Every so often, we are faced with what seems to be an impossible challenge. A task so large and so complicated and so difficult, its hard even to imagine what a win could look like. These don’t come along very often – thank goodness. Maybe once every five years or so in my experience. But when they do come along, the journey they provide tends to change the course of your career. Your response and actions and attitude when faced with an impossible challenge, give you character – they define you as a leader – they shape the future (better) you.
I should say, in my career, it’s the impossible challenges that I go back to over and over again. These moments have become the stories I tell my team when we’re up against it. They are the stories I share with my friends and former colleagues. I should also say, not all of these stories are of victory. That’s the exquisite beauty of an impossible task. Even in failure there is greatness to be found (which is a good thing, because failure happens a lot when you take on impossible things).
I don’t have a nicely packaged set of tips to overcome whatever impossible task you are facing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. That’s the nature of the impossible task – it’s impossible. I can’t change that for you anymore than I can change it for myself. But what I can do – what I hope to do – is share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years that have helped me make it through some pretty daunting challenges. And in so doing, I hope I can help make your next impossible challenge a tiny bit less impossible.
Observe your situation from a distance
When you’re right in the middle of an impossible task – stressed to the max, taking heat, working around the clock – you can easily lose perspective. You can get sucked into a crashing wave of work and worry that makes it hard to know which way is up. Days and weeks can go by in the blink of an eye. And if you’re not careful, this wave can push you off course – your mind and your work.
I find it helpful, when I’m facing an impossible situation, to observe myself and my situation from a distance. What do I mean by that? It’s about detaching yourself for a moment and watching yourself as an outside observer would. It’s about being aware of what’s happening – in the way a scientist would be aware of an experiment. It’s about noticing what’s going on. It is far different from being inside the situation. It’s actually about taking yourself outside the situation (to the extent that’s possible).
If you can detach yourself for an hour or even a few minutes, you can gain valuable perspective on your mental state and on the tasks at hand. You’ll find in doing this, you can see things in a different way. You can relax a bit more. You can notice flaws in your logic. You can find wins you didn’t realize you had.
Cut everything until you find something to win at
If you are a regular reader you will not be surprised to hear this one. I have always been a huge proponent of doing less - ruthlessly prioritizing. I have spoken out against multi-tasking on several occasions. But sometimes, when you have an impossible challenge, with eight million components and complexities, it’s impossible not to multi task a little.
The risk, when your volume of challenges is so great, when there are so many problems to deal with, is that you end up accomplishing nothing. You improve ten issues by ten percent instead of one issue completely. From an outsider’s perspective, you haven’t actually accomplished anything. But you worked so hard. The effort it took to advance those ten issues by ten percent each was huge. You’re tired, your team is tired, and yet it appears like nothing has been done. This is a massively demoralizing situation.
When I have a huge number of tasks to take on – all of which seem to be urgent – I still apply the same ruthless prioritization approach. The first thing I do every morning is make a list of my major issues, and then I cut everything out until what is left is something I can realistically win at that day. I refuse to let a day go by without finding a win. The benefit of this approach is that I win at something. My team wins at something. We see progress. Outside stakeholders see progress too – as fractional as it may be. And with that progress comes a hit of energy to fuel the next push.
The challenge with this approach is I have to let things wither and die. Important things. There is no other option when you’re faced with an impossible task. So, I quarantine issues where I can. I tie off problems, so they don’t spread or get worse. It takes a lot of strength to do this, I can assure you. As much as I can, I speak openly about my choices and sacrifices with my manager, so she understands the situation and is not surprised or embarrassed by the issues I’m not able to focus on yet.
Embrace the lessons learned
When I’m feeling particularly stressed out or overwhelmed by the impossibility of a situation, I remind myself that the lessons I’m learning have value. And that, so long as I make good choices and apply sound judgement, I will have nothing to regret when I look back on the challenging period. I try to take note of the lessons I’m learning even as they are happening and point to those as wins in and of themselves.
My recommendation, for those of you facing impossible tasks, is to take note (like actually write down) the lessons you’re learning. Be grateful for that. Find a win in that. It can have a profoundly positive impact on your perspective and energize you for the daunting challenge that lies ahead.
Put yourself in the best possible mental and physical state
I won’t dwell on this one because it’s been written about a thousand times. But, if you’re not careful, you can let the stress and anxiety of an impossible challenge make that challenge even harder to overcome. There can come a point when you start getting anxious about being anxious. Getting stressed about being stressed. Allowing the fear that you are failing manifest the very failure you fear. This can snowball on you. You may think this is easier said than done (perhaps it is) but you need to try to present your best self in front of an impossible task.
Sleeping well, eating well, doing some physical activity – these things can make all the difference in the world when you’re in front of a seemingly impossible challenge.
Every so often, as leaders, we are faced with an impossible task. The deck is just stacked against us. Inevitably, these are the moments that define our careers and give us the toughness to lead others through difficult challenges. There is no magic list of tips to make impossible things possible. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. We can only put ourselves in the best possible mindset each and every day, make good choices, and stay positive. I hope this perspective is helpful to you as you take on your next impossible challenge.