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Have you been hiding in a (metaphorical) blanket fort?

Running a business isn’t just hard; it can be relentless. We all have a finite capacity for the number of hard things we can deal with at once, and that capacity is often not enough. We all have different ways to cope when we feel ourselves reaching (or passing) that capacity, but I want to talk about one in particular: The Blanket fort. I’m not talking about physically building a blanket fort under your desk and hiding in the warmth until a crisis or two pass (although I may have been tempted once or twice). I’m talking in metaphors, of course, and the blanket forts are the safe places and activities we create in our work that shield us from what is happening and give us a false sense of being in control.

One of my blanket forts is the spreadsheet. If you have worked with me, it probably won’t come as a surprise to know that the ordered world of spreadsheets with neat grey-bordered boxes full of perfectly rational calculations is a place of security for me. As I near my capacity for how much concurrent crap I can process, my natural response is to open up a wonderfully fresh Google sheet and start tapping some order back into the universe. If it’s really bad, I might even start creating SQL tables. Sometimes that is the right thing to be doing: The problem requires a spreadsheet (or database!). More often than not though, the spreadsheet is what makes me think I am taking control and feel like I’m doing something constructive.

Just like the blanket forts of our childhoods, the spreadsheet creates a space that I can control, feel safe and can ignore everything going on outside. That’s not always a bad thing… just as long as you aren’t ignoring the fact that your house is on fire just the other side of the blanket.

Most people aren’t building blanket forts out of spreadsheets. Everyone has their own preferred construction, using the most familiar and comforting parts of our work to build safe spaces to hide in. Activities we know we’re good at, that make us feel productive, and that we ultimately enjoy. Think for a moment about the activities that match that description for you and that you retreat to when under pressure. How much of a coincidence would it be if those activities really were always the answer to the tough times you have faced?

I have nothing against people having their blanket forts. I’m certainly not giving up my spreadsheets. We just need to be self-aware enough to know that is what we’re doing and that it is probably giving us a boost, but also probably not solving our problems.

“OK, I admit I’m hiding in my blanket fort… but I’m not coming out!”

These places of comfort in our work serve a purpose. We retreat to them usually when we’re feeling overwhelmed, and just acknowledging this fact doesn’t solve the problem and help us face what is outside. As a business mentor, it is not unusual for me to find myself coaxing people out of their safe spaces to take more effective steps to tackle a problem they are facing. Depending on the severity of the overload, I find one of two things works:

  1. Do the one most impactful thing. This is the best approach. Consider the issue and all the tools and resources at your disposal. Prioritise the issues by importance and urgency, then focus efforts on the one thing that will have the most impact on the biggest issue. The boost from doing that will help you rinse and repeat the process until it all becomes manageable.
  2. Do the easiest thing that has impact. If the overwhelm is too much, then focus on a single thing that will have some impact. Successfully making one dent in the issues helps us regain control and look at the other challenges more rationally.

Both approaches focus on a single problem at a time. Limiting the issues you are tackling then focusing on one impactful thing at a time starts solving problems. Importantly, it also gives you back the sense of control over what is happening. As you make progress on one thing at a time after another, there becomes less to hide away from. By contrast, multi-tasking when feeling overwhelmed invariably leads to starting a number of things that don’t get completed, which achieves nothing.

I guide this process of prioritisation and planning regularly with various leaders I work with as an agency mentor. In most cases, they already know what needs doing, but everything has felt too urgent to tackle things methodically. Approaches like this are sometimes used to coax people out of those forts, but over time the approach becomes a safe space in its own right: We learn to retreat to the framework rather than our old safe places. It’s still a tactical approach. It is far better to have strategic plans in place to avoid such overload. It’s a useful tactic to have though.

The takeaway here though is that many of us build such forts and we should be aware of them. They can be useful to a point, but you can’t live inside your blanket fort forever. So, who is prepared to admit what safe places they create or share how they tackle overwhelm? I’d love to hear from you in the LinkedIn comments.

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This post first appeared on Mat Bennett - Web Nerd, please read the originial post: here

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Have you been hiding in a (metaphorical) blanket fort?

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