By Ruth Fordyce
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre
Would you say that you are a productive person? Are you aware of all the current jobs needing your attention, and are you making good progress on them? Note that I am NOT asking whether you have ticked off everything on your to-do list, because for most people this will never happen. Most of us have more things to do, than time to do them in!
But if you are constantly feeling overwhelmed, forgetting things frequently, or unable to complete even your most important tasks, here are some ideas to consider.
Do a ‘brain dump’
Your brain is not designed to retain endless amounts of information in your current attention span. When you are feeling overwhelmed it’s really important to capture all the things you need to do. Get the list out of your head and down on paper or into your phone or computer. David Allen lists this as the first step in his highly popular “Getting Things Done” model. The key is to choose a place that you will regularly refer back to. I use an app in my phone called Errands. It’s always with me so whenever something pops into my head I can make a note of it, and set a date to complete it as well. I check my Errands list every day and re-work it often. Instead of worrying, “What am I forgetting?” or “What should I be doing?” I can trust that my list will remind me!
Learn more – David Allen’s book and website Getting Things Done
Invoke the ‘one minute rule’
Are there any tasks on your list that would actually take only a minute or two? (for example, calling to make an appointment). If so, do it right now. This gives you an immediate sense of achieving something! In the future, before adding something like this to your to-do list, consider just doing it straight away. That way, you are not wasting time writing it on a list and then possibly procrastinating about it.
Learn more – Gretchen Rubin on the ‘one minute rule’
Break large tasks into chunks
In contrast to these easy-to-complete tasks, there might be others on your list that will take many steps and repeated effort over weeks to complete. If you write a task that is too large on your list, you are even more likely to do nothing about it or procrastinate about it. Instead, think about what the steps would be to complete the task and write the first step as an item on your to-do list.
I used this tip with this very blog post. The idea of “I have a blog post to write” feels overwhelming and therefore I tend to put it off. However, breaking this into chunks works for me. The first chunk might be brainstorming ideas and writing them down for 15 minutes. The pressure is off because I don’t need to complete the post, or for the ideas to be fabulous at this stage. The idea is just to get started. Most people find once a task is started, it becomes much easier to complete.
I find this point is ALWAYS listed in any article about productivity! And for good reason. To feel truly productive, just ‘getting things done’ isn’t enough. We need to be getting the things done that actually matter. In my experience, prioritizing well is a skill that takes a long time to learn. Each day, as new tasks emerge and new challenges need to be addressed, we have to adjust priorities accordingly. I find it is always worth my while to take a few minutes each day to stop and evaluate all the things I’d like to get done, and then consider, “If I got nothing else done today, what is the one thing that is most important to complete?”. Doing that one thing, as early as possible in the day, makes a huge difference! This has also helped me redefine ‘productivity’ in my parenting role. One some days, the ‘one thing’ I need to do is care for a sick child. All the other jobs fall by the wayside, which is frustrating, but it helps to remind myself that I really am doing the most important work for that day!
Use the power of habits
Are there tasks that you need to get done repeatedly? Do you find yourself procrastinating on some of these tasks because you lack the willpower or motivation to get them done? Exercise fits into this category for a lot of people, but so do a lot of administrative tasks like filing or opening and sorting the mail.
It might be helpful to learn how to build a habit in order to get this task done more repeatedly. Habits are behaviours that we tend to do automatically in response to certain triggers. For example, most of us don’t need much ‘motivation’ to brush our teeth before going to bed. It’s something we do with barely any thought because it’s so strongly associated with cues like putting on pyjamas or thinking about bedtime.
Students can set up habits such as getting home from school, getting some afternoon tea and then immediately sitting down to do homework. A further step might be starting with a particular subject each time – for example, maths if this is the subject that needs most practice, followed by working on any assignments that are due soon, and so on. If this routine is consistently followed, it becomes easier and less effort and thought is required each time to follow through. Instead of wasting mental energy thinking, “shall I start my homework now or later? … which subject should I do first?” and so on, the habit reduces the amount of decision making and motivation required.
Another habit might be that each time you check the mail, you immediately open it and throw away any junk, then sort bills and schedule payments for these, or place them in a specified place to deal with later. Set aside a time in your week to deal with the bills, then reward yourself with something pleasant afterwards – another sure way to make habits stick!
Learn more – James Clear has a fantastic website devoted to the science of creating good habits.
ONE LAST BONUS TIP! … Pick one of these five and work on it this week!
You may have come across some of these points before or perhaps they seem quite simple and obvious – but how well are you actually using them? These strategies only make a difference when implemented with consistent effort over time.
So which tip would be most helpful to you at present? Get started today and take note of how it affects your productivity in the coming weeks. Good luck!
Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.