Yesterday I fell into a state of overwhelm. I’ve had some personal/family worries going on plus a number of significant and unpredicted work projects that landed on me in the past week, which not only raised my level of anxiety but are also squeezing me to get more done in a relatively short period of time.
My initial reaction was to feel immobilized, not knowing where to start or how to proceed in dealing with these challenges. It seemed like they were all not only big but of equal importance. So I spent my day shifting my attention back and forth from one task to another, in the end feeling quite unproductive and emotionally unsettled.
So today, I took a step back to think through a better process for managing all that I have on my plate. Here are my thoughts. Hopefully, they can be helpful to you, as well.
First, I took a few minutes to pause and breathe. Even though everything in my body and soul wanted to speed up, I knew that was the wrong reaction. I needed to calm myself. I did so by sitting in a recliner, took in some deep breaths, and focused on my breathing, releasing stress each time I exhaled.
Second, I channeled my energy in a positive way by organizing the room and physical space in which I would be working. I organized my inbox, consolidated a few files, got rid of some clutter, and even took a few minutes to dust my office furniture. The value of this step was to get some positive momentum going and feel the success of getting something done. Maybe it doesn’t work this way for everyone, but it does for me. Doing a little cleaning and organizing helps settle my mind.
Third, I turned my attention to all of the projects, demands, or worries that were weighing on me. I wrote each down on a sheet of paper, not the details, just a word or phrase that captured each concern. By the time I’d finished writing I had a list of about twenty items. Some were big (producing an online course on the topic of a book I’m publishing), some smaller but urgent (writing a speech I’d be giving later in the week, writing this blog post), and some more personal and emotional (the passing of a friend, a surgery of my brother).
As a next step I prioritized my list of tasks and concerns. Using a gut-feel, based on importance, urgency, and emotional impact, I numbered them from one to twenty. Writing them down and prioritizing gave me a little more perspective. Things started to feel manageable and less overwhelming.
Next, I wrote down a date by when each needed to be addressed or accomplished.
Then I made a decision about what to do with each of item. A few went on a to-do list for the day. I would be able to dispose of them pretty quickly. Most were bigger and so would require more thought, planning, and energy. I wrote down the highest priority and, if I hadn’t done so already, made a list of four or five actions to either deal with or complete it. I did the same for priority two and so on. For the bigger projects, the actions were not a comprehensive list but rather a high level list that framed the major steps to complete the project.
Naming, prioritizing, identifying actions and a time frame for each concern allowed me to feel like I was moving forward. My list, still big, was manageable. I could now schedule what I could do today and this week into my weekly and daily plan.
So my final step was to open my calendar and do some time blocking. I find I’m not very efficient if I try to give attention to too many priorities any given day. Feeling overwhelmed causes me to do that, flit from one thing to another in an unproductive way. Instead, I scheduled three hours of uninterrupted time for priority one on Tuesday, an hour for priority two on Wednesday evening, and two hours for another priority on Friday. Some items were pushed out a few weeks. Another project, a couple of months. I even said “no” to a couple of demands. I simply can’t handle everything. Nor can I do everything at once. But I have a plan so things are manageable.
Now I have to get to work. I do my best to be mindful while working. I choose to give full attention to the task at hand and let go of anything else, email, phone calls, and other distractions. I lock myself in my room and make all the headway I can and then stop, take a break to renew my mind, body, and spirit, and move on to another activity.
What I’m talking about is not complex. I suppose it’s a simple form of time management. Call it what you will. What I know is that it’s a useful process if I’m feeling worried, stressed, or unproductive. It’s a way for me to get back on top of things.