Do you ever feel overwhelmed? I suspect most of us do, whether or not we’d tell anyone. I tend to have a lot of projects on the go, and though I’m keeping my core focus on a couple of key goals, life inevitably involves a handful of other things too.
I’ve written before about putting off goals which don’t need to be done yet (and I’ve got several of mine on my “on hold” list at the moment). But what I want to explore today is how to cope when you’ve got several medium to large projects on your plate. I’m using “project” very loosely, to cover any long-term thing which involves regular work, and which progresses towards some finished state.
In some cases, very big projects involve multiple smaller ones: I view Aliventures as a project (it’s not just the name of my blog, it’s also my business name) – but it’s not something which has an obvious end-state. However, it does involve sub-projects along the way, like writing ebooks and setting up a newsletter (stay posted for more on those in a few weeks!)
On Saturday, I was looking at what I wanted to get done this week and feeling distinctly overwhelmed: how the heck am I going to fit everything in? The problem with this feeling is that it doesn’t lead to productive action: it can be almost paralysing, and I end up caught between various – perfectly good – options, and unable to choose between them.
If that sounds at all familiar to you, here’s what I do to cope with the “too much to do” feeling, and how you can get through a lot of work without ending up stressed and exhausted.
Finish Smaller Projects First
In personal finance, there’s a concept called the debt snowball. The idea is to pay off the smallest debts first – even if this isn’t the perfect way, economically speaking, to get out of debt. It works because it’s encouraging: you get a fast sense of progress at the start, which makes it easier to stick with it. Plus, with each debt that you knock off, it gets that bit easier to tackle the bigger ones.
I think the project snowball is a great life management equivalent. I know most experts advise working on your top priority project first, but sometimes it’s actually better to knock something smaller off your list, so that you’ve got more attention (and more enthusiasm) to tackle the bigger things.
Have you got something fairly small that’s dragging on your time and attention – something that, given a day or two’s focused attention, you could pretty much finish? Getting that one project done will free up some time, plus it’ll give you the completion satisfaction of being able to get something totally off your to-do list – and off your mind.
(If you’re interested, the start of my project snowball is an ebook I’ve been working on – and, more often, not working on – for a good while: I spent Friday revising it and then sent it out to some good folks who’ll be providing feedback before I do the final revisions and edits.)
Figure Out Priorities
Sometimes, overwhelm isn’t just a result of having a lot to do – it’s caused by having an indistinguishable mass of projects, touching on different areas of your life, all of which seem to have an equal call on your attention. Taking a step back to look at priorities can really help here.
You’ll find yourself happiest when your priorities take into account what matters to you … whether or not you feel that those things would have objective meaning. (Charlie Gilkey has a great video on how Meaning Comes From Us – give it a watch, if you’ve got a few minutes.)
All of these are valid ways to prioritise:
- Pick whatever’s causing you the most anxiety. E.g. if your financial situation is a source of worry, tackle that as a priority.
- Choose the goal or project about which you’d be most proud to say “I did this” at the end of the year.
- Start with the project which you’ve been putting off or resisting .
- Think about what you value most and put that first: maybe your family, your health, or your career.
Prioritising alone isn’t going to get everything done – but it lets you relax about the things which don’t get done. They’re less important. Prioritising is also a way to decide whether you can deliberately decide to drop something, or to postpone it.
Make a Checklist
When everything’s vague and nebulous in your head, it’s easy to get paralysed before even starting. There’s a vast gulf between where you are and where you want to be, and you know you’re not going to cross it overnight – or even, perhaps, in a year or two.
I inevitably get clarity and reassurance when I write a list. This is especially helpful if something seems rather scary or new! Most projects can be broken down into a step-by-step process. Even when you’re not sure what you need to do next, you’ll have a good idea how you can find out.
Before I started blogging here at Aliventures, I had a lot to do. I wanted to buy and customise Thesis, I wanted to have some content pre-written, and I wanted to promote my blog to encourage more people to come and read. For months, I’d been thinking about having a blog here – but I knew it would be a lot of work, and I kept putting it off. Eventually, I wrote out a checklist of the “pre-launch” work which I wanted to do, and I got on with it.
If you have a project that seems scary and overwhelming, can you figure out the next five or six small steps along the way? Good early steps are often:
- Finding (high quality) information about something
- Talking to someone who’s completed a similar project
- Brainstorming ideas about how to go forwards
- Purchasing necessary equipment or books
Get Enough Down Time
When I’ve got a lot on my plate, I inevitably feel that I want to work more hours – writing blog posts at the weekend, answering emails late in the evening, and so on. This is always counter-productive for me: it leads to me getting tired, fed up, and working inefficiently, maybe making silly mistakes or just producing sub-par work.
I’m sure that you, like me, find that there are some hours in which you can accomplish an astonishing amount – and some hours where you’re running on empty and struggling to focus. Don’t fight this: if you’ve had a busy week and you’re feeling exhausted, drained and unmotivated, you’re not being lazy – you’re just in desperate need of some down time.
Although I often do work at the weekends, I don’t keep to the same sort of schedule that I have in the week. I find that I’m much more motivated and able to work on a Monday morning when I’ve had time to relax on Sunday afternoon and evening, and if I take a whole weekend off, I find myself eager to get on with my projects again.
If your work is energy-intensive, make sure you’re getting the down time which you need. Don’t force yourself to work when you need a break: it might feel more efficient, but it’s not going to be at all effective in the long run.
Do you need to give yourself a break and cut yourself a bit of slack today, so that you’ve got the energy to work well tomorrow?
As always, your thoughts and responses are very welcomed!