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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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