Organisation and productivity

Overcoming workload paralysis

The past couple of weeks have been unusually busy, and I’ve caught myself on more than a few occasions in a complete state of paralysis. So overwhelmed with tasks that I can’t seem to be able to do anything. Right at the time where I need to be my most productive and efficient, I just freeze.

It’s a natural reaction to stress. You go into fight or flight mode, but instead of tackling tasks head on you mentally run away. Here are a few techniques I’ve been using to help me face my workload.

Regain control by writing everything down

It’s a simple one, but it works. Studies have shown that you can only keep around seven items in your head at any one time. Even trying to remember seven to-do items takes up vital mental processing power that would be better used to actually complete tasks. If you have more seven items, you are likely to forget some, which brings a sense of lacking control.

I make sure every task is written down somewhere in either my work or personal task system. As long as it’s in there, it’s out of my head and not distracting me.

Pick one key task to do each day

Be realistic and don’t try to get everything done in one day. Map out your priority tasks assigning one to each day to reduce the feeling of overwhelm. This process might make you realise that some deadlines will not be met. Instead of pushing ahead blindly, assess whether or not it is a real deadline, or if it can be negotiated.

Assigning one major item to each day also gives you more focus each morning and stops you thinking ahead to the next task. If a priority task is too big to get done in one day, break it into smaller ones. I start working on it first thing every morning, before checking emails or any other admin, to ensure I make progress on the most important thing.

Break big writing tasks into bullet point lists

I find writing tasks the hardest to buckle down to. To reduce the overwhelming feeling of a blank white page, I start by making a ‘dot dash’ bullet point list of contents and key messages. This helps me define a structure and establish what I want to say. The writing then comes a lot quicker and easier as I can just pad out each bullet point. If I get a bit stuck on one, I can move onto another and still be making progress. I also have a sense of the scope of work, and where the end-point lies.

Commit to doing tasks for just five minutes

If there is something you are finding particularly hard to start, commit to focusing on the task for just five minutes. If you can work continuously for this short period, you usually gain a bit of momentum and can work for longer. The biggest feeling of overwhelm for me comes from tasks that I know need to be done, but that I haven’t even started yet. Even if I can make a tiny bit of progress, it relieves some of the stress.

If the heavy tasks aren’t happening, knock out all the small admin tasks

Some days I feel too tired to apply myself to the big ticket items. Even if I’m not getting big priority tasks done, I can still help to reduce the feeling of overwhelm by completing all the smaller, admin-type tasks in one day. These are things that don’t take too much brain power or decision making. Clearing all the minor items from your plate can make it feel a whole lot easier to focus on the major ones.

Don’t comfort yourself with time-wasting activities

Whatever you do, don’t alleviate the stress by sliding into comfort activities like watching YouTube and scrolling through social media. I’ve fallen into the trap of convincing myself that I’ll watch one video then start working, and in reality it’s never just one. This is a particularly easy bad habit to slip into whilst working from home. Instead, I use the Pomodoro technique to work solidly for 25 minute sessions, then give myself a strict 5 minute break.

How do you deal with an overwhelming list of tasks? Has working from home changed the way you deal with it? Let me know in the comments!

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