Think of your last hell task week. What exactly constitutes a “HTW”? Think of those weeks when you have to deliver that huge, vital project. You know, while also dealing with a computer crash, 40 urgent emails per day and your boss giving you a ton of ‘I want this by tomorrow’ tasks. That’s “HTW”.
You probably fear these weeks, and barely remember how you dealt with them after they are over. I want to share with you my method to dealing with them systematically.
To deal with “HTW” I use a method I call Stop, look & listen. It is very simple, and you can apply it to every stressful situation.
Shut your door, and put up a huge paper sign with “Do not disturb” on it. You can add the drawing of a skull, or the international signs for danger or death. Be creative, but make sure no one will open your door until you remove the sign unless the building is on fire or Godzilla is destroying the city.
If you have office mates, make clear to them you will be unavailable for a while. You can put your earphones in, (I personally love headphones that cancel ambient noise. For example, I use a pair of in-ear Sennheiser). Keep a baseball bat or some other menacing piece of office supplies just in case someone wants to ask you something. If you work in an open office, try wearing something that indicates ‘don’t disturb’. My girlfriend, for example, wears a hat when she can’t be interrupted, as a cue to her office mates.
Disconnect your office phone and your cell phone. Don’t worry, this will only take half an hour or so, the likelihood of something really critical happening are much like 0. Of course, Murphy’s law can decide to trick you and you lose an important call. Don’t worry, they’ll call again. Close your email, Twitter, chat and whatever things connect you to the outside world.
Give your mind at least 5 minutes of relaxation. No stressful calls, no deliveries, nothing. Just relax for a while and think about nothing. You need it. You know you need it, too. Just do it, now is the moment. Think about your favourite relaxing place, think of you as a rock: unmovable by external forces.
Write down all your outstanding tasks. All that stuff that you need to get done this week, no matter who you have to kidnap or how many nights without sleeping you need to endure. Write down your appointments (dinner with X, kids game, vet visit) and usual time consuming commitments (prepare company newsletter, take the dog out).
Take a look at this list, and then remove at least 20% of the tasks. Either delegate them, postpone them, or just remove them.
Now, see if you can get rid of another 20% of that same list.
Delegate as many as you can, even if you need to ask for some favour from your coworkers (please find me the numbers for this report and next Monday I’ll take care of the server problems) or your family (This week I can’t take the dog out, but I’ll compensate next week by also preparing dinner).
Now, although it sounds a little new-age, listen to your heart and add tasks you need to do. Add the stuff you pospone in your life for the sake of your work.
The first few times you follow this procedure, in the “Look” step you are likely to remove all life stuff just to leave work stuff. You think about your big project and put it against watching the soccer match with your father, and put off calling your dad until next week.
Work and life should be balanced. You need to avoid reaching the point that your work starts to eat into your personal time, and vice versa. If your boss is overworking you, talk to him. If the big project is conflicting with the tasks he asks you to get done from one day to the other, ask him to help you prioritize.
With this sense of control most of your stress will just fade away, because the oppressing feeling of tasks hanging over our heads without control is why we get overwhelmed. This method gives you control, and with control comes a sense of calm and diminished stress.
You can get in control by starting to manage your tasks instead of your time. When you are overwhelmed time management is usually pointless: there is a certain number of tasks that need to be done soon, and the only think you need is a piece of paper to have all them written down, but you won’t need any fancy timeboxing or split time strategy.
Pretend you are a post office worker. As tasks are assigned to you, return them to the sender, delegate to the appropriate person (or bribe/ask for a favour/task exchange) or in extreme cases, put in your list of do it.
This week, try to gain some control over your stress. By next week, I’m sure things will be different…in a good way.