There are few things more important than a sense of control. Without it you can feel like you are going crazy as new demands get placed on an already fragile system. If you can bring a bit of order to the chaos you can regain that sense of control.
Here’s twenty quick strategies for getting control. Don’t try to do all of them or you’ll end up procrastinating. Just use one or two of these strategies to get a broader picture of what needs to be done, what to do next and to get the motivation to start.
1) Make a List
Start writing a list of all the things you need to do. Don’t sort or prioritize yet. Just keep writing until you have a sequence of activities that need to get done. Making lists can give you a feeling of control because you now have everything that needs to get done in your hands. If the list still seems too large, move to one of these other techniques.
2) Journal it Out
Open a blank word document and write out your thinking. This will help you make sense of everything you feel you need to do. Journaling is a much better planning tool than just thinking through problems.
3) Find the Next Action
A quick strategy is just to find out what needs to be done next. Focusing on the immediate action may not be the best long-term strategy, but it will bring you temporary order. By making decisions only about what to do next, you can break through procrastination.
4) Determine What You Want
Why are you doing it in the first place? Get clear on your desired result. This may be a clean house, an empty inbox or a finished report. With clarity you can work backwards to figure out what needs to be done. Fuzzy goals create confusion and stress.
5) Get Your MIT
Find your Most Important Task. If you only had time and energy to do one thing, what would it be? Do this task first. Even if you can’t finish or the rest of your day is in confusion, you will have handled the critical.
6) Eliminate the Unessential
Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. At the top of one half write “Critical” and in the other write “Non-Essential.” Take your list of tasks and put the most important half in the column marked “Critical” and put the rest in the other side. Even if you need to do both sides, focusing on the first column will help you prioritize.
7) Put it on One Piece of Paper
Take all your planners, calendars, and various to-do lists and write out what needs to be done on one piece of paper. Merging all your to-do items can help you see what needs to be done in one source.
8) Use the Power of “No”
Have the courage to say “no” to poor uses of your time. It may seem selfish to tell people that you can’t help them, but it needs to be done. Endlessly trying to fulfill the demands you make on yourself and others give you is a recipe for burnout. Don’t tell them you will try if you don’t have time. Just say no.
9) Ask, “What Would Happen if You Stop?”
Figure out your worst-case if different items on your list don’t get done. What happens if the dry-cleaning doesn’t get picked up? What happens if you don’t come into work? What happens if you don’t answer e-mail? This can be a last ditch effort to prioritize what will hurt you the least when you are completely overwhelmed.
10) Schedule It
Take tasks and write them on your calendar. Scheduling can be useful to spread a sudden lump of work. If you’re coming off sick-leave or a vacation, scheduling can help you spread an unusually tight schedule. Just make sure you don’t abuse it or you will go into a time debt where to-do items continually get pushed into the future.
11) Timebox It
Find one activity. Set a deadline of 30-90 minutes and complete it. With a timebox, the activity must get finished within the box or it doesn’t get finished at all. This can control procrastination and force you to speed up your work.
12) Make a Daily Chunk
Carve out what you want to tackle today. If you have weeks worth of work piling up, simply chunk off what you feel you can handle today. This can help you focus on immediate tasks so you don’t procrastinate the entire mound of work.
13) Find Your Critical Six
I once heard a great story about this technique. A young man walked into the office of a powerful executive of a steel company in the early 20th century. He told the executive he could triple his productivity. All he asked was that the executive would later pay him what he felt the idea was worth. The idea was this:
Each day you write the numbers one to six on a piece of paper. Then write out the first, second and up to the sixth most important tasks of the day. You then begin on number one. Even if you spend the entire day on that one task, there was no way you could have been more productive using any other system.
A month after his speech the young man received a check from the executive. It was worth ten thousand dollars.
14) Unplug Distractions
Turn off every source of distraction. Unplug your internet, turn off e-mail alerts, shut your door and ask people not to disturb you. Take your phone off the hook and turn your pager off. Shut the window and turn off any distractions. Close any unused windows on your computer. Give yourself complete focus in ordering and working on your next task.
Although delegation isn’t always the best strategy for getting work done, it can be useful with chronic cases of excessive work. Hire someone to do the routine tasks that consume the most of your time that don’t need your personal attention. Pay someone to cut your grass or get your mail.
Sort your tasks into three piles labeled A, B and C.
- A tasks are your top priority. They are tasks that will have an impact on your life over five years from now. This could be opening an investment account, spending time with your kids or writing a business plan. Not always urgent but very important.
- B tasks are your second priority. They are tasks that have an impact over a year from now. Saving for a vacation, replacing a broken appliance or creating an organizing system for your computer could fit here.
- C tasks are your last priority. They are tasks that aren’t going to matter over a year from now.
Spend at least half your time on A, 30% on B and no more than 20% on C tasks.
This may yield an opposite set of priorities than some of my previous suggestions, but I believe it is best to handle situations of chronic overwork. Focusing on the urgent is only useful when you receive a sudden burst of new work, not when busyness is a continual aspect of your life.
17) Meditate on It
Take some deep breaths and focus your mind on what needs to be done. Meditation can help you remove some of the anxiety you feel about your work and put you into an effective state.
18) Post It
Grab a stack of Post It Notes and write out a task on each one. Paste them to a wall and take them down when they are complete. This is a more visual system for people who don’t like linear to-do lists.
Change how you are representing the task in your mind. If you are telling yourself you have a “mountain” of work to do that might be causing you to procrastinate. Focus on your workload as a “pile” or “stack” and you can see it as achievable.
20) Roll the Dice
Get moving right away by picking a random task and just start working. Endless time spent ordering can be a symptom of procrastination. Employ a, “Ready, Fire, Aim,” by working immediately and sorting out priorities later. This can help you build momentum before you start philosophizing over what needs to be done.