1 Simple technique to avoid feeling overwhelmed and focus better
You look at a long to-do list or just think about work. A wave of stress washes over you.
You don't feel like doing any of the work. You should have started earlier.
You get so stressed you go check email or Twitter instead.
Most of us know this scenario. How can we avoid this procrastination cycle?
Before we describe how to use 1 specific technique to do that, here's a list of things that lead to us, feeling overwhelmed:
Repeating to yourself how much work you have to do.
If you repeat to yourself phrases like:
"I have so much to do."
"I don't know if I can do this."
"I should have done this a week ago."
You will only get more stressed and feel even more overwhelmed. Notice these thought patterns and stop.
Staring at long lists of tasks.
We're not build to do 10 things at once. When we look at a list with 10 tasks, we think we need to do all at once. Instant stress.
Not pausing to concretize and prioritize.
Before you can be productive, you need to figure out what you need to do. Big poorly defined tasks are clouds of needless stress.
Additionally, even if you have a to-do list, not all tasks on it need to be done. And not all need to be done right this second.
There's more factors, but these often contribute to procrastination, triggered by feeling overwhelmed.
So how to not get overwhelmed?
Create a temporary short list
Yes, you probably have tens or even hundreds of tasks you could do, but you also got only about 16 hours every day to get done the most important ones.
So the first thing you need to do is to figure out what those are.
1. Find 1-4 tasks that need to be done today/tomorrow
What 1-4 tasks matter the most?
Writing 2 pages? Creating 10 slides? Sending an email?
Focus on what matters the most, not what is urgent, but unimportant.
Just the practice of asking yourself about what's most important will help you hone your prioritizing skills.
2. Write those on a post-it note or index card
Write the 1-4 items on a piece of paper and keep it in front of you the whole day.
Now, you might be using a digital task-keeping tool. We strongly advise you use paper and pen for this. There are 2 main reasons for this:
- It's too easy to close your to-do app and when you do that, you easily forget what you meant to do. Out of sight, out of mind.
- To-do apps aren't build to use these short temporary lists - they always show you more to-dos, more due dates, more icons - exactly what you don't want to see.
Paper cards, on the other hand, stay in front of you and display only the stuff you need.
3. Place the card in front of you
Place the post-it note where you'll see it the whole day.
Every time you glance at it, you will be reminded of what matters the most.
You'll also be super conscious of whether you're working on the important things or not, which will make you more aware of what work matters.
(4. Write down other things as needed)
During the day, you'll probably get done other things that aren't on your short list, you can write those down on a separate post-it, or on the other side of the card (as described bellow).
This serves one main purpose:
we tend to forget what we did in the past.Then we can think about yesterday and not remember how much we did. That's demotivating.
A written record of what you did reminds you that you made progress (and gives you a good dopamine hit).
That's the technique.
It takes about 5-10 minutes and can truly help you focus.
The ideal time to do this is either the day before or as the first thing in the morning.
However, you can do this any time of day.
1PM and you still haven't written your short list? Do it then.
Haven't written your short list yesterday? No matter, do it today.
Curiously, after using this technique for months ourselves, we found out that Marc Andreessen, an investor and one of the people who helped build the Internet as we know it, has been using a variation of it for a long time:
Each night before you go to bed, prepare a 3x5 index card with a short list of 3 to 5 things that you will do the next day.
And then, the next day, do those things.
I sit down at my desk before I go to sleep, pull up my Todo List (which I keep in Microsoft Word's outline mode, due to long habit), and pick out the 3 to 5 things I am going to get done tomorrow. I write those things on a fresh 3x5 card, lay the card out with my card keys, and go to bed. Then, the next day, I try like hell to get just those things done. If I do, it was a successful day. People who have tried lots of productivity porn techniques will tell you that this is one of the most successful techniques they have ever tried.
Once you get into the habit, you start to realize how many days you used to have when you wouldn't get 3 to 5 important/significant/meaningful things done during a day.
He also writes the other things he's done that day on the other side of the index card to capture what he completed (and feel good about it).
Here's the summary:
- Identify 1-4 most important tasks for today / tomorrow
- Write them on a paper card
- Place the card in front of you
- Record your other accomplishments
Try it for yourself today to see how well it works.