Why I’m most effective when I’m swamped

A previous boss once explained landing an urgent project on me in the midst of a really busy period by saying it was because he knew I’d have to get it done quickly and efficiently. After feeling initially affronted, I kind of got his logic...

I recently launched a new jewellery business, Milk Tooth, whilst currently buying a house, planning a self-catered wedding (don’t ask!) and holding a busy full-time role as Head of Campaigns at Virgin, which involves regular long-haul travel and managing a team. I am no superhuman, but I have learnt some techniques that have helped me keep calm and stay on track.

Here are my seven tips for thriving when you’re busy.

1. Think in the medium term. By that I mean have your next milestone in sight, rather than the potentially daunting end goal. That will allow you to have perspective when challenges come up and be flexible and solutions-focused so you can stay on track. This approach would be rubbish in some roles, but is useful in a high pressure situation, such as live events or campaign launches. Thinking about the medium result also tends to have a calming effect when leading a team as it will help you avoid panicking or doing a perturbing 180 on the strategy. In my experience, stress breeds stress, so for me it’s important not to feed that culture.


2. Make decisions. It’s important to trust your gut when you don’t have time to weigh up every option. You have your job for a reason and you have the right to make that call. Working at a corporate can implicitly involve spending time seeking multiple inputs and going back and forth. 

In that context, it’s usually necessary to bring colleagues with you and seek approvals, but when you’re running a business with very limited time, you need to be able to make decisions – on your own. When we were choosing a platform for Milk Tooth’s website there were loads of pros and cons to the options, to the extent that it was really hard to choose. I ended up going for Shopify, partially after finding out my pal was a pro so could be called upon for help. I still don’t know it if it was the very best option, but I am really happy with the ux and design we’ve developed and it meant we could move forward in time for a pre-Christmas launch.

3. Ignore people. When you start your own business everyone will have an opinion. You would go mad if you took every comment seriously, so as much as you should appreciate and value advice, you need to know when to listen and when to nod and say thank you. Think about who’s insight is relevant to what you’re doing – is the commentator from your target demographic, do they have skills or experience in the area – or is it just your Granny’s well-meaning opinion on your latest millennial-targeted Instagram post?

Read: Work-life balance? It’s all in the design

Also, think about when it’s helpful to have that input. One friend told me she didn’t like a colour we’d used on some packaging after I’d just ordered 1000 boxes. Input is vital, but it’s your job to manage it. For example, ask people for an idea to improve your website when you have some dev time planned, or focus their comments by asking for one extra feature they’d love you to add. That sort of direction will be helpful to the commentator as well. Being positive is easy, but it can also be difficult for nice people to make any negative, even if constructive, comments, especially when they know it means a lot to you – so help guide them towards useful insight.

4. Trust people. When you run a team you need to empower people. Understand what’s in your control and what isn’t. Even with micro-management (which I wouldn’t recommend!) people will still make their own choices. That can be a really positive thing, but even when it isn’t or they fail, who’s to say your rushed job would have been any better?

Read: Richard Branson's advice for young entrepreneurs

It’s the same when you set up a business. Because you have to do everything, there will be more than a few areas where you aren’t an expert (or frankly, are totally clueless). Unless you have months to study, or even days to complete online training courses, you need to seek out opinion and trust it. You should research of course, but there’s a point where you need to be open enough to accept advice, even when you’re too busy to know for sure. General Assembly offer great £25 one and a half hour courses on all sorts of issues around websites and marketing, which are super useful intros for setting up an ecommerce business like Milk Tooth.

5. Work in secret. whether you’re a night owl or an early riser, two hours’ work before anyone gets into the office or after your house has gone to bed, can often be more efficient than a whole day’s work. No distractions - and a time-limited countdown to get shit done, or else. For me, it works fantastically for focus and I’m most effective in the morning before anyone else is up. I have often caught up on my emails before the alarm my boyfriend sets even goes off. It makes me feel like I’ve sneakily bagged extra bonus time and is also empowering to feel like you’re not letting tasks pile up when you can’t fit them within your packed 'day' schedule.

6. Focus on the top. When you’re multi-tasking it’s essential to constantly reassess and be clear on your priorities. When not everything will get done, you need to decide what will, what’s first and what it’s okay to sack off. For example, if you get lots of cold approach emails that really aren’t very relevant, I think it’s okay to delete them. 

The ones that have a genuine interest in your business or project will chase you - and then you can get a decent indication that it’s worth taking the time to reply or help. In the same vein, you need to pick your battles when you’re busy – what are you really going to fight for – and what are you prepared to compromise on. When developing Milk Tooth, I was disappointed to settle for gold-plated rather than gold settings after not being able to make the numbers work, but something I wouldn’t compromise was the core brand creative. We developed a couple of routes quite far before feeling they just weren’t right and starting again. I don’t regret those delays because for me it’s the embodiment of everything we’re about and really critical to everything we do.

7. Take yourself seriously. Don’t let your personal wellbeing be the first plate to drop – whether it’s going for a run, having a Sunday lie-in or seeing your best mate for Friday-night beers, you (that person under all that work stuff in those moments when you forget what an email even is) are important. Stay sane and make sure you have some fun and/or relaxation in your week. It’s all too easy to let those things be the compromises. Sometimes that’s inevitable, but if you routinely find it’s the case, you need to recognise it and reassess – because you’re worth it!

Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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