Simplifying: When You Have Too Much to Do
Post written by Leo Babauta.
One of the biggest problems people face when it comes to beating procrastination is being overwhelmed by too many things to do.
Picture a man who has a to-do list that goes down to the floor. Where does he even start? And as he’s contemplating that question, 5 emails come in asking him to do more things, and he gets a call asking for something else, and then his boss comes in telling him that a new urgent task needs to be done by 3 p.m.
It’s hard to get priorities straight in an environment like this, much less work on the important things with focus. The important tasks get pushed back for the urgent.
So what’s to be done? One of the techniques that works best for me is simplifying.
Simplifying in this case is paring down the number of things you plan to do, or that you’ve committed to doing. It gives you some breathing room and allows you to take the time to focus on the important things.
Simplifying isn’t always easy — it means saying “no” to people, and to things you want to get done. But if we start with a recognition that we have a limited capacity for work, and that there’s only so much we can do, we know that piling too much on our plate means we’re not really going to get everything done. We’re not being honest with ourselves. Trying to do everything means you won’t get everything done, and the things you do get done will probably be done poorly.
So how do we simplify? Some ideas:
- Make a list. If you don’t already have a good list of everything you need to do, from small tasks to big ones, start now.
- Pick five important tasks. Go over your list, and put an asterisk next to five important tasks (if your list is on paper), or move the five most important to the top (if it’s on the computer). These are the ones you’re going to worry about for now. The others will be on your “later” list.
- Pick one task from the five important ones. You can focus on this first. The other four on your short list can be worried about after this first one.
- Pick five small tasks that you want to get done soon. They might be emails you need to reply to, small things that need to get done, etc. Schedule a block of time to do that later this morning or afternoon. You’re going to get your important task done first, but you’ll get to the small but pressing ones in a bit.
- Create a “someday” list. Move tasks that aren’t super important or urgent to this someday list — you can do them next week or next month if you like.
- Eliminate. Find some of the less important things on the list, and cross them off if possible. If necessary, call or email someone and tell them you just don’t have time to do that task right now. Eliminating projects and longer term commitments will also go a long way to keeping your work day simple.
- Renegotiate. Sometimes you can’t just say no … if possible, call or email the person and tell them it’s not possible to do the task right now, but you might be able to get it done next week (for example). Renegotiating gives you some breathing room.
- Say no to new tasks. It’s very easy to say yes, but in reality we can’t possible do everything that’s requested of us. So say no to everything new unless it’s super important — even if it’s really tempting.
- Block off time for the important stuff. Have an hour or two in the morning and an hour in the afternoon for working on your big tasks.
These are just some ideas for simplifying, to give you an idea of how it’s done. In general, keep “simplicity” in mind as you look at your to-do list and any incoming requests.