Treading Water

Does it ever feel like no matter how hard you work that you are barely keeping your head above water?  That you never get everything done that you wanted to and are just barely keeping ahead of your obligations?

No matter if you are a stay-at-home Mom raising three kids, a work-away Dad trying to support his family, or college student trying to make the grade, we’ve all been there.

This is what you do about it.

Step 1 – Breathe

There is no situation that can’t be improved by taking a few deep breaths.  When it feels like things are coming too fast to handle or that you are frantically putting out fires, stop and slow things down with a few slow breaths.

I learned a technique called Box Breathing in The Way of the Seal by Mark Devine.  The technique is to breathe in slowly for a count of five, hold for five, breathe out for five, hold for five, and repeat five times.

This slows your heart, calms your mind and oxygenates your brain.  All requisites to calm decision making.

Seriously.  Breathe.

Step 2 – Make a List

This encapsulates the problem and puts everything into perspective so you can come up with a plan of action.  If you keep all the niggling little tasks running around inside your brain you expend an unnecessary amount of brain power just trying to hold onto it all.

Write them down.  All of it.  I call this a Brain Dump.  Get anything and everything that is on your mind down on paper.  Don’t make judgments, just write.  I’ll typically do this in four columns; one for call to make, another for emails to send, one for work tasks and another for personal.

You will likely have tasks floating around in your head that are really wish-list items.  Things like “write a play” or “build a canoe”.  Unless you are a canoe builder these probably don’t have much relevance to your life at this exact moment, so put then on a separate list called Maybe or Someday.

Step 3 – Quick Attack

This (and the preceding step) are taken directly from Getting Things Done by David Allen.  Start at the top and when you see a job that can be done in two minutes or less, stop and do it.  Cross it off and continue down the list.

Caveat!  Calls and emails are not included in this step.  Those columns are to be considered a single task each; this is task batching at its finest.

Choose those fast jobs that require you to get up and do something.  You’ve been sitting down too long at this point and need to work in some movement.

Step 4 – The Four D’s

You should now have a reasonably focused, pared down list.  What remains is a proper list of items that may, or may not, require action.

I’ve written about this previously, but there are only four ways to deal with any task:

  1. Do it
  2. Delegate it
  3. Defer it
  4. Ditch it

Go through your list using this filter.  Personally, I use a little symbol code that I picked up and expanded on from my use of Bullet Journaling.  If I’m going to do it I make a little dot to the left of the task.  Delegate, draw a right-hand arrow towards it, like the Enter key on your keyboard.  To defer I draw an arrow pointing at it.  And to ditch it I just draw a line through the whole thing.

Not sure whether you should ditch something?  Just ditch it.  Your indecision has already made the decision.

  1. Prioritize and Execute

Now you have a happy little task plan with a concrete list of important tasks that need doing.  Now all that is left is to pick one and focus on it through to completion.

Dwight Eisenhower came up with a great method for determining priorities, known as the Eisenhower Box.  It runs tasks through the filter of what is important, what is urgent, or both.

What is important may be urgent, but what is urgent is rarely important.

Have a paper due in the morning that could make or break your career?  That is important and it is urgent.  Focus on that.  Prioritize your most important, time-sensitive tasks, then focus on them one at a time through to completion.  Working in this fashion allows you to complete things with greater speed and higher quality than if you allow yourself to be distracted by minutia (email anyone?) and jump back and forth between no-consequence tasks.

Long Term Solutions

Now that your head is firmly above water it is important to keep it there.  The five previous steps can now be repeated indefinitely and take very little time to manage once the system is in place, but there are other tactics to consider if you want to avoid that sinking feeling in the future.

Start With No

This one is simple and hard at the same time.  Don’t say yes to every request that comes through your door.  Reducing your overall number of obligations is the easiest way to ensure you have more time for what really matters to you.  Embrace only what is wildly important.

I learned this lesson from a Captain I sailed with at sea years ago.  He would say no to almost any request that came through his door.  Later he told me that you can always reconsider that answer once you’ve had some time to think about it, and you would appear gracious when doing so.  But it is not so easy to change a yes to a no, as it makes you look like a prick.

Start with no.  You can always change your mind later once you are certain that the benefit is worth the additional workload.

Designated Days

Often it is the little life tasks that sap our energy the most.  Trying to get a dissertation done but that porch light needs changing and the car needs an oil change.

This is just another form of task chunking, but it can be helpful to designate your Saturdays to working on nothing but those tasks.  Put away your other works one day each week to close out those personal items, thereby clearing the path for the following week.

Then on the next day – rest.  Reduce your obligations to the bare minimum each Sunday so you can recharge for the coming week.  Focus on reading a book and cooking a nice meal, and not much else.  Your body, family, and sanity will thank you.

Stay Healthy

Eat right, prioritize daily exercise, and get enough sleep.  Strong routines enable this.  Your body needs to be able to physically carry your mental load.

Staying healthy mentally is a matter of personal satisfaction I have found.  Journaling helps with this, as it lets you clear the cobwebs each day and shines a light on dark thoughts which, when considered in the open, are usually not so bad at all.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, start with just three lines:

  1. A summary of what you did the day before and how you felt in retrospect
  2. A sentence on what you plan to accomplish today
  3. And something simple that you are grateful for

This works wonders in helping prioritize your day and starting off strong.

Get It Done

With our new always-on culture it is easy to think you need to keep hammering down on everything everyday. But by implementing these strategies, and applying dedicated focus to your work during the workweek, you will be able to accomplish everything you need to do and then some.  The key is to come at it with a plan so that you are managing your obligations efficiently, rather than having them manage you.

What do you do to get back on track when feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t Fear The Spotlight

There is a time for everything.  I’ve written previously about how greatness happens in the shadows, through the thousands of hours spent practicing while nobody is watching.  That time is important but it is equally if not more important to preach what you’ve been practicing when the spotlight turns on.

Display your practiced skill to the world at every opportunity, without self-consciousness and without fear.  If you value a skill highly enough to spend hours upon hours working on it alone then you should also jump on each chance to put it out into the world. Because it is during these times that the greatest lessons are learned.

Don’t Wait Until You Are Ready

You’ll never be ready.  There will always be some excuse lying in wait.  Some type of Resistance holding you back from just going for it.

I’ve been studying Spanish this year.  I strive to do an audio lesson every day when I’m in a car (in the shadows), then mark a little tic in my book for that day.  Alternately I’ll mark my daily practice as complete if I’ve had a short conversation with somebody in Spanish, which is pretty easy to do in Texas.  But it takes an extra force of will each time I start one of those conversations, despite them being well received every time.  Each time I have to push through the Resistance that whispers I am not good enough, or this is stupid.  But each time I’ve done so I learn more than during ten quiet sessions in the car.

Fear of the spotlight is the number one reason that people don’t succeed.  And that fear is entirely in your head.  The fact of the matter is that:

  1. People don’t think about you as much as you think they do
  2. People respect those who push against their current limits

The worst that can happen is mild embarrassment, while the best is a groundbreaking insight or flash of inspiration that will catapult your progress miles beyond your current level.  The reward is far greater than the risk.

You’ve Got to Ship

In any endeavor the circle is not complete until you have delivered.

What good is a body of work if it never sees the light of day?  What is the point of those thousands of hours sacrificed to the trade if it is never released into the world to stand on its own merit?  What if you no longer had to ask “what if”?

Doing the work is only the start.  You’ve got to complete the work.  And you’ve got to put it out there, under the spotlight of public scrutiny.  Only then can you wipe down the chalkboard and start something new, having taken the lessons learned into consideration.

Feedback is wildly important to improvement.  It teaches lessons that you can never learn in the shadows and accelerates your progress 10x.  It builds confidence and it highlights weakness to be focused on.

Skill Level Be Damned

One final point is that you need to put your work out into the world during every stage of your development.  If you wait until you are “good enough” you’ll have waited too long, and missed countless opportunities to speed up your improvement along the way.

The bulk of work will be done in the shadows, but we stay in the shadows too long because of fear.  Fear of ridicule and fear of the spotlight.  But you’ll find that people are incredibly supportive of those that are willing to stick their necks out, and those that ridicule us are secretly envious of anyone who has a strong commitment to improvement.

No matter the endeavor there is always, always somebody who will be better at it than you.  Don’t compare your progress with theirs; emulate or get inspiration from them and apply it to your own learning.  Do the hard work every day in the shadows.  Then step into the spotlight every chance you can.

Greatness Happens In The Shadows

Dwayne Johnson has a motto; always be the hardest working man in the room.  This mindset has served him well, with careers in football, wrestling, and entertainment, leading him to be the biggest actor in the world today (literally and figuratively).

During that same time, we have also seen social media go from zero to full ahead, with people putting themselves under the microscope.  Celebrities like Johnson allow us glimpses into their lives and show us the cars and jets and famous friends, so we assume that this is what their entire day is like. But what they are NOT showing us is where we should focus.  That is where the magic happens.

We see the Rock’s impressive build, but we don’t see the thousands of reps it took to get to that point.  We see the success of Game of Thrones, but don’t see the millions of words George RR Martin wrote before ever having a hit.  We listen to Sweet Emotion in the car, but don’t think that the Rolling Stones didn’t have to pay their dues.

The one thing that everybody who has accomplished anything has in common is that the real work didn’t happen in the spotlight.  That lasts only minutes.  The real work happened in the shadows, and that is the work of a lifetime.

Why do people put in thousands of unsung hours?  How do they grind out the reps each day, with no fanfare or recognition?  There are a number of skills required, but it all starts with one:


You must first believe in what you are doing; that it means something and has value.  Even if that value is only to you alone.  This can be a vision of where you want to be in the future, or just for pure enjoyment of the activity – love of the game.


I’ve been coming back to this topic again and again because I can’t understress its importance.  To improve you must practice every day.  You’ve got to live it.  You can’t just go into the shadows once; you have to live there for a large portion of your life.


Another popular topic.  Why work on something with only half a heart or half a mind?  When you go to the shadows you must give it your all. Focus relentlessly on your work and two things happen:

  1. It gets done faster
  2. It gets done better

This doesn’t only apply to how you work, but also what you work on. Focus on one thing and kick ass at it. Or focus on many things and succeed at nothing.


It gets lonely, working in the shadows. This needs to be balanced with friends, family, and good times. Think of them as micro-rewards. Or battery recharging sessions. If you live your whole life inside your head you can forget what and who you are living for.

Let Go Of Your Expectations

This last one is huge. You need to let go of any expectation of where your work will lead you down the line. You’ve got to embrace the suck, love the boredom, and keep pushing because you find meaning in your work that satisfies you on a personal level. Find satisfaction in the shadows so that you are not disappointed if you never make it into the spotlight. And hold your head high that it was not from a lack of effort.

Anyone you see, be it the Rock, GRRM, Keith Richards, or anyone else you admire – they got to the spotlight only through the shadows. Quit worrying about what other people are doing and focus on what you can do.

Start putting in the reps.