bad situation (in her case the broken down car), then we notice that more and more waves (many that are small but feel massive) seem to continue to knock at us until we are on the ocean floor surrounded by water, fighting to get to the surface. Suddenly we have this feeling that everything both professionally and personally is going against us. As I listened to her talk about the issues she was facing, I recognized that she was allowing everything to spin out of control because she was not compartmentalizing. As in the picture above, just because one bin in your life is a mess it does not mean the rest of the bins are a mess as well, but our mind tells us this is the case.
So I asked her to do an exercise with me. We took a single sheet of paper and drew 3 lines from top to bottom and 5 lines from side to side to create a set of 24 boxes. In each box, I asked her to write down an issue that she was currently facing that was causing her to feel completely overwhelmed. She filled up about 14 boxes very quickly, but then had to think hard before filling in 6 more boxes. She left 4 boxes open because she couldn’t think of any more issues. We used 4 different colored markers to put an x in each box based off of how difficult the issue was. Red x’s meant this was a life or death type of issue. Blue x’s were for very difficult issues that either would take a long time or a lot of money to fix. Black x’s were for somewhat difficult issues that could be solved with some time or some money. Green x’s were for issues that weren’t really a big deal or could be solved very quickly. After completing this, I noticed that she had 1 red (e.g. health), 4 blues (e.g., broken car), 5 blacks (e.g., son struggling in school), and 10 greens (e.g. finding time to relax). For the 4 remaining empty boxes, I had her draw a symbol that makes her smile, which she drew a sun with a smiley face and sunglasses in each.
I then started to talk her through her Compartmentalized Issue Chart. I said, “Wow, the way you started out, I thought I would need to get about 10 pages of boxes to fill out your chart.” She laughed, which meant we had made an initial step. “You only have 20 issues to deal with right now, that doesn’t sound like everything is going wrong in your life,” I continued, “in fact, there are 10 issues here that you noted aren’t even that big of an issue, so really we are looking at 10 issues that are causing you to feel overwhelmed.” She replied, “Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, it isn’t much. But it is all just so…” I put my hand up before she could finish, “Wait a minute, let’s not go there. I mean you couldn’t even fill out the entire sheet. Look at the smiley suns with sunglasses.” She smiled again, another note that we were making progress.
We then made a list of 10 things she could do right away to turn the 10 green x’s into 10 more suns. Then we selected the most important x in each of the red, blue, and black categories and place a checkmark next to it in yellow (the same color as the suns). Then we talked through one strategy for each of these 3 that she could take moving forward, not to turn it into a sun, but rather to move it down 1 color of less significance. For example, for the 1 red x, the broken car, we devised a plan to have her borrow a car from her parents (something she did not want to have to do, but we talked about how giving in in one area could reduce her stress seriously overall). We did the same for the blue and black key x. As she left the coaching session, she now had a set of 10 immediate, quick things she could do to turn her green x’s into suns, and 3 strategies for beginning to address her red, blue, and black x’s.
What is amazing is that while I was there to coach her on being a better educational leader, we had realized that the issues she was facing in her personal life had begun to seep into her professional life and vice versa. She had talked about being so upset and overwhelmed about her car, health, and son, that she had missed the warning signs that her staff and school parents weren’t happy. She was drowning in her inability to compartmentalize. This simple and fun exercise didn’t solve every problem and did not instantly take away the overwhelming feeling. That takes time. But what it did do was allow her to break down the overwhelming feeling into compartments and then take each one of these and address them. It is something we should all be thinking about in this current era of feeling overwhelmed and pressured. By compartmentalizing we are able to recognize that not everything is going badly, and that some of the issues we face aren’t really that big and can be quickly dealt with. When we compartmentalize, we are able to recognize that just because one bin is a mess, it doesn’t automatically mean the rest of the bins are a mess as well.