How to avoid overwhelm and stay focused



An increasing concern for many of us in small business is the feeling of overwhelm. It’s impossible to concentrate on our priorities, when our minds are swimming with constant noise and pressure. Let’s take a look at the cause and explore what we can do to bring about some change.


The place to start is that thorny old topic of multitasking. Research carried out by the University of London showed that in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers IQ.


Their study found when participants multitasked during cognitive tasks – that is responded to texts, messages and emails while taking an IQ test – their scores plummeted to a level comparable with those who had smoked pot or stayed up all night. In age terms, their IQ dropped to that of an eight-year-old child.


I can’t think of too many eight year olds who are running a successful solo business.

But wait, it gets worse.


In another study from the University of Sussex, again in the UK, researchers compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices – cell phones, tablets, TVs – to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control.


Yikes! Now before I freak you out too much, especially those with young ‘always plugged in’ kids, more research is needed before we can say multitasking is actually damaging the brain, but I think you’ll agree, it’s not looking too good.


Instead of running ourselves ragged trying to work across a number of activities, we need to work in clear blocks on the things that are most important.


Prioritising first things first


‘The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.’

Steven Covey


Sure you can roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to busy-ness, but success comes from knowing where your priorities lie and ensuring that particular area gets your attention.

If we’re not clear on where our business needs us most we can very easily spend too much time working in instead of working on our business.


Working in your business involves the practical elements of your work. If you’re an actor, it’s the acting; for a gardener, the gardening.


Working on your business involves strategy, planning, marketing or any action which enhances the practical side. Working in is the job of the practitioner; working on, the domain of the boss.

As a business owner you need to fulfil both critical roles. And that means not being so busy working in your business, that the critical working on stuff gets neglected.


In his bestselling business classics Stephen Covey presents many groundbreaking strategies for success.


One key strategy has to do with priorities, and is one Covey demonstrated in front of a live audience. You can still find his brilliant ‘Big Rocks’ video on Youtube … complete with large lapels and shoulder pads!


Covey stands alongside two transparent buckets with a volunteer from the audience who by her own admission is ‘bogged down in the thick of things’ – buried in the minutiae at the cost of her priorities. Overwhelmed in other words.


Covey represents the little things that keep us busy as small pebbles, and half fills a bucket, inviting his guest to add the rocks – her priorities – into this visual interpretation of her working week. The rocks are tagged with ‘family’, ‘marketing’, ‘sales targets’ and such like and surprise, surprise she simply can’t fit them into the bucket as the smaller pebbles are taking up too much space.


Your business’s priorities are left to one side while time fills up with small, less important tasks. Sounding familiar? It’s a classic illustration of what happens when you spend time working in your business and not on it.


Covey leads her to a solution. Put the rocks – the priorities – in first and the pebbles will fit in around them.


And this approach lies at the core of productivity and is the solution to an easing of overwhelm.


To use your resource of time to maximum effect, you need clarity regarding what will get you where you want to go.


These are the things that deserve your time, attention and energy. Your priorities.



Robert Gerrish is the founder of Flying Solo and author of The 1 - Minute Commute published by Pan Macmillan and available in all good bookshops, online and as an audiobook. Read more of his work at


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