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What to Do When It’s All Too Much

What to Do When It’s All Too Much
What to Do When It's All Too Much

    Things have been pretty hectic around here. We lifehackistes talk about and write about productivity as a way of dealing with the everyday distractions and time-sinks that prevent us from getting our important work done — whether that’s career-related tasks or following our personal goals. But what happens when everything falls apart? When disaster strikes and it takes everything you have to deal with it?

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    I don’t want to get too much into my personal and family life here — suffice it to say that we’re facing some situations that promise to emotionally scar my step-children for life, and minimizing the damage is obviously the first priority. Dealing with it means often reacting to immediate situations, and where kids are involved you can’t schedule dealing with interruptions for later or plan around them. There’s an emotional toll, as well, that makes the trivialities of everyday life and work rather harder to face.

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    And yet, I can’t drop out of anything either. My work and my partner’s work is what pays the bills and keeps our family fed. Miraculously, I’m managing to keep on top of most things and to get the important stuff done. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned about staying afloat when the world is collapsing around you:

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    • Have strong routines. Because I’ve spent the last couple of years building strong routines, scheduling everything from work and travel time to shopping and even goofing off, I don’t have to think about that now when my intellectual and emotional energies are needed elsewhere. Everything I need to work on is written down, so I don’t have to obsess over what I need to do next or what I am not doing that I should be — nothing’s getting forgotten, even if it takes longer to get to it than it normally would. Developing good practices when things are going your way helps dramatically when things aren’t going your way.
    • Prioritize. I’ll admit, I’m not very systematic in the way I handle prioritization. I don’t use Covey’s quadrants or assign priorities in my todo lists. I had started a few months ago using the idea of MITs (Most Important Tasks), where each night (or first thing in the morning) you write down the 3-5 tasks that are most important to get done in the following day. The idea is, if you get just those things done, you’ve had a good day. Taking a few minutes to figure out what you have to do tomorrow or today is essential to weathering a disaster — or rather, taking a moment to decide what you can manage without doing. I can’t miss class — the consequences for my students are too extreme and take too much work to deal with — but I can miss watching a video I’m evaluating to show my students, or a trip to the library to do research for a paper due in 6 months.
    • Procrastinate. That’s right, I said “procrastinate”. We spend a lot of time here at lifehack.org and other personal productivity sites looking for ways to combat procrastination, but sometimes it can be adaptive to put off work you just can’t focus on right now. Knowing your priorities is important, of course — don’t put off the essential stuff. But for the little things, promise yourself a weekend day, or the next quiet evening (whenever that comes), to catch up. Accept that you’re procrastinating, embrace it even, so your mind can let go of the anxiety and you can focus on what’s truly important right now.
    • Batch tasks. When you don’t know what new trauma tomorrow will bring, you have to take advantage of the quiet moments when they happen. Catch up on all the things you’ve put off over the last few days. Minimize your shopping list and do it all at once. Carry work with you in case a free moment arrives (waiting on line at the court house is a good time to get some reading done, for example).
    • Rely on others. This means two things. First, delegate stuff you wouldn’t normally delegate. Say “no” more often than you normally would, even when that means someone else has to take up the slack. Explain yourself if you have to, but don’t feel pressured to take time away from where it’s most needed. Second, lean on the people closest to you for support. Tell your family and friends what’s going on, and be open with people about how you’re feeling. Dealing with traumatic situations takes a lot more out of us than we think, and the people who care about us are more important in these times than ever. A lot of times, we don’t want to “burden” them with our problems, but that’s just asking for a breakdown — give them an opportunity to take some of that burden off your shoulders so you can deal with whatever problems you’re facing. (Men, this counts doubly for you — everything in our society says we’re not allowed to need help, but there are things bigger than we can manage, and where others like children are involved, denying help can put them at risk.)

    The idea is to keep as much of your energy and attention focused on dealing with the problems at hand while still meeting the obligations you can’t afford to let slide. It’s still hard — that’s just the nature of big problems — but it’s harder still when a disaster in one area of your life sets off a domino effect that ripples through every other area of your life. If you can keep things moving along, even if you can’t afford to keep your normal pace, you’ll be better able to face the disaster in front of you and to pick up the pieces afterward. Since I’m in the middle of this, I’d love to hear any other general advice people have for making your way in the face of disaster. Let us know your tips in the comments!

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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