Below are the best tips for dealing with overwhelm and increasing productivity.
1. Calm down. You cannot do any of these tips if you are feeling stressed. Do 5 minutes of something relaxing before trying any of these tips.
2. Set priorities and goals. Where do you want your business to be in 12 months? What is most important, right now, to get you to your 12-month goals? Pick just three goals for 12 months. If you complete them, you can always add another one later.
3. Centralize your To Do list. Because I’m at my desk most of workday, I have a To Do file right on my computer that I can easily access and update. Whether you keep your To Do list on your smart phone or in a notebook, make sure you can get your hands on it quickly. When a new idea comes up, you have a place to put it immediately, instead of trying to keep track of it in your head. This is so liberating!
4. Focus. Choose one task and focus solely on that until it is complete. Stop multitasking; it will only lead you to feeling more overwhelmed.
5. Set a timer. Work on one task for 20 minutes, and then take a break. Every week, work for 5 minutes extra (25 minutes instead of 20, and so on) to help rebuild your focus, sustained attention span and ability to concentrate. Pay attention to when you start to become distracted and work with your natural biorhythm to take mini-breaks when you need them. Most adults can pay sustained attention for 20 minutes before becoming distracted. (Most adults can renew their attention to a task after being distracted, too.) I use a timer from TimeTimer to keep track of my 20-minute work segments.
6. Know how long it takes. I am notorious for assuming that tasks take much less time than they actually take. I block out 15 minutes for a task then discover it actually takes 30 minutes. I have learned this simple rule: whatever you think a task will take, double it. That way you won’t add too many tasks to your daily calendar and you will feel less stress because you know you’ve given adequate time to every task. Plus there’s a nice added cushion of time for a tea break!
7. Simplify. Is your business too complicated? Should some of your manual tasks be automated? Take a deep look at every task you do and ask yourself if there is a better, easier way to do it, or if a piece of software could do that task for you.
8. Know your Productivity Peak. When is your best, most productive time? Most creative time? For me, it’s 8AM to 2PM. That is the time when my intellect and my creativity is flying high. So I use that time to work with clients, teach classes, write books, and create training programs. Knowing and using your personal productivity peak times will help you be more productive and produce better quality work. Use your non-peak time for maintenance items that don’t require much brainpower (or willpower).
9. Give yourself the gift of distraction. Sometimes we push ourselves too hard. Owning a business is a marathon, not a sprint. Every few hours, take a break from your work. Step out your front door and get a breath of fresh air. Play some music. Go for a walk. Read a fun book. Have coffee with a friend. Do anything that takes your heart and mind away from business. You will be rewarded with a clear mind and a fresh perspective when you get back to work.
10. Get rid of clutter. For many people, when there are too many things in your visual field of focus, it is hard for your brain to concentrate on the task at hand. If out of sight really does mean out of mind, keep a file drawer for paperwork and put a note to yourself in your To Do list about where to find the necessary paperwork or email when you’re ready to work on that task.
11. Know your RQ (resistance quotient). Discover what you’re resisting when you use distraction and procrastination instead of doing your work. Stop self-sabotaging your success.
Specific Things You Can Do to Deal with Overwhelm
12. Just say no without guilt. Too often we try to please everyone and end up with too much on our plates. When you are feeling overwhelmed, look at the people and projects you’ve say Yes to that perhaps you should have said No to. Here’s a practical article I wrote on how to say no to people when they ask for your time. Look at your To Do list and ask yourself if you can simply say No to any of the tasks. Remember, you are in control of your task list and your calendar. Only you can overbook yourself, so only you can say No to requests for your time.
13. Clear your desk. There is no better feeling than starting fresh and getting a complete handle on everything that needs to be done. By going through every paper, every pile, every note, you consolidate and prioritize. Remember to use your centralized To Do list and throw away all those individual To Do notes!
14. What’s most important? Each morning, enter your office and ask, “What are the MOST important tasks to get done today?” Make a careful balance about short-term emergencies and long-term tasks so that you can meet your goals without getting swept-up in daily disasters.
15. Do it. Sometimes, a bare-knuckle commitment to getting things done is necessary. That pesky colonoscopy you’ve been putting off? Do it. That phone call to a disgruntled employee? Do it. That 3,000 word article? Do it.
16. Ditch it. Some projects were never meant to be. Some catalogs and magazines can be thrown away.
17. Delegate it. Ask for help. Look at all the tasks you do, and for each one ask, “Am I the only person who can do this task in the entire world?” Some tasks are your sole providence; others can be delegated to a website designer, graphic artist, administrative assistant, etc.
18. Work for results. Which things you currently do are giving you the results you want? Stop wasting time on things that don’t give you the outcomes you want, even if other people tell you that you “have to” do them. Stop listening to gurus and start listening to your own intelligence and experience. The only thing that matters is whether you are creating the outcomes you want.
19. Get into task habits. For instance, the first thing I do each morning is handle emails from clients and students. Then I do social media because it allows me to use a different part of my brain. Next, I look at financials. Then I prep for that day’s client calls and classes. These four tasks take me about 60 minutes, warm up my brain, and allow me to serve my clients and students first, before getting into the main part of my day. Each afternoon before I leave, I plan my projects/tasks for the next day, answer any last-minute emails, and straighten up my desk. Having task habits each day allows you to get the important daily tasks done in an orderly fashion.
20. Chunk your schedule. Do you have scheduled time each week for marketing? For administrative work? For speaking with clients? If you block out scheduled time each week for your work, you will know that you have a plan for how to tackle the work. For instance, I use all day Friday to write articles, books and new classes. I use Monday morning for administrative work. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1PM. What does your ideal workweek look like?
21. OMD: Off My Desk. Make a concerted effort to handle each item that comes across your desk ONCE. Do not stack it in a pile and think, “I’ll get back to it later.” Each morning, make a clean sweep of your desk while reciting the mantra: OMD, OMD, OMD!
22. Bit-sized chunks. Divide big projects into mini-tasks. Grab a piece of paper and write down all the tasks you can think go into the project. Divide any task that takes more than 60 minutes into smaller, doable chunks.
23. Find it in 60 seconds or less. Create a rule for yourself that you will be able to get your hands on anything in your office in 60 seconds or less. When you put something away, put it away in the most intuitive place you can think of, so that it will be at your fingertips when you need it. Find a home for every item in your office and return it to its home after each use. Fall in love with your filing cabinet.
24. Just three tasks a day. Stop overscheduling your time. Choose just three tasks a day to complete. If you are done early, you can always take on another task (or escape from the office for a little hard-earned play time).
25. Admit that you will never get caught up. Your To Do list will never be empty. Humans are the only animal who, once they complete a task, create new projects and tasks to occupy their minds, their time, their creativity, their energy. We’re hard wired this way.
26. Stop multitasking. While there are conflicting scientific research findings about whether multitasking causes productivity loss or not, my clients tell me that trying to do too many things at once causes them to do a poorer job, both in productivity and quality of work.
27. Out of sight, out of mind. When you need to focus deeply on a task, especially for a long amount of time, try clearing off your desk first. We get overstimulated, visually, by having many items within our view. By putting them out of sight, you can then focus more fully on the task in front of you. I use this technique when doing in-depth strategy work for myself or with clients. It forces my visual focus, and therefore my mental focus, on just one thing.
28. When you need to focus, get away from your desk. When I’m working on a big project, like writing a book, I find it best if I take my laptop and leave my office. If the weather is cooperative, I will go site by the lake and write; if not, I will find some quiet corner of a coffee house or hotel and write there. Even moving from your office to your living room will help. Because there is nothing else to grab your attention, you are able to focus for longer periods of time.
29. Check it off. Make a list (a To Do, a Task list for a big project). Put a big checkmark next to each task when you get it done. It’s very satisfying!
30. Make an appointment with yourself. Having a To Do list is great, but the real payoff comes when you move tasks from your To Do list and put them in your actual calendar as an appointment with yourself. In this way, you can estimate how much time something will take, and know that you have blocked out enough time to get it done.
31. Celebrate. When you get done with a big project, don’t automatically move to the next one. Find some wonderful way to celebrate your achievement!
32. Put on your CEO Hat. What are priority tasks for the ultimate success of my business? Sometimes what seems like the right thing to do in the moment is exactly the wrong thing to do for the future.
33. Get it out of your head and on to paper. Are you trying to carry your entire project plan in your head? Are you carrying your shopping list and your weekend appointments in your head, too? Stop it! Find a place to write down all these things, and use it consistently, so that you have a clear mind.
34. Unsubscribe. Do you belong to too many email newsletters that you never read? I have a litmus test: Every quarter, I go through all the email newsletters I have received from a specific person. If I don’t find at least one brilliant idea, one great tip, or one deep insight, I unsubscribe. By knowing why you subscribe to email newsletters, and using those values to judge whether a newsletter is delivering value to you (or not), you’ll easily be able to unsubscribe from those that don’t meet your needs. Life is too short to wade through emails that don’t sing to you.
35. Close down your email and social media sites during peak work periods. It’s too distracting, too tempting. (It’s like not keeping ice cream in the house when you are on a diet.)
36. Set up a good filing system. Keep big projects in their own 3-ring binder or an electronic folder on your hard drive, so that all your material is in one place. Archive old financial papers, client files, etc. into storage drawers or boxes.
37. Create an at-a-glance project planner. I juggle many projects each month. So once a month I grab a piece of art paper and create multiple squares, one square for each project. In each square, I write down the five most important tasks that need to be done for that project in that month. When I glance at it, I can see how all the puzzle pieces fit together and where the demands on my time will be felt the most.
38. Big rocks first. Do you know how to plan your priorities? This wonderful video with Stephen Covey will help you see the big picture.
39. Perfectionism kills. I know, because I tried to do every task perfectly and it nearly killed my business. Some tasks are critical for your success and need to be as good as they possibly can be. Other tasks are not so important and just need to be done without a lot of glory or perfection.
40. Backlink tasks to a project deadline. If you have a project with a deadline (like a class that starts on a certain date), put that deadline in your calendar. Then, working backwards, fill in the tasks on your calendar that lead up to the project conclusion. Then you will know when you have to start the project in order to complete the tasks in time.
41. Allow for Murphy’s Law. No week is complete without something going wrong. So plan for it. Allow time in your week for tasks to take longer, phone calls to take longer, emergencies to crop up. You’ll be happier planning for breathing space.
42. Action alleviates anxiety. Pick one high-priority task on your To Do list and do it. Nothing relieves stress better than getting off your butt and taking action. Don’t fall in the trap of picking a low-priority task just because it is easy. Do the things that matter.