Help placard in hand with crumpled paper pile.


I recently spoke with innovation expert and author of What’s Your Problem: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, about how to apply innovation principles to the ever-increasing problem of overwhelm. In his book, Thomas highlights that most problems have multiple causes and that not all solutions to problems are technical in nature. New approaches can sometimes be found by questioning our beliefs and assumptions and reframing the problem.

Below are 5 innovation principles from Thomas’s book that can be used to address the problem of overwhelm:

Rethink the goal.

The purpose of rethinking the goal is to be sure you are solving the right problem. There are those who might see a false trade-off in dealing with the problem of overwhelm – a binary choice – either I stay at my job and continue to be overwhelmed, or I quit. As an executive coach, I have had many clients come to me with this exact either/or dilemma. These self-imposed limitations are what tend to keep us stuck in a contracted view of available choices. Clarifying the higher-level goal can be helpful in expanding these options by reframing what the real goal is. Perhaps you are overwhelmed because you are working incredibly hard so that you can get a promotion, so you can earn more money in order to pay for your kid’s college education, so they can have a better shot at a good life (an example Thomas shares in his book). Considering these higher-level goals can open up a whole different set of more creative solutions that may not require you killing yourself at work.

Look for bright spots.

If feeling overwhelmed is your problem, try to recall times when you didn’t feel this way. Where are there positive outliers or exceptions? When did this problem occur but not matter? Who else deals with this type of problem well? Or was there a time when work did not stress you out that much? What was different about that time? “Examining bright spots can help you gain new perspectives on the problem,” Thomas told me. “Say, maybe it’s not the volume of tasks, but a particular type of task that makes you overwhelmed, such as highly ambiguous tasks that come with little direction.” In the same vein, you may find that you don’t feel so overwhelmed when you are able to think clearly, which happens mostly when you can get a good night’s sleep, which is typically when your dog doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night to go out. (Hint: the problem statement here involves the dog).

Assess the real risk.

Tackling overwhelm may involve talking to your boss to ask for more resources, rescope a deliverable, negotiate a timeline or even re-negotiate your working relationship. This can feel risky because of the inherent power dynamic, leading some people to avoid the confrontation. Before you take that route, ask yourself, “Is this really risky – or does this just feel risky?” Thomas suggests looking to the past for evidence. If there have been prior cases where your boss punished or even fired people for pushing back, then the risk is real. But equally often, when you look for evidence, you’ll discover that other people have pushed back without bad consequences, or perhaps even with good results. “You also need to assess the risk of maintaining the status quo,“ he told me. “What will it cost you, your team, your family or your organization if you don’t find a better way of working?” Thomas pointed out that people tend to focus only on the risks of taking action, while forgetting to consider the risk of having things stay the way they currently are.


As an innovation expert, Thomas is a big fan of experimentation. Setting up a small experiment is a low-risk way of trying something new, and it also allows us to get out of our own head to find an approach that helps us do things in a smarter way. Thomas shared two experiments that have helped him in managing his own workload. The first is dictating his emails versus typing them. “As an author, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to the written word, so I end up sitting in front of my computer and endlessly wordsmithing the best possible phrasing of random emails. So I experimented with using the voice-to-text function on my phone to dictate emails. That turned out to be much faster and allowed me to escape the perfectionism time suck.” The second experiment is particularly novel. He created a “To-Don’t List.” On this list, Thomas captured all of the things that one might put on a typical To-Do List. He would then tell himself that he wouldn’t get any of these things done, except for the things that he very intentionally plucked off the list. “To-do lists quickly grow endlessly long and create a strong sense of overwhelm. So instead of pretending, ‘I’ll get all of this done eventually,’ putting everything on a to-don’t list forces me to ask, ‘What if I never get this thing done?’ It has helped me prioritize the things that matter most.”

Often, the things we think are important today, are not really that important. This was reinforced by an unintentional experiment Thomas conducted a while back, which was to put all of his emails into three folders: Most Important, Somewhat Important and Other To-Do’s. The unintentional part happened because, by chance, he then forgot all about these three folders. Two months later, when he went back to the folders, most things – even things in the Most Important folder – really weren’t that important. “I would not recommend doing this deliberately; there were some items I really should have acted on. But I was struck by how many things weren’t actually important in retrospect, even if they felt that way at the time.”

Harvard Business Review Press

Look in the mirror.

Part of innovating is looking at our own contribution to the problem we are trying to solve. This includes the problem of overwhelm. To be clear, this is not about placing blame but is more about helping to unpack key drivers of the problem. In his book, Thomas shares the example of people who write “NO DRAMA, please” in their dating profiles. People presumably write that because they have experienced lots of drama in their prior relationships. “Now, why is that?”, Thomas asks. “Maybe they’ve been unlucky, or maybe they live in an area with lots of drama-prone people. But you also have to consider the possibility that they are helping to co-create the drama in some way. At the very least, they are probably selecting for partners that create drama – in which case they may want to rethink the filtering methods used to pick dates.”

As with our personal lives, we are all actors in our work lives and are the common denominator in all of the situations in which we feel overwhelmed. How might you be contributing to these situations? Perhaps, it’s saying yes to things when you should really say no, not delegating as much as you could, or letting your perfectionism go unchecked. Thomas shares that it can be helpful to get an outside view of yourself. You can ask colleagues directly, or to get a more unvarnished view, you can have an executive coach collect feedback for you. This type of feedback can shed light on blind spots and can help you to better diagnose the problem, allowing you to come up with more appropriate solutions.

Tough challenges require us to take a step back and reframe the problem we are trying to solve. Overwhelm is one such challenge where we can benefit from taking a new lens in solving this important problem.

For more information about Thomas and his work, see