There are those days where work just piles up sky-high. You start in the morning with too much work for the day and when you finish in the evening, the piles are even higher. No wonder that you feel exhausted and frustrated, especially if you cannot see the silver lining. The bad news is: There’s no way to avoid this completely. The good news is: You can be responsible for creating your own silver lining.
Acknowledging The Situation
The first thing you need to do – and it sounds easier than it is – is acknowledging that you are in exactly this situation. While it is easy to see this once everything is over, it requires some training to actively realize it while it is happening. If things pile up, the last thing you possibly want is to think about yet another thing you have to do.
You need to train yourself on answering the following two questions:
- Do you have too many tasks to complete all of them in time?
- Do you have a clear idea of all the things that need to be done?
If your answer to at least one of those questions is yes, it’s time to stop what you’re working on. That may sound counter-intuitive in the beginning – instead of completing at least some of your tasks, you should stop completely? Yes. And here’s why: Imagine you’re running on a treadmill. You – or maybe even someone else – set a very ambitious pace, but as you were full of energy and motivated for the run, you kept up quite well. But then your motivation fades away, the energy of the first kilometers is gone. You are a bit tired because you had to run at the top of your pace all the time to keep up. You notice that slowly, but steadily, you come closer to the end of your treadmill. You run a bit faster for a few seconds, and you are at the top of the treadmill again. Everything is fine, you tell yourself. But immediately, you come closer to the rear end of the treadmill again, and this time, you’re a bit more tired than before. You still decide to sprint again, and you succeed. This happens regularly now, and instead of keeping up with the pace all the time, you constantly change from being a tad too slow to having to run faster to be on top of things again. And then someone increases the pace. Just by a tiny little bit. Because you kept up so well with the old pace, and that tiny little bit more cannot really make a difference for you, can it? Yes, it can. You may be able to compensate for the higher pace a few times, but you know that you’re exhausted. You know you will fail. You know you will fall if you cannot lower the pace. And now imagine that person who increased the speed starts throwing small obstacles on your treadmill. Or decides to increase the speed again. You see where this is going…
Now think of your projects or tasks. Do you have a similar situation? At which point of the treadmill metaphor are you? And at which point would be the best point to stop? If it comes to the treadmill, I bet we will agree that we definitely should stop before any injuries happen. However, we tend to be much harder on ourselves when it comes to our mind. There is this toxic idea that it’s only too much to handle if you’re burned out already. Stupid, if you think about it, right? This would mean that we decide to run on the treadmill, knowing it will hurt to fall, but still not stopping or decreasing the speed until we really fall down.
So – the first thing that is crucial to realizing whether you need to stop what you’re doing is to think about your current workload, projects, capacities (and maybe your mental state) in terms of the treadmill metaphor. If you’re beyond the point of just running at a pace that is comfortable for you, it is already time to stop. Don’t wait until you fall down.
Sorting Your Thoughts
If you’re like me, you will maybe only stop once you have lost the overview over your tasks. If I ask those two questions, it’s most often a clear yes to the one that I don’t know how many tasks I really have at that moment. While struggling to keep up, I start just solving random tasks without an idea whether this is really what I should do in that moment. No matter how much time pressure you have: Take at least an hour off to sort your thoughts.
The goal of sorting your thoughts is to find out how bad your situation really is. Yes, this requires some bravery! Instead of closing your eyes and just moving on, you have to be brave and look the devil in the eye. Are you behind on most of your tasks, or do you just think it’s all too much because you don’t have an overview? Depending on your preferences, take an empty sheet of paper, open your favorite app for to do lists, or open a new document on your computer, and write down the following:
- Every task you need to do that comes to your mind. Just write them down as they come, don’t evaluate them. There’s nothing that is too small or big to be written down.
- All the tasks that you have not planned yet. This includes projects in which you need to do something, without knowing what that something is, as well as action items you need to follow up on.
This will give you a nice (and probably very long) list of all the things that you need to do. I like to do this in one sitting, but depending on your preference, you can also do this for a few minutes over the course of several days, or during the day whenever something comes to your mind. Just make sure that you always use the same list – using several lists at once will slow you own even more.
Once the list is complete, you are nearly done with the exercise. No really! Writing that list is the hardest part. The next step is sorting your tasks and deciding what to do next. There’s plenty of techniques out there how to prioritize and sort your tasks. Here’s my favorite two:
- The nearly done category: I put all the tasks which can be done in five minutes and below into this category. Just imagine you need five minutes for all of those tasks; that still means that in one hour, you can complete up to 20 tasks! This category may not lead to your big projects getting done, but it will give you that extra boost of motivation that you’ll need to tackle the big fishes.
- The better yesterday category: This is following the Eisenhower matrix (which you can of course also use for your prioritization). Instead of putting everything into one of the four quadrants, I just focus on the urgent-and-important one. These are the tasks that sit in your neck, that you cannot forget because you feel so guilty because you haven’t done them yet. Maybe someone is waiting for your answer. Maybe you set a goal for yourself that you couldn’t keep. The reason why I focus on these tasks is quite simple: They are the ones that keep your mind busy. You’ll have difficulties concentrating on anything else if you feel guilty about not following up on one of them. There’s a simple solution: Start with those.
I usually highlight the tasks in my list according to the category I put them in, using green for the nearly done tasks, and yellow for the better yesterday ones. Apart from this, I use some other colors to mark:
- Tasks where someone is waiting for my answer – even if it’s not that important to you, it might be for the other person.
- Tasks that are not yet clear or planned out: They will require some attention, better sooner than later.
- Tasks I would love to do – no matter whether they are considered important or not.
The last step you need is to be clear about the next action to take. This depends on the category – you can even be more specific and write an action item for all of your tasks, if you feel more comfortable with really writing it down. If you’re fine with using the category as the basis for your next action, here they are:
- Nearly Done: Just do it. No really – check the time, and don’t do anything else but solving tasks from this category for 20 minutes, an hour or a day. How long you can constantly work on those depends on your personal working style, and your concentration. Even 10 minutes mean that you can solve two of them! Don’t forget to check them off your list (because that feeling is just the best).
- Better Yesterday: Define one clear action item that you will do today, within the next 48 hours, or within one week. Use the SMART goal format and make sure that your action item is super realistic! Otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of unresolved tasks.
- Waiting For Answers: Either solve the task, or let that person know until when they can expect your answer.
- Not Clear Yet: Write down the first thing to do in this project or for this task.
- Things I Love: If those are not urgent, use them as a reward and write down when you will allow yourself to focus on them (and for how long).
Once you have finished this, you will have a colorful list and a clear plan of what you will do during the next days. If new things come up, you can add them to the same list – the longer you manage without creating separate lists, the better. You can also use this technique to sort out your thoughts every morning, or in the beginning of the week. If you make it a habit, it will take less and less time, but the benefit will stay enormous.