Don’t Get Busy, Get Productive

Strategies for getting going when you’re feeling overwhelmed

We’ve all had those days (or months) when we feel totally overwhelmed and cannot seem to gain traction on anything. Our default reaction is often to either shut down totally, or get ‘crazy busy’.  When we are overwhelmed our decision making suffers and when there are too many choices of what to do next, we are often more likely to do nothing at all. I know for myself, I can always tell when I am getting overwhelmed because I start becoming deeply invested in a totally unrelated (and usually totally unnecessary) tasks, like cleaning. When I start ironing then I am in a really bad place. For me, ironing is a definite cry for help!

When we ‘get busy’ as a reaction to feeling overwhelmed, it is often the case that we still are not really making headway in what we need to and instead just running around. Being ‘crazy busy’ can often seem to be a badge of honor in the fast paced jobs we work in, but being this way is not enjoyable for anyone, is very often just reactive and does not really lead to progress. It is far better to be able to have a clear and focused picture of exactly what you need to do and then work smarter, not harder.  

Here are some steps that can really help when you are feeling overwhelmed:

1) Take a Break

It seems counter intuitive when there is so much to do, but taking a breather and a step back will give you a much clearer picture of exactly what you have going on and where you need to focus. Stress can distort our ability to accurately assess what we are dealing with, plus it negatively impacts creative thinking and problem solving. It is therefore essential to take a break and put things in perspective. Go for a walk, take a drive or do whatever will put you in a more calm and relaxed state of mind. Firstly, the situation is probably not as bad as you think it is.  Trust me. You cannot literally drown in paperwork. Chances are the consequences for not getting every single thing done on your to do list are not life threatening or anywhere near as bad as you may think they are. Take another deep breath and acknowledge the fact that you are a strong person who has gotten through worse before. For me, I remember the time I wrote a paper on the bus to college an hour before it was due, or the time I had to put together a training with no advance notice on a subject I knew nothing about. These things worked out. They were definitely not episodes I want to repeat, but I made it through ok. I am sure most people have dealt with similar situations, so when we are overwhelmed it is a good time to remind yourself that you can deal with difficult things and you have probably gotten through a lot worse.

2) Get a Clear Picture of Exactly What You Need To Do

Write it all down. This may initially seem to be scary and add more stress, especially if there are pages and pages of things to do, but it is far better to get everything written down in one place so you can clearly see what you need to deal with. It can be handwritten, typed or inputted into whatever system works for you, but write it down. If it’s written down then it’s off your mind. Ultimately, this will actually result in a clearer (and calmer) picture for you. Most of us probably have some form of list already, so it may just be adding anything missing to this to ensure it is complete.   

3) Prioritize Your Work

Identify your biggest priorities. Identify those projects and tasks will really move you forward. I find it best to stick to about 3 areas to really prioritize. I remind myself of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle. This is the principle that in most cases 80% of results come from only 20% of the work. This means that 2 items on your to do list will likely lead to bigger results than 8 other tasks combined. Look for these real game changers and focus on them to see significant results. The big priorities are often also big projects that can seem too large to even start to tackle so they get put off. The best way to tackle these is to simply break them down and identify the very next step you need to take. This will often be a very straightforward task that can be accomplished in a short amount of time, so you always want to have your very next steps identified. For example – instead of ‘organize conference’ the very next step might be ‘research possible conference locations’. It is much more manageable and easy to tackle. 

Let go of unimportant tasks. Look at your list and identify those things that you just might have to let go of or defer – you probably can’t do all the things that you have listed and some may have been pending for months or years. If they have been pending for an extended period of time then they probably are not that important. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon these forever. I like to put these items in a totally separate file of ‘someday’ tasks that I review periodically. At a later date these may be items you want to add back into your list of priorities when the timing is right. 

Delegate. Look at those things on your list that you can give to someone else or at least see if you can delegate part of the task. Ask yourself if you are the best person to be doing each task and if you are not then see if you can hand it off (it’s worth a try and it may allow others to rise to the occasion). 

Take care of any quick tasks. A general rule is that if something can be done in less than a couple of minutes then I just do it. Set aside a specific amount of time to just power through all these quick tasks and clear them off your list. It will help create momentum and also provides a sense of accomplishment. 

Say No to additional projects and tasks. There are clearly times when it is impossible to say no to additional work, but it is also important to not keep taking on so much more that you can’t keep up with everything. If you can’t keep up with what you have on your plate now, then you need to get more specific about what is important. If your time is precious then stick to your priorities and when new projects arise remember if your knee jerk reaction isn’t a ‘hell yes’ then it probably should be ‘no’. 

4) Set Aside Time and Focus 

It’s time to start working through your tasks and so the most critical thing is to be focused and purposeful. If possible turn off your email and limit other distractions. Look at your schedule and cancel or reschedule anything that does not take priority. Block out set amounts of time to complete items. Often tasks grow to fill the time you give them so be more restrictive – this often accelerates decision making and keeps things moving forward. I also do better when I add outer accountability. I, like the majority of other people, am an Obliger (from the Four Tendencies framework). This means that I am more likely to complete something when there is outer accountability from something or someone else. I therefore find it helpful to tell someone I am going to give them a completed project on a specific day instead of just promising myself that I will get it done.

If you have several items to focus on within the same day, try segmenting your work time into short, focused bursts. I have found the Pomodoro technique to be effective. This is when you set up time in blocks and spend 25 minutes working and 5 minutes resting. With this I can truly focus on a task, but still get a break and switch between different tasks.

When you are in a state of not feeling so overwhelmed then it is a good time to plan and prepare so this is not a frequent occurrence. Many of the systems and strategies I use are from David Allens ‘<a href="http://Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity""“>Getting Things Done’ framework – it requires that you spend a larger amount of time organizing all your work initially, but then it is much easier to keep on top of. It is also good to look at what is taking a lot of your time and investigate any tools and templates that are designed to improve efficiency. There also may be standard systems you can put in place to streamline tasks. For example, I get a lot of emails asking about eligibility for the services we provide so I formatted an overview of this topic  that I can send out as a quick initial response to these emails. This way I am not reinventing the wheel each time by writing emails about the same thing over and over again. There may be similar systems you can put into effect that take some work initially but ultimately save you time.

Being overwhelmed is no fun, but having a clear and calm approach in responding to it will allow you to make progress and also protect your own mental health.

What tools and systems help you stay on top of tasks?

How do you avoid the stress of getting ‘crazy busy’?

Are you one of those people who doesn’t iron only when stressed, but actually finds it to be a relaxing and beneficial activity?

Here are some resources:

<a href="http://Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity""“>Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

<a href="http://The 80/20 Manager: The Secret to Working Less and Achieving More""“>The 80/20 Manager: The Secret to Working Less and Achieving More by Richard Koch

<a href="http://The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too)""“>The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better by Gretchen Rubin

2 Replies to “Don’t Get Busy, Get Productive”

  1. When tasks have been prioritised by all means get rid of some easy hits but in respect of the others I think it is also worthwhile reviewing why you have placed them in that particular order. In particular question yourself whether any of them have simply been placed further down the list basically because you really aren’t looking forward to dealing with that task ie you think it might be difficult, unpleasant, there’s a good chance you might not like the potential outcome etc. Getting a task out of the way that you are not looking forward to is always a relief and is likely to also give momentum to the ones following.


    1. Totally Agree – someone commented on the Facebook Share of this to ‘Eat the Frog’ and get something big out of the way. When I look at my task list I look at what will move the needle the most and also what thing do I know I will try to put off and then tackle those first. I think a later separate blog post will be able doing the ‘Worst First’ – if you put off certain tasks they weigh on your mind and distract you from all the other stuff. Thanks for commenting.


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