It’s lonely at the top, and so many shop owners feel hopelessly overwhelmed.
How do you handle it?
Many times during my own career, from my early days in machine shop management to my current work as NTMA president, I’ve grappled with overwhelm for one reason or another. And do you know what I learned each time I was finally forced to do something and move forward? I found that the “thing” that had overwhelmed me so much wasn’t nearly as big or bad as I’d imagined.
Overcoming Overwhelm with Action
When overwhelm strikes, many of us get stuck. “Stuckness” is as natural to humans as breathing—part of our primal instinct to “fight, flee, freeze, or fawn” (as mental health professionals so eloquently put it). We fight the reality of our situation; we run from addressing the issue; we cease all momentum; or we try toplacate the problem, hoping it will simply go away.
The thing is that unless you’re being overwhelmed by a ravenous lion, none of these solutions is particularly practical or helpful.
What does work is doing the one thing overwhelm tells us we shouldn’t do: taking action.
That’s right: action is one of the most effective means of combating overwhelm.
Taking action when you just want to take a nap
Overwhelm can quickly become a vicious cycle. We’re overwhelmed, so we get stuck. Then when we see how much we’re not accomplishing, we feel even more overwhelmed and become even more stuck.
But no matter how far into that cycle you’ve fallen, the answer is always the same, and it starts with taking one step and addressing one challenge at a time. Because when you push yourself forward—even the tiniest bit—the overwhelm starts to subside.
Getting unstuck when “stuck” feels safe
When you’re hopelessly overwhelmed, staying stuck can feel like the safest decision. But since you’re not cowering by a water hole waiting for the lion to leave, any sense of security you feel is completely false.
You aren’t in danger of making the wrong decision. You’re in danger of making no decision at all. And if you’re an owner or working in machine shop management, inaction can seriously hurt your business.
So you must act by DOING. You must act by DELEGATING. And you must act by COMMUNICATING.
Admitting you’re overwhelmed when your pride says to hide
I have as much of an ego as anyone else, and I’ve learned to admit that, sometimes, my pride gets in my way. Healthy pride can make us bold and brave. Unhealthy pride, on the other hand, can cause us to dig in our heels, refusing to ask for help and insisting that we’re all alone in our struggles.
Ironically, there isn’t a soul in my office who isn’t willing to help me, even if all they can do is listen. And when I do reach out for support, someone almost always offers insight or an idea that pulls me out of my overwhelm and launches me into action.
All I had to do was ask.
Recognizing the Signs of Overwhelm
Sometimes, overwhelm sneaks up on us. We may not realize what we’re dealing with until we’re struggling to keep our heads above water. But there are a couple of symptoms we can watch out for—signs that overwhelm has us in its grip.
Procrastination is one of the simplest side effects to identify. When I find myself pushing tasks further and further into the future, it’s often because my plate is too full. And how do you tackle a full plate? The same way you’d eat an elephant. As the proverb says: “One bite at a time.” (I’m almost always surprised by how quickly I’m able to “clean my plate” once I get started!)
And this is where the other symptom comes in.
The fear of becoming even more overwhelmed can keep me from acting, cause me to procrastinate, and subsequently deepen my sense of overwhelm as I wallow in shame over my ever-expanding task list.
Fear is harder to pinpoint than procrastination, however. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of disappointing others, fear of doing it “wrong” and proving my haters right—there are so many kinds and causes of fear that just sorting through them all can be overwhelming!
Regardless of where fear originates, we have to recognize the harm fear causes.
Fear cheats others out of the opportunity to help, and it cheats us out of the opportunity to receive that help.
I truly believe that most people genuinely like helping others. We all like to matter, and nothing matters quite like being helpful. But if you’re too afraid to acknowledge when you’re overwhelmed and admit that you need help, you rob people of the chance to matter by providing that help.
Almost without fail, what’s overwhelming to me is a walk in the park to someone else—someone who will be encouraged and empowered by the chance to show me the ropes and teach me what they know. But I’ll never receive the gift of their expertise if I hide.
Building Strength through Vulnerability
Manufacturers love to self-identify as problem solvers, but a key ingredient in any solution-focused culture is the vulnerability to say, “I need help.”
Vulnerability has a powerful trickle-down effect. If you, a CNC business owner, struggle with overwhelm, I guarantee your team struggles with it, too. And when you unapologetically ask for help, you instill a mindset of vulnerability and collaboration into your company culture.
Trust me when I say that your employees find tremendous inspiration in seeing their machine shop management team work through challenges. They’ll realize: “After all, if the boss can feel overwhelmed and still be the boss, then I can be overwhelmed and still be a great machinist, a great parent, a great partner, and a great community member.”
And together, we can put overwhelm in its place.
Moving Forward Is the Antidote to Overwhelm
It didn’t happen overnight, but I eventually developed a plan of attack for the times when I’m overwhelmed, and this strategy grew from a story someone once told me.
Imagine you’re in your car in the middle of the night. The sky is pitch dark, and there are no lights around. All you have are your headlights, which shine a mere 10 feet into the distance. And you have many, many miles to drive before you’ll reach your destination.
So what do you do? Do you simply stop driving because your lights don’t shine all the way to the endpoint? Of course not.
You keep driving. And as you drive, the light moves forward, too, illuminating the first 10 feet, then the next, and then the next after that. And before you know it, you’ll arrive at your journey’s end, all because you kept going, 10 illuminated feet at a time.
That’s the story that taught me to take action: the next step, the next bite, the next decision, the next 10 feet.
And when I’m really struggling to keep going, I know how to ask for help. These days, I don’t hesitate to get someone to ride in the car with me—someone who will remind me that if I just keep driving, the road ahead will always be lit.
With NTMA, you’ll always have someone willing to share the ride. Become a member.