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Task Overwhelm and the #1 Thing to do to Avoid it

October 01, 2013

Feel overwhelmed with stuff to do?  Feel like you’re getting further behind
every day?  You’re not alone, but then that probably doesn’t help much, does it?
So in this short blog, let me summarize some of the great stuff out there
on managing tasks so you have some tools to fight back against overwhelm,
and then point out the #1 thing you need to do get out, consistently out,
of being overwhelmed going forward.

First the raw data:

Multiple research studies indicate we are overworked and overwhelmed.  Get this:
– 89% of workers report they don’t have enough time to get all their work done
– 56% report they are juggling too many tasks at once, and the ensuing
interruptions make it difficult to get their work completed
– 54% report feeling overwhelmed within the past 30 days
– 29% report spending a lot of time on tasks that are a waste – e.g. low value

Next the Tips:

There are just a number of great articles and blogs written on what to do,
to not get overwhelmed.  Let me summarize two, to save you time, and
then let’s think about how much it helps.

Christine Kane suggests you:
1. Get out of the weeds and into the habit of something she calls a weekly
Self-Summit in which you connect with your intentions, remind yourself of
your goals, and get clear on your priorities.  You look at the week ahead and:
•  List your top three priorities (not your 57 to-do’s!) for the week.
•  Get clear on upcoming appointments.
•  Schedule your work-out time, your writing time, your downtime, etc.
2.-5.  Tips two through five include:
•  Differentiating tasks from projects, and breaking projects into tasks
•  Experience completion
•  Get a timer and keep your butt in the chair until the time’s up
•  Eliminate All or Nothing thinking

Nailah Blades suggests the following to fight task overwhelm:
1. Do a brain dump onto paper, make it visual
2. Sort and prioritize into 4 buckets ranging from Absolutely to Don’t Need to
3. Schedule the tasks in the top two buckets
4. Each day focus on solving 1-3 “big rocks”, don’t move past them until finished
5. Track and celebrate (Ta-Da) what you get accomplished each day

So when you look at these tips, what do you think?   Will they help when there’s
more coming in then there’s time to fit in the day?  If you’re like me, those
tips are good, but they don’t go far enough.

So how am I possibly going to give you one more tip, and have it be
the number one thing to do.  Pretty audacious right?

Let’s pull a quote from Mark Twain, then some research from Microsoft,
and I’ll explain.

Here’s the quote:   It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Now why in the world, would I point you to that quote?

Here’s the answer:  Most of what we know for sure about coping with
overwhelm is based on becoming more specific, more organized, ultimately
more efficient.  The problem is that most of us already have some of those
skills and we still get overwhelmed.  So in Mark Twains words, what if
becoming more focused and organized and scheduled and prioritized as
the holy grail to coping with task overwhelm “just ain’t so” or at least falls
short of delivering all that we had hoped for?

What’s left?  If you thought that, thank you.  Here’s where this piece of
research at Microsoft is so revealing.  Let me summarize a couple of key
1. The average information worker is interrupted every 3 minutes
2. Interruptions jar workflow, and it can take up to 23 minutes to return to task
3. 73% of interrupts are handled immediately, further interrupting the work flow
4. Emails accounts for 23% of the interruptions; IM and face to face also contribute
5. The biggest source of interruption (44%) is simply workers interrupting themselves.

Let’s talk about what that means for you and me when it comes to task overwhelm.
1. You see, once you move beyond basic focus and organization skills and feasibility
limitations, interruptions become the primary cause for not getting stuff finished,
and ultimately to feeling overwhelmed.  Working in an interrupted work flow
is a seed bed for not getting stuff done and feeling overwhelmed as things stack up.
2. Yes we’re exposed to lots of interruption opportunities from outside,
but ultimately we are our own worst offender in working in an interrupted flow.
3. The number 1 thing you can do to reduce task overwhelm is to structure
how you work in a way that minimized interruptions, especially when on key tasks.

Or think of it this way.  Being available for anything, the ultimate open door policy,
is a great way to get to the end of the day and feel like you didn’t get anything done!

So practice adding boundary setting to your task management work skills.
You deserve it, part of your day needs it, and the critical tasks just won’t be well
addressed without it.

Bottom Line:
The number one thing you can to do to avoid task overwhelm, once you
get beyond basic organizing and prioritizing skills, and breaking things
down into doable chunks… is managing interruptions.  You’ve got to
interrupt interruptions, starting with your own tendency to jump to
a new task when the current one is a bit boring, in order to consistently
avoid task overwhelm.



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