Nov 20, 20189 min read

Feel overwhelmed as a merchant? Use these 4 focus hacks.

Kristian Borglund headshot

by Kristian Borglund

Be honest, dear merchant. How much do you have on your plate right now? Or is it more a question of how many plates you’re spinning? You might be suffering from “merchant overwhelm”. Here’s how to fix it.

Merchant overwhelm has nothing to do with how many SKUs you have in your inventory, how many or few orders you have on a weekly basis, or how many employees you are managing.

Instead, it has everything to do with how you approach the 24 hours that come to you daily; how you structure that time, yourself, your team and your environment.

This is the viewpoint of David Stiernholm, writer of Super Structured: How to overcome chaos and win back time. He is frequently hired by all kinds of businesses, ranging from well-established major corporations to entrepreneurial companies in hyper-growth such as Spotify, King and Fyndiq. His goal is to help entrepreneurs in the ecommerce space to avoid the mistakes that lead to overwhelm, scattered days, bad sleep, and no social life outside work.

Why so many merchants feel chaotic and overwhelmed

David Stiernholm describes three mistakes that show up again and again as online merchants try to grow their e-commerce businesses.

Perpetual adding

“This means adding new things all the time: new projects, new business ideas, new product ideas, new feature ideas. If you are a master of getting things started, chances are that you leave ‘old babies’ half complete or in maintenance mode, which sucks energy and contributes to mental or practical chaos.”

Time blindness

“This means taking on new projects without bothering to make an accurate estimation of how long it will take; what the project will actually involve in regards to time, energy and planning; or where it fits in among other priorities. The consequence is often more chaos, other projects take longer to complete, and you spend too many late nights and weekends catching up on work, instead of getting time off with family and friends. That’s not a sustainable strategy.”

App chaos

“This is when you try new tools and apps and test them with real data – ending up with important documents and data scattered everywhere. Some notes may be saved in Evernote and others in Google Docs, or some tasks are to be found in Trello and others in Outlook or in Gmail, while some spreadsheets are saved in Google Spreadsheets and others in Excel. It’s frustrating not being able to find what you are looking for when you need it.”

Breaking free from the chaos and overwhelm

Did you recognize yourself in any of the above? To break free from the chaos and overwhelm, here are some of the things David suggests doing on a psychological, structural and behavioral level:

HACK 1. Make this mindset shift: It’s actually okay to miss out – and to defer exciting things

Yes, it hurts to say ‘no’ to that new and appealing idea or project. But aren’t your feelings of overwhelm equally painful? (They must be, otherwise you wouldn’t have read so far in this article, would you?)

“Learn to swallow the pain of saying ‘no’ to that new thing that feels so exciting for the moment. Let it go. It’s okay. Ask yourself the questions: ‘What will I later regret spending time and energy doing?’ and ‘What in my business or in life in general will I later regret I didn’t spend time on?’. Let your answers guide you. This keeps you on track with the important activities that make your business grow.”

HACK 2. Take this action: Quantify the truly important

“To decrease feelings of overwhelm it helps to take away any ambiguity about your most important activities. You need to define not only what the activities and projects are – so that you don’t make your priorities ad-hoc as your default way of operating – but it helps to also quantify them, so that you know when you can feel ‘done’ and satisfied with your efforts,” says David.

For example:

How many calls are you going to do per week? What 3 projects are going to be completed this month? What does ‘completed’ mean, more precisely, so you know when it’s good enough? What exactly will it mean to be ‘a great leader for your team’ for the next six months, considering where you are up to right now, and how can you quantify that into habits? What’s the longest you want to keep your customers waiting for a response on e-mail?

That is what quantifying means. It gives you signposts to follow in a chaotic and busy environment.

“Personally I’ve quantified my efforts to be a good dad during weekends. One measurement is how many activities I do with the kids. I’ve decided that if I do two, I can relax knowing that I’ll probably look back on these years when I am 78 years old and feel happy about my efforts to engage with my kids. I recommend you do the same with what’s most important for your business.”

HACK 3. Set this up: A clear-cut structure

This section is about how you structure your documents and notes. Let’s say you have a meeting with your team, a customer or a supplier. Do you save your notes in a global folder called ”Meeting notes”, or in subfolders belonging to “Customer X”, “Supplier X”, or “Project X”?

Same with budgets. Do you have a global folder for budgets, or is it better to have them structured? This organizational dilemma can apply to pretty much any documents you want to save.

“It’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all solution for how to structure notes, documents, spreadsheets and other files, because they need to be adapted to how you work.”

For example, some folders will be shared, and others not. Every online business works differently. You need to consider the workflow of your team, the demands of the environment, and how your mind works.

“One general rule is to have everything in as few placeholders as possible, so you immediately know where to look. Try to be consistent. The more you spread out notes into different folders, or even worse, use a variety of apps for the same kind of information, the more time you’ll waste on endless searching when you need the information”.

One way to stay consistent is to come up with distinct rules for which apps to use for what, and where to save different kinds of input and output.

“It’s a good way to get organized.”

HACK 4. Implement this habit: The 10-second rule

“This is a tool that helps you avoid confusion in your productivity structure. When you write a note about something you need to do, for example calling one of your delivery companies to tackle an issue that has become a problem lately, don’t just write ‘Call Peter’. Spend ten seconds extra on that note, clarifying what it is about, and preferably also what you need from that phone call. Otherwise, you might later end up looking at the note, asking yourself ‘Peter who?’, or if you remember who, you might wonder ‘What did I need to talk to him about again?’. It just causes unnecessary chaos and stress in your mind.”

How to make your new, organized reality happen

As you read about the mistakes at the beginning of this article – Perpetual adding, Time blindness and App chaos – what did you realize about how you might need to approach things differently? And which of the four suggested strategies made sense to you?

If you want to stop just fantasizing about leaving the overwhelm behind you and actually make it happen, there are a few things to pay attention to. David Stiernholm doesn’t want you to fall off the wagon when doing this, and neither do we at Klarna.

“Don’t try to implement everything at once. The risk of failure and disappointment is too high then. Choose one thing, as a start,” says David.

The last thing you want is to decide to move all your notes to Evernote, for example, but then only get 80 percent of the way through the task.

“Don’t make this another project that you started but never delivered on. Choose one thing, and make sure to complete it.”


Photo: Anna Sigvardsson