Martin was a delegate at a conference. We’d been talking about daily planning and ‘to do’ lists. This is what he shared:
“Robyn, you gave us some great advice about writing a list of all the things to do for the day, identifying just the top five, and working on them. The action of writing down definitely takes away some of the stress, but sometimes, especially if there’s pressing deadlines and you can feel a panic attack coming on, the list of ‘absolute must do’s’ seems too long. Very quickly you end up feeling really overwhelmed.”
If you also quickly jot down, beside each item, an estimate of how long it will take, it has several benefits:
- Clears the mind clutter
- Focuses your attention on what’s really important
- Helps you be more realistic about what you really can do, instead of pushing ahead blindly, maybe on things that you’ve got no chance to achieve
- Probably the most important – helps you realise that, almost always, the issue is what’s in your head, rather than what’s on the list. Our mind plays funny tricks! It’s amazing how quickly you get through the work once you push the anxiety away, and there’s almost always enough time.
Here’s another angle from Warren, a really busy businessman:
“I’ve had a bit of experience with ‘overwhelm’ in the last couple of years. Often I find that sorting/prioritising a day doesn’t do it . . . because I’m looking at a couple of overwhelm weeks!!”
Here’s my process:
- Get a large sheet of paper (at least as big as foolscap) and draw it into days
- Split each day into morning, afternoon, & evening blocks
- Transfer your list of ‘to-do’s onto sticky notes, colour coded for importance & those with hard deadlines
- Also note how long they will take
- Stick the notes onto the big page
He went on to say: “There’s probably a much fancier electronic way to do this . . . but I’d lose 3 days learning how to use the computer program, and this way I get the exact number of days to cover my time frame – all on one page.”
- I feel good seeing how all this will get done
- I can sort & sequence as I go
- I can fit in, or decline, the stuff that pops up
- I can move the sticky notes around as the week progresses
- Extra tip: Make sure to leave a few blank spots.’
Overwhelm of Information
And here’s one more physical variation from me, especially when there’s a lot of data to capture and manage. It’s more a simple project management and data capture tool than a prioritising tool. (There are many excellent digital products which do similar things, but a large number of people still like to see things on paper, rather than having to open a computer programme.)
Martin and Warren’s strategies, although they also work for managing a project, are especially helpful for fitting a particular number of tasks into a defined number of days.
If you’re very visual you’ll want a large space – flipchart pages are best, or a large whiteboard works well, as long as you can leave it there until you’re finished. Or if you’re more minimalist and have small tidy writing, the large piece of paper (or several) mentioned by Warren may do the job.
- On the first page identify the broad categories within the project. (You may choose to use a mind map, or a linear bullet list works well too)
- On subsequent pages, break each category out into key activities
- Expand each item with as many details as possible
- Identify the critical items for fastest results
- With a different coloured pen, give yourself any important target date
- Transfer any time-critical matters into your regular planning tool or diary
Leave your lists in sight while the work is in progress – on the flipchart stand, the whiteboard, or pinned on the wall. Even if you’re not actively looking at them every day, your subconscious keeps working. You’ll be delighted how many of the target dates are met, and how effective you feel. And again, as Martin and Warren noticed, it takes away the feeling of overwhelm.
The key to all three strategies is in writing things down – it unclutters the brain.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column