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Daily Archives: January 29, 2012

One of the most common frustrations I hear is “I’m so overwhelmed I don’t even know where to start – so I just don’t do anything!” I have certainly been there, and you probably have been too. The most difficult part of having too much to do, a back log of half completed tasks and a big old hot mess on your hands really is knowing where to start.

Here is how I figure it out. I hope you will be able to use this system or modify it to work for you. Please share your thoughts through comments!

I start with lists. Not one list, but many. Make a separate list for each part of your life: Work, Personal, Friends, Family, Upcoming Travel, Kids, etc. By compartmentalizing and breaking down one big list into multiple, smaller lists everything immediately becomes more manageable. Looking at one page of tasks will always be more heartening than flipping through 10 pages.

I use and love Tada Lists (from 37Signals), a free program that houses your lists online so you can access them from your phone or any computer. If you feel committed to paper and pen, I get it. Get one notebook and some adhesive tabs and you are all set. Place a labeled tab on the first page of each list for easy reference. The idea is to set this up so you will only look at one list at a time.

Put on your favorite jam (Beyonce), pour a glass of wine (Pinot Noir), light a candle (Target brand all the way) and close the door. Spend the time it takes to fill in each list completely with all of your to do’s in each category. Thoughtfully review your lists, making them as complete as possible. Once you have taken this inventory, you will have accounted for everything that needs doing and will have gained perspective about what your situation really looks like.

Next, look at your lists one by one. Grab a highlighter and highlight anything that is truly urgent. If you are using Tada Lists there is no highlight feature (dear 37Signals…), so use the reorder feature and drag all of the urgent things to the top of each list. Remember, very little is truly urgent, but some things that may get highlighted include:

  • flights that need to be booked because they get more expensive by the day
  • anything due in the coming week
  • anything you know will bring you immediate relief and add to your ability to tackle everything else, for example, a massage for your painfully tight shoulders (remember, even if it is for you and you alone, it can still be urgent and is important)

Now, starting with your first list, complete the highlighted, urgent items. Once you have finished all of the urgent items on the Work list, do not continue down this list to tackle un-highlighted items. Close the Work list for now and look at the Personal list. Do all of the highlighted, urgent items on the Personal list and move to the next list. Once you have completed the highlighted, urgent tasks on each list you will feel like you have lost 20 pounds, I swear it. The relief of having everything timely done on time will be palpable, and you will be encouraged by your success, which will spur you on to tackle the rest of it.

Now… time for the rest of it. Grab your highlighter again and highlight items on each list that will take 15 minutes or less to complete. Once you have finished highlighting each list, pick one list to start with and do all of the highlighted, quick items on that list. Continue cycling through your lists as before, completing the highlighted, quick items on each and moving to the next. Keep plugging away at the highlighted, quick items until all of them are crossed or checked off on each list. Feel encouraged? Like you deserve a cookie? You do! You are probably about 70% out of the woods here – don’t quit now.

The only items left on your lists now should be larger projects (book plan), items that take more than 15 minutes to complete (research), have many steps (figure out Europe trip) and involve coordinating moving pieces or many people (dinner at some point with 4 couples). Schedule time into your calendar to complete these more time consuming projects, or to outline how you will attack them in pieces. Stick to the plan and you will knock these items off the list soon enough.

Here we are then. Not only have you managed to figure out where to start – but you have started! And nearly finished! Ideally you will not find yourself in this overwhelmed spot very often, but realistically, it happens to the most organized and productive among us more than we might like to admit. More important than the constant struggle to stay on top of everything is to have patience and a plan for yourself when you become overwhelmed.

Don’t panic. Make a plan. Take a deep breath. Show your life who is boss.

Post authored by Brooke Stone.

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