Let’s role-play for a moment: It’s two in the afternoon on an average workday. You glance at your calendar and see that your afternoon is surprisingly low on meetings. Excited that you have a chance to work on some of your high-impact projects that have been looming, you pour yourself some water and turn on your favorite playlist. You open your to-do list and promptly… freeze.
Perhaps this task should be your first priority. Maybe that one should. Then again, if you did this other project, that could make it easier to do that one project.
And then Slack dings with a new notification. You’ve got eight new emails to read. You glance at your phone and see a new Facebook notification– that person you haven’t spoken to in a decade has tagged you in a promotional post for her pyramid scheme.
Back to your list of tasks. Repeat the process of indecision.
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, this type of decision paralysis is one of the biggest leeches of efficiency affecting most of us.
Too often, we assume that getting into this type of predicament is a character flaw. We think of the situation as one in which we are at fault for struggling to focus. Or perhaps we blame it on competing priorities and pesky notifications.
I would argue that it’s neither our inability to focus nor competing priorities that cause this frustrating predicament. It’s overwhelm. More specifically, it’s our inability to identify and manage overwhelm.
As a result, we end up feeling like we’ve wasted time. It’s stressful and exhausting to bounce around from task to task without feeling like we’re getting anywhere.
Luckily, being overwhelmed is not a fatal condition. Here is what you can do about it.
A Blueprint for Overcoming Overwhelm
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with overwhelm, especially in the workplace, is that it is challenging to know in a given moment exactly what your most important task ought to be.
When I’m working on building Self-Himprovement, for example, there are days where I sit down at my computer and have a list a mile long of things I could be doing. I could:
- Conduct content audits and updates
- Create new content
- Engage with groups and posts on LinkedIn and Reddit to connect with new coaching clients
- Plan out a new series of video content
… and so on.
Each of these activities would be beneficial. Every item on the list has its own benefits and disadvantages, and they all work together toward the same end goal: growing my business.
On the surface, it would seem that there is no wrong choice to make and that any option would be a positive use of my time.
While there may be a grain of truth in thinking that each activity is equally valuable, the reality is that thinking that everything is important means treating nothing like it is important. If every task is of equal importance, we end up in a situation where we have a mile-long to-do list but don’t know where to start. Rather than being productive with our time, we end up in a fog of analysis paralysis.
To bypass this, we must do our due diligence and leverage long-term, critical thinking skills to decidedly rank each of our possible tasks. By leveraging some psychology hacks, we can create a framework that makes this process pretty straightforward.
If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail
In Lewis Howes’ book, The School of Greatness, he gives an example of his daily routine. One of the items in his schedule each night is to make a list of the three tasks that he most wants to complete the next day. When he gets up the following day, those are the items he prioritizes.
Howes’ process works for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it forces you to pick just a few small tasks. If you limit your priority list to three individual tasks, you’re identifying a limited number of things that you are committed to doing. Keeping this list small is important! Do not be tempted to make a list of five to ten things just because you know you are a fast worker. If you make a list of more than three, you get right back to the position you were in beforehand and face more analysis paralysis. Less is more when it comes to deciding on your priorities.
Second, it forces you to plan ahead. You have a small list of to-do items, but you also begin to think about how you will accomplish them. Visualization and future-oriented problem solving are key. Often, if you plan your tasks at night and then sleep on it, you’ll wake up with the seedlings of a working strategy sprouting in your mind.
This is also an excellent opportunity to contemplate the urgency of each task. While every item on your to-do list may feel equal in their potential outcomes, it’s unlikely that they’ll be equally urgent. As you’re making your list for the next day, consider the due dates associated with each item and factor that into the tasks you select.
Willpower, or the control that we can exert in order to do something or resist an impulse, is not a mystical force. We often lump willpower into a group with creativity and inspiration, choosing to believe that at times we possess it and at other times we don’t, and there is nothing we can do to control it.
That’s not entirely accurate, however. Willpower functions similarly to a muscle. The more we exert willpower, the more those faculties become fatigued. A common example of this that most people have observed occurs when someone is on a restricted diet. If someone is avoiding specific foods, the most challenging time of the day is at night. They’ve gone an entire day avoiding a particular food with relative ease, but once they’re exhausted from the day’s events, it’s much more difficult to continue to abstain.
In my own life, that was a big challenge for me as a sophomore in college after I learned that I was allergic to chocolate. My chocolate allergy isn’t likely to be fatal, but if I consume cocoa, it does mimic the effects of Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis. Having not identified chocolate as the culprit of my chronic gastrointestinal issues until I was eighteen or nineteen, I had become quite accustomed to eating chocolate. It was a comfort food for me. Even though I knew it made me painfully sick, I often craved it, especially late at night. I wouldn’t have trouble saying no to it all day, but after our weekly meetings to finish editing the school paper and sending it to print at 2 A.M., nothing sounded better on my way back to my dorm room than a nice chocolate donut.
When I was that tired and had used willpower across a multitude of tasks all day, I struggled to continue using it even though I knew I would regret having the donut.
Because willpower diminishes over time, there are two things we can do to make sure we have enough to maximize our productivity:
- First, we can plan out our day so that the most willpower-intensive tasks come first.
- Second, we can integrate breaks into our day so that our willpower muscles can rest.
Make willpower a central part of your workday, and you’ll be able to work more efficiently. As you’re looking at your to-do list, consider what will require the most willpower and focus to complete. Whatever ranks the highest in your assessment of willpower requirement, schedule as your first task of the day. If you have several tasks that require willpower, be sure you’re spacing them out and getting some movement and food in between jobs.
Limit Context Switching
Context switching is the process of moving from one task to another that is entirely disparate. It is multitasking across a variety of unrelated or loosely-related tasks. Startup leaders and entrepreneurs are particularly guilty of this one, as they’re often in positions where they have to fulfill multiple roles on any given day.
Here is a typical example of context switching: you sit down to work on a project that needs to be done by the end of the week. While you’re working, your phone buzzes. You stop typing and look at the notification. You put your phone down and go back to writing. A few minutes later, a coworker messages you on Slack, so you respond to them and help solve out a problem. Before you can get back to your project, another coworker walks over and shows you some designs they’ve been working on and lets you know that once they have your copy for the campaign, they’ll be ready to go. Knowing that they need your text, you open a new tab and crank out several minutes of work. Then you go back to your original project, and you have no idea where you left off or where you were going with the half-written sentence on the page. You’ll need to take several minutes to read and re-read what you had already written to get reoriented, but there’s the very real threat that someone will intrude and cause you to multitask yet again.
As you bounce from task to task, you’re diverting your attention away from any one thing. Multitasking may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. It prevents you from focusing on a single task in a meaningful, productive way. As you context switch, you have to reorient yourself before you’re able to continue making progress. You end up spending more time context switching that you do getting work done. Multitasking makes you busy, not productive.
Creating an Overwhelm Action Plan
Planning ahead, ordering tasks based upon the willpower needed, and limiting the amount of context switching that you do throughout the day will come together to improve your workday beautifully.
These strategies intend to narrow down your long list of priorities and consolidate your attention to a few. If you get stuck on deciding what to prioritize for each day, consider placing your tasks within a matrix (like the one below) that ranks each item by its potential impact and its urgency. Sometimes having a visual representation of how your tasks compare with each other can help make the decision-making process easier.
If you continue to feel like you're stuck with your wheels spinning, be sure to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know in the comments below. We're happy to provide feedback!