As the new year unfolds, are you feeling overwhelmed with everything you intend to do?

Life is certainly more complicated than it used to be. With all the systems to maintain, options to chose from, and details to manage, we have a huge abundance of possible commitments in the Western world.

This “overwhelm of success” also applies to service-based entrepreneurs. When your business was new, you may have followed the motto that “Whatever the client wants, I’ll make the extra effort to do.” But when you have an ever-increasing number of clients that expect that level of service, how do you manage to still have a life?

Or perhaps you’ve started a combination of related businesses, such as consulting, seminars and video products. When you are facing deadlines in every one of them at once, how do you manage to not drop the ball?

The trick is all about operating at the right level of detail. Did you ever play with multilevel maps like those that Google Earth has?  You start out, for example, flying over the Grand Canyon, then with a click of a mouse you can zoom down into the terrain and colored layers of rock. When you lose your bearings, you just fly out of the canyon, look around, then set off in a new direction before zooming in again.

With those virtual wings available, you wouldn’t think of trying to reorient yourself from the canyon floor, would you?

Coming up for fresh air and the wider perspective is exactly what’s needed when you’re feeling overwhelmed by details. The truth is that our brains can only juggle somewhere between six and eight things at the same time, based on the limits to our short-term memory.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who was an entrepreneur. When he shared the to-do list he was currently using, I wasn’t surprised that he was feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Household finances backlog including budget
  2. Maintain household finances –  follow savings plan
  3. Earthquake retrofit for house
  4. New landscaping plan for property
  5. Class on marketing methods
  6. Marketing outreach
  7. Pro bono clients
  8. Long term business plan
  9. Continuing Education
  10. Daily one hour exercise
  11. Daily 1/2 hour meditating
  12. Weekly one afternoon in nature
  13. Weekly date with wife
  14. Daily time with kids
  15. Monthly time with friends
  16. Volunteer 4 hours/week at local community center
  17. Working with clients
  18. Client billing
  19. Board of Directors

I asked him to first collect the items into categories, then subcategories as needed. Here’s the resulting to-do list:

  1. Household projects
    1. Finances
    2. Earthquake retrofit
    3. Landscaping
  2. Business
    1. Update business plan
    2. Marketing class
    3. Marketing outreach
    4. Continuing education
    5. Client appointments
    6. Client billing
  3. Self-renewal and health
    1. Daily one hour exercising
    2. Meditating 1/2 hour daily
    3. Weekly one afternoon in nature
    4. Weekly date with wife
    5. Daily time with kids
    6. Friends – lunch/phone dates monthly
  4. Community service
    1. Volunteering 4 hours weekly at community center
    2. Board of Directors commitment
    3. Pro bono clients

Now the different levels of detail become visible, and the relationships between the pieces become more apparent. Instead of trying to decide in the midst of a large grab-bag of things to do, he only needed to consider one level of detail at a time. He could block out time for the four major categories rather than for 19 things. And then once he was reviewing one of the major categories, there were only a handful of things for him to look at in that category.

In this way, you let the structure you’ve designed hold most of the weight of the decision-making, and you only need to consider a few things at a time.

Here’s how to use this approach in your life:

Whenever you start to feel overwhelmed with too many things going on, take that as a clue that it’s time to zoom out to a level with less detail. Look for the natural grouping that fits your activities. Turn your list into a hierarchy and make a simple one-page commitments-at-a-glance.

In this way, you’ll have an easy reminder of what elements matter most and the right relationship between them. Once you recognize the right relationship between all the elements of your life, what naturally arises is the best way to organize your time and your goals. With a boat built like this, you’ll be smoothly sailing and on your way!