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?