How to get on top of things
Use these three essential ingredients to move beyond overwhelm to sustainable work habits that help you sleep at night
I wondered about posting this in the midst of, you know, the world burning, but I reckon whether you’re holding on to your job because capitalism, or if you’re organising for social and climate justice, you still need to know how to filter all the stuff you could be doing and decide what you’re going to do, right?
It is not straightforward knowing how to deal with the demands of complex jobs and complex lives. Overwhelm and procrastination are natural outcomes of not having systems in place to handle too much input for the tiny pipe that human beings are.
Task overwhelm is when there are too many things-to-do for us to hold in our head at once. It makes it really hard to decide what to do and what not to do and can lead us to unhealthy habits: freezing, overwork, random efforts, procrastination…
Procrastination is when there’s something we feel like we are meant to be doing, and we are avoiding doing it on that timescale. Some of its roots are simple and some of them are complex.
I have a complicated history with ‘productivity’, ‘time management’ and procrastination.
I found myself teaching productivity but had secret, chronic, debilitating procrastination. I’ve trained people over the years in ‘time management’ and ‘productivity’ systems, including being Europe’s lead trainer for a system let’s call Mission: Impossible.
I’ve tried out several different systems, including Getting Things Done and Bullet Journal and worked hard on procrastination (this book and this book really helped me with the darker side of procrastination).
In addition, I’m also immersed in reading on complexity, chaos and emergent strategy, so I’m well aware that pretending we’re robots in a factory isn’t going to fit complicated, ever-changing project-based jobs.
I think I’ve mainly come out the other side with some basic patterns that you can use to create a system that works for your brain and routine and job, and that can flex as things change.
(Non-neurotypical people — people with ADD/ADHD or other conditions or disabilities that affect short-term memory and your style of focusing — sorry, I’m definitely coming from a neurotypical position here. My hope is that the principles I introduce might have enough flex in them for you to adapt them to the way that you work. Let me know if there are things that would help for me to include and I’ll edit them in.)
There are three main practices that seem to be common to most systems that help you get on top of stuff.
One of the major mistakes we make when we’re swimming through the world is trying to hold everything or nearly everything in our head. (Remember, I speak as a recovering chronic procrastinator — please know I’m writing this with a major dose of self-recognition.)
Either you never make a list, or you make one for that day just to get the few things that are totally on top of your mind in front of you or you have several lists in several places.
Result: the feeling that important things might be falling through the cracks.
Also: open loops burning cycles in your brain at all times.
This is exhausting.
You want to close loops but you can’t close the loops by getting everything done. You never get to the end of your list. Not whilst you’re in work.
I think there is, however, a collective sense memory of when you finished school or university or a job and for a brief few days/weeks, you had nothing on your mental list. I have a theory we’re unconsciously chasing that feeling again. But it never comes — we think that having a bunch of unfinished stuff is bad and if we only just GOT IT TOGETHER we’d hit that halcyon task inbox zero again. But our heads always feel so FULL.
The first thing we need to do is get all that stuff out, and into, here’s the kicker, ONE place.
Yep, I’m going to be momentarily hardline and say: you need one place to capture EVERYTHING that goes through your head to do.
Life admin, work stuff, big stuff, small stuff, things you mean to do, things you dream of doing, things people request via email or slack or whatever, things to buy, send, get rid of, fix, sell, say, write, read… All of it.
This means you need what we used to call in my Mission: Impossible days a capture tool. It needs to be accessible at all times and very simple to use.
That probably means: a notebook, an audio thing or an app on your phone. If you can make it work with index cards or butterfly postits where you know it’s all gonna be in one place, you’re not going to lose anything and you can capture things at pretty much any moment? Go for it.
Whenever something occurs to you, you capture it.
The idea is never to hold ‘Must do x, must do x’ in your head. You know when you go ‘Oh! Crap!’ as a loop from the back of your mind leaps above the waves momentarily? You capture it right away.
After a few days, the relief is massive, knowing that nothing is slipping through the cracks. (This isn’t the whole piece of getting out of overwhelm, but it’s a good first step.)
I recommend you start out with just one massive long-ass list, no topics, no sections. We can refine it later, but I think it’s important for you to only add structure in as you find you need it, not go for preemptive structure and get lost in the implementation, losing the reason you’re doing this: to be taking wise and timely action!
Lots of the productivity systems recommend that you do a massive sweep through your life which takes hours/days: go through all your emails, Slack messages, Trello tasks, pieces of paper, and transfer all the tasks onto your list.
To a certain extent I’d recommend this, but don’t put it off waiting for that day when you can do it thoroughly. Up to you as you understand your own psychology, but something is better than nothing.
Go for imperfect.
So that’s the first part: a massive list of things you could do.
The next thing to think about is: capacity.
Stupid time/space continuum. Stupid body.
We are not infinite unicorn spirits with built-in time machines. We are tiny monkeys who need to sleep.
So there are human limits to what we can do. Even if you didn’t sleep, there would still only be 24 hours in a day.
I am willing to bet almost anything that the amount on your list is wa-hayyy more than the time you have available. And that’s not including what’s going to go on it tomorrow and the next day.
So the next step is to look at your capacity.
To start with, capacity means: how much time do you have available to do stuff on your list?
It may be that you have a diary or a calendar and you can look at what meetings, etc are already scheduled. It may be that you’ve been holding that in your head. Or maybe you don’t have anything scheduled as you don’t really have a meeting-filled life.
Sketch out: When you start work. When you finish work. What’s already in your diary for the next few weeks.
Add up the hours. That’s how many hours you have in theory. (Look at your list. Cry.)
Yes, in theory. Because there are at least four aspects I can think of off the top of my head that we need to add in.
You are not a robot. There are times when you have more cognitive surplus and times when you have less.
For me I have more mental capacity in the morning. My Golden Hour is 10.00–11.30ish. Sometimes I have a second wind at 3.30/4.30/5.30 but not always.
A coaching client of mine is the opposite. She (mentally) wakes up at 4.30pm — has all her best ideas, is the most creative — so she schedules meetings in the morning and does her best to keep that time free (or talks to me *waggles eyebrows*).
Evidently, your capacity is not a simple maths problem. Some activities require more juice, some less. Each hour is not the same.
If you’re not sure, do a time/mood diary for a couple of weeks and you’ll soon find out (I used Daylio for a while — provided some really good insights).
2. Transition time
You can’t move from one task to another without a break — not for long, anyway. There is always some attention residue that means some of your mind stays with the previous task.
Plus, if it’s a significant shift in gear, you are not a car. Your mental clutch takes more than a second to deploy (ok, whatever, I’m not mechanical, shut up you know what I mean).
For example, if you’re an introvert and you’ve just spent a bunch of time with people, you need decompress time.
If you’re moving from one project to another, you need time to reorient yourself. And so on.
If you ever do a time log (yes, I would recommend it) you’ll find that a lot of your time is spent in things you just couldn’t have predicted at the beginning of the day.
Some people call them asteroids or interruptions, I call them surprises.
For example, I had someone on Mission: Impossible who worked on reception. She found from her time log that literally 75% of her day was unplannable so really she could only rely on maybe 90 minutes of schedule-able time a day (but her boss expected her to do, maybe, six hours…)
Your capacity is definitely affected by the amount of surprises you can realistically expect. (Yes, you can try and reduce the amount of interruptions/asteroids/distractions in your day, but best to deal with reality right now and then aspire to change things.)
We use willpower whenever we don’t do what we really want to do in a given moment.
Thing is, all the research suggests we only have a limited amount of willpower and when it’s gone for the day, it’s gone. This is why I’m easily able to have a healthy breakfast, but all I want for dinner is chips and ice cream.
The only way to renew it is either sleep or (less effectively) food.
If you get on with something you’re not loving, or have to really pay attention in a meeting, or have to do something that makes you nervous but you do it anyway, or you do something that you really have to concentrate to do, or you resist checking the notifications you’re getting, or you’re trying to ignore distractions… all of those are examples of you spending your willpower.
Let me repeat: there is a limited daily amount of willpower!
If you’re in recovery, or focusing on eating differently, or have caring responsibilities, or are dealing with a less-than-conducive working or living environment, you’re already spending some of your budget just living.
If you’re a Person of Colour, trans, queer, disabled, or some combination of these or other marginalised identities, you’re spending your willpower simply navigating this world not built for you.
So it can be a helpful idea to think about a willpower budget in your day. Look at your day as it is spread ahead of you and think:
What is going to require me to be focused or what am I going to have to really get myself in a particular mindset to do?
Are you being realistic about what inner resources are available to you?
If you’re not getting good enough sleep, or you’re working on a different lifestyle challenge or you’re really having to wade through hard stuff in the rest of your life, well, you’re already spending some of your willpower outside of work, so you may need to be compassionate to yourself about how much you can get done in the rest of the day.
This is why you used to be able to do a thing with a level of ability, but you just don’t seem to be able to do it like that right now. YOU ARE NOT A ROBOT.
This concept is also linked to the idea of Deep Work — the ability and habit of spending chunks of 90 minutes or longer totally absorbed in one task without distractions. With our fractured, notification-addict way of approaching things, we are training ourselves out of the ability to do this and it’s where a lot of our ‘real’ value-add work comes from, often.
3. Review and Reflection
So, you’ve got your list and you’ve got capacity.
There is no magic formula for this — you have to review what you want to get done, what has to get done and what capacity you have to do that work — and then consider if you need to lower your expectations based on your capacity.
A major guiding principle here is that you are probably overcommitted so much that even if you didn’t sleep and you were an unwavering automaton you’d still not get it all done.
So a big part of being a person who gets things done is deciding what you’re NOT going to do: today, tomorrow, this week, next week, not for a long time, ever.
You might find this article on having a F**ks I Give List helpful to decide on big-chunk priorities.
It can be a really good discipline to keep a time log — making note of what you’re actually spending your time on and when — so you can review what your intentions were and what actually happened. Not in a punitive way, but as a clear-eyed picture of what happens in your day.
You can just have a page in a notebook with the half-hour segments and set a reminder on your phone or whatever to fill it in. You could also use an app like Daylio for this.
A question I ask myself is: What is the open loop that most needs closing right now?
Other possible questions are:
- What task has the biggest ramifications if I don’t complete it today?
- What will I be most relieved to get done today?
- What am I neglecting that could do with some attention?
- What will Future Me be glad I did today?
- What is the wisest action right now?
- What would be the next step on this project?
- What’s the cold porridge on my list, that’s only going to get more congealed if I leave it? (Nicked that from a coaching client)
In combination, of course, with:
- What do I realistically have capacity for, bearing in mind my energy levels, environment and motivation?
It may be that you need to start sorting your list into a couple of different buckets.
Maybe you need categories like:
- Needs doing in the next week or so (this one has to be done in combination with the question of capacity and with your diary in front of you)
- Doesn’t need doing in the next couple of weeks
- Probably not going to happen for at least a year/is a dream I don’t want to forget
It’s cool to copy things onto a ‘list for today’ as long as everything is still captured in your master list.
Pay attention to tension in your body though — are you being honest about your capacity today or is there an internal dialogue that says ‘Well, that has to get done today, so I’ll have to find time, I’ll just be super-focused,’ when the truth is that you’re only going to get half of it done and you need to have some awkward conversations with people?
Difficult conversations are actually an important part of getting clear with your work habits.
The part of us that says ‘yes’ to things is often not in contact with the part that knows capacity. Also if you’re being assigned tasks, no one else has as clear a picture of your capacity as you do.
A coaching client of mine talked about her inner Labrador who just said yes if the project sounded interesting or exciting.
When she came to me she was in theory working 8 days a week for different clients! Just having a view of her capacity (a really simple monthly planner, in her case) helped her to have more nuanced conversations, and she learned to set expectations better.
The decision to commit to doing something has to be based on more than just a feeling — you are a human with human limits (dammit) and also with a swirling set of priorities, only some of which will be visible to other people who want you to do stuff for them.
And probably you’re way overcommitted now, so looking honestly at what’s on your plate vs your capacity probably means that you’ll need to get clear with other people.
Estimate how long things are going to take
The other part of review is looking at complex things on your list, maybe breaking them down into smaller tasks, and estimating how long they’re going to take.
Humans are notoriously rubbish at estimating how long something will take. Mostly we err on underestimating (apart from things we dread, which we sometimes overestimate — ever had that thing where you finally get around to doing something you’ve been putting off and go ‘Well, that was a lot simpler than I expected!’? That.)
I know it doesn’t feel like you have space to leave space in your diary, but the truth is that things will take longer than you expect so often you have to rejig your day (and therefore tomorrow and the day after) based on surprises or based on the fact that something took much longer than anticipated. A plan is just a place to start.
So reviewing your situation daily and weekly is super-important. And don’t say you don’t have time — seriously, the gains are huge from getting more conscious, even if it feels uncomfortable at times.
I think of reflection as a bit more in-depth than Review — more like something you do a bit more globally to go, ‘How’s it all working?’
- In what ways is this system working and in what ways does it not suit my working day/brain/personality/current demands?
- Is my way of capturing working, or is it getting fragmented (including: Am I holding things in my head that aren’t captured on my central list)?
- Is my way of estimating capacity working? Am I underestimating or overestimating my daily capacity?
- Is my way of reviewing working?
- Am I getting done what I want to be getting done?
- What could I do to give myself more capacity? Can I change when I do things, where I do them, how I do them?
- What has worked in the past for me that maybe I could start doing again?
- Are there conversations I need to have with people?
- How much ease do I feel in my body, looking at my list and my schedule?
- Am I sleeping, eating, drinking enough water, exercising, having enough time with others/on my own?
So those are the three ingredients.
If we’re going to get stuff done in the world, we need to know how to get stuff done, but in a way that really works in a sustainable way.
Take time to think about these three aspects and make a system that works for you and get out into the world, doing what needs to be done.