Focus Up, Do More, and Stress Less

The Strategies of Effective Task Management

Productivity relies on more than sheer force of will. Powering through a mess of tasks at the expense of your sanity isn’t the same as efficiency. Even if you get a lot done, most people are left feeling unaccomplished or overwhelmed at the end of the day. Why? Because most things we agree to do are time-sucks and don’t actually contribute to our overall growth. We all do it: We all say yes to things that we don’t have time for, and overextend ourselves to breaking points in pursuit of finishing unimportant tasks in addition to our daily workload.

Then there are those who can’t even face their to-do lists and tend to blame distractions, or the lack of time in a day for why they can’t do as much. To them, it’s all a stressful, disorganized blur and making the to-do list isn’t enough to get motivated.

What’s really the problem in these two cases? If you had more time would you get more done? Or would you simply do more stuff without really furthering your goals? It’s hard not to get bogged down in daily minutia, and it can be daunting to try to get Every Single Thing done, but there are basic and manageable ways to combat these problems.

Here are ways to conquer stress and get more done in a day:

Create focus

I can’t emphasize this enough: Creating focus is the most important step because it sets you up to succeed. Focusing on what is truly important and valuable to you will help you curate your list and goals. Skipping this step can lead to a person focusing on the wrong thing, or too many things at once, which will indeed keep you busy, but not in the way you want. Focus is all about priority, and staying productive comes from having clear goals — and a trustworthy way to maintain them.

Maintain your goals with a task management strategy

Your brain creates stress when you are (a) constantly reminded of things you need to get done in moments when you cannot do them — for example in bed at night — and (b) when you realize you cannot get something done that you were supposed to, and now need to figure out what to do about it — in essence, creating even more tasks for yourself. To overcome these two mechanisms for stress, you need to:

  1. Find a good place to write down every task you have to do now and in the near future. This step can be a brain dump of every task you can think of because the goal is to get it all out. This step gives your brain a break, allowing it to switch off “reminder mode.”
  2. Try to group your tasks into categories like family, work, etc, and prioritize them by determining what is more immediate and what is further out, keeping in mind that long term goals may need immediate day-to-day action, and that priority is about more than just due date. (You can make your list on paper or use a productivity app. I created an app called Completo that facilitates this kind of prioritized list building for you.)
  3. Now, review all the tasks that you’ve written down in your list. Think about what the top three to five important areas of your life are. Categorize your tasks in those terms and see which ones fall into the important categories and the ones that don’t. You’ll see that at least half of your tasks aren’t really that urgent. This will free you up to stay busy with what’s most important to you.
  4. Within this pared-down list, choose your top three tasks for the week and prioritize them over everything else. Say to yourself “these things get done no matter what comes up” and then whenever you have a moment be sure to spend some time progressing them forward.

Stay flexible but don’t lose sight of priorities

Be sure to execute this strategy daily and weekly, but know that there isn’t such a thing as a “perfect week” so don’t cram the week full of tasks before you even start. Leave some room to be dynamic and deal with the real world effect of surprises happening.

Note: Your brain isn’t wired to multi-task, so don’t worry about trying to do everything all at once, but at the same time try not to get caught up spending the whole day focusing on one thing. Work on one thing until you can’t progress further and then move to the next priority item. Most of my own tasks involve calling someone, emailing someone or doing some further research. While I’m waiting for the answers to come back from these communications, I keep moving through the rest my tasks while keeping my priorities in view.

Setting yourself up each day with your prioritized list will help you maintain focus throughout the day. This ensures that no matter what distractions or interruptions you face, your goals will be in place and your productivity will be more tangible as a result.

Matt Girvan is the co-founder and president of My Gung Ho, LLC, which creates apps that help individuals and small businesses thrive, using the same strategies that help large companies succeed. Download the to-do list/task management app Completo and the personal wellbeing app GungHo.

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