How not to get overwhelmed by tasks
Modern work is often complex and overwhelming.
In fact, just thinking about how much you have to do can stress you out so much that you procrastinate.
The problem is that when we see a list of tasks, the primitive part of our brain thinks that all those tasks should be done NOW.
Of course, we know we can't do 10 things at once on a more logical level, but the initial reaction is often feeling overwhelmed.
So how can we stop getting overwhelmed? How can we become un-overwhelmable?
Let's start with 3 reminders. They might seem a bit cliché, but they are important.
1. You can get it done
If you've been procrastinating a lot lately, your self-efficacy (= task-related confidence) will be low.
On a subconscious level, you doubt whether you can complete the project, write the thesis, or start a business.
You don't feel great about your work ethic and a lot of tasks have been on your to-do list for a while.
That's okay. It happens.
So let's start with a boost of confidence.
This is just a reminder for you. All of us have tackled innumerable tasks and projects before. Yet, for some reason, we still have a habit of doubting ourselves instead of trusting ourselves to get the work done.
Whatever task feels overwhelming right now, know that you can get it done. You've done difficult things in the past, so why doubt yourself now?
It's a matter of focusing for long enough to make progress, and doing it enough times.
2. Narrow it down to 1 task, right now
We often overwhelm ourselves. How?
We have long lists.
We think we need to get 20 things done today.
We don't clarify when we're supposed to do something.
This leaves us paralyzed. We don't know what to focus on. And so we don't start on anything, or switch between 5 different tasks, trying (and failing) to get all of them done.
We work best when we focus on 1 task at a time.
If you have a long list, eliminate non-essential items, or make a new short list for right now.
Narrow your list down to 1-4 key items. More than 4 and you'll get paralyzed.
And then start with 1 task. 1 email, 1 paragraph, 1 sketch,...
Here's an anecdote to illustrate this:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
—Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Start with 1 task, take it bird by bird.
3. Single-tasking is the fastest way to get things done
For so many people, multitasking has become a habit. Work an email here, a presentation there, reply to messages over there...
The problem is that this is cognitively demanding. We're not really working on 3 things at once, we're switching between those tasks. And every switch costs us extra mental energy.
As a result, we do a subpar job of our work.
So the last simple reminder is: single-task.
That's what our brain is wired to do.
Single-tasking is the fastest and best way to get your work done.
Take 1 task, focus on doing it well, then move on to something else. Don't switch.
With these reminders out of the way, we'll get into the nitty-gritty.
How to become un-overwhelmable
1. Create momentum
The more momentum you have, the less intimidating tasks will be.
Everything feels less intimidating when you're making solid progress every day.
Here's the most important principle for creating momentum.
Every day, strive to do more than 0.
More than 0 minutes of writing.
More than 0 minutes of coding.
More than 0 minutes of studying.
This is the first step, every single day. Do more than 0.
This trains you to approach the work, not avoid it. The more often you approach it, the less intimidating it'll be.
If you do nothing all day, then the amount of work to be done will seem infinite.
But if you're doing more than 0, the work becomes finite.
Additionally, when you put in even a little bit of work every day, all the information related to it will remain loaded in your mind. You don't need to reload the context for it. You know what to do next.
Do more than 0 every day. That's how you start building momentum.
Of course, you don't want projects to take forever. The sooner they are over, the better. In other words, your work rate is extremely important.
2. Find out your daily work rate
You need a way to track if you're making progress, especially for long-term projects.
Tracking your work rate makes your progress predictable, especially if the task is something you've done before.
For example, writer Brandon Sanderson knows that the 1st draft of one of his epic fantasy novels is anywhere from 400k words to 600k words. So he knows that about 5k words is 1%, and from past experience he knows that any given week, he can write 1-3%, or about 700 words a day if he writes every day. He knows this because he keeps a close eye on his writing process.
Now, if I were to tell you to write 1 000 pages of anything, you'd probably be intimidated, overwhelmed. But not Brandon. He knows that at a stable work rate of 2% per week, he'll have a draft done in 50 weeks. This turns the project from something infinite and endless into something finite, something that can be completed. Every day, he aims to get about 700 words. If he does that, he knows he's on track.
Now, this is a specific example, but most people can benefit from tracking their work rate. It helps us estimate how long things take, and it also clarifies what to focus on each day (700 words is doable).
So what can you track?
Depending on what you do, it could be:
- Words written per day
- Emails sent per day
- Topics studied per day
- Time spend coding/writing/editing per day
Find something to track, start by doing more than 0 minutes, and record how much you did at the end of the day.
This will give you your baseline.
If I continue at this rate, I'll be done in 5 days.
This gives you confidence. It turns "I need to finish this" into "10 hours of focused effort and I'm done."
Bonus: 3. Increase your daily work rate
Note: this is more of an advanced tip. The main thing is to start building momentum and track your daily work rate.
Once you know what your work rate is, the obvious step is to increase it.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but most everything is.
If you know that you can code for 2 hours, try aiming for 3.
If your usual study session is 30 minutes and then you take a break, try going for 45.
This is where strategies like creating a visual scoreboard or logging your time to find out how to manage it better can be helpful because they help you understand where you can make improvements and they also make the process more engaging.
So here are the reminders to not get overwhelmed:
- You've done mountains of work in the past; this is just another task.
- Shorten your to-do lists, narrow them down to 1 task and take it bird by bird.
- Single-tasking is the best and fastest way to get your work done.
Principles for becoming un-overwhelmable:
- Create momentum. Start with >0
- Figure out your daily work rate
- Bonus: Increase your daily work rate
That's it. Use these tips today to become less overwhelmed.