4 Powerful Steps to Limit Stress and Get More Done



You know what it's like when you're extra-busy.  Don't you feel unsettled by the pressure and anxiety of having to do and remember more?


Lately I've had a longer-than-usual to-do list.  Deadlines loom and they must be met, and it feels a bit overwhelming.


I'm fairly organized, so I usually have everything on one list.  Some people don't use just one list.  Their tasks might be scattered across different organizational systems, in email inboxes, in browser tabs, on Post-It notes and random pieces of paper, and in their heads.


We all need to find ways to deal with the stress, the fear (of forgetting, of failing), and the lack of ability to focus.




4 Ways to Handle a Long To-Do List


1.  Become clear about priorities.

When I don't figure out what matters, when I respond to everything with the same urgency, then I'm stressed and scattered.  I'm more likely to forget or leave something undone, which could make real problems.


When you know what's essential, you can focus.  The rest can wait.  It's as if you're a doctor performing triage, and the person having the heart attack gets cared for before the dozens of people with ankle sprains, sore throats, and weird purplish rashes.  Nurses or physician's assistants will get to those others, but the person who can't survive without your attention gets it.


So get clear on what matters to you.  Think about why, and make a list.  It's worth spending some time on this.  You might even decide that some of your commitments should be delegated or given up completely.  I can only think about doing that when I've decided what's most important.


Decide what matters and give your time and energy to those things.  You'll be so much calmer and more effective than if you give everything equal weight.


2.  Change your attitude.

This is an idea from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.  He points out that when you feel overwhelmed and stressed by your list of tasks, it's a sign that you think of them as burdens.  You're letting your fear of failure, of looking incompetent or stupid, or of letting people down get the better of you.


I've often felt this way when faced with a task.  I do fear being unable to perform, or producing something that is less than what people expect of me.  It's a little like stage fright.  As a long-time professional singer, I know something about that.  


Here are ways to deal with stage fright that I've found effective.  I think some of these methods can empower us to take on other tasks.  For example:


  • Think of the task as a challenge: a way to grow, discover, and create.
  • Appreciate and rely on your past experience.  Your past failures and successes have prepared you for this task, because you've learned from all of them.  
  • Begin.  Rather than spending time in fear and doubt, step out and do it.  Breaking free of inertia lets you access your energy and forward momentum.  Simply settling to the task may be half the battle.
  • Slow down when you encounter a difficult section of your work.  Stop and consider different ways to approach the problem.  Don't let yourself give up and move on to something else, because you'll keep delaying and procrastinating and never reach a solution.  Even five minutes' focus on a detail can make a big difference, perhaps even leading to a breakthrough.

These are examples from my life, but you may have other methods that help you.  Find them and put them to practice.


3.  "Shortlist" your tasks.

You may still have a long list of important jobs to do: some for work, some for family, some for finances, some that are personal.  But this long list can't all be accomplished today.


So, as with the National Book Award, create a shortlist.  This is the stuff you plan to do today, reduced from that long list of candidates for your time and attention.  


I try to keep my shortlist to no more than four or five things, but more or less may work best for you.  Sometimes I group several very short tasks together (like phone calls) as one "chunk."  Meetings or appointments also need slots on the shortlist.


Think about what must be done today.  What would be a powerful use of your time and energy today?  Focus on those things, and let the rest come later.


4.  Single-task.

You know your priorities, you've improved your mindset and approach to dealing with tasks, and you've created your shortlist.  The final piece of the puzzle is to focus on one thing at a time.  If you can practice this regularly, you'll feel less overwhelmed.


I've had jobs where I had bookkeeping tasks to accomplish, clients to greet and serve, and a boss who might hand me a new project at any time.  I've met the needs of two young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.  Juggling multiple assignments made me feel rushed.  I would lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where I left off.  I didn't always give my full attention to one thing at a time, so everything took longer.


We've been told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently, but our brains don't work that way.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains switching frantically back and forth between jobs.  It's a practice of constant interruption, and leads to a condition rather like attention deficit disorder.  And when our attention is diffused, we accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.  


When you single-task, you pick something important to work on and clear everything else away.  You decide to be immersed in your task.  It's the only thing in front of you for 15 or 30 or 60 minutes.  You may feel the urge to do something else, but you're simply going to acknowledge the urge and then bring your focus back to the task.



Isn't it ironic?


We get more done when we focus on fewer things.


I'm going to take a deep breath and try this today.


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