My mind is quite similar to a pinball machine, with a little silver ball bouncing around from one obstacle to another. Except in my case, the ball is my focus, and the obstacles are all of the items on my never-ending to-do list.
I have a lot on my plate. (I know, I know —You do, too! I’m not that special.) Often, I feel like I have a million things to do, all by 10 AM. That’s when my little silver ball starts rolling all over the place and I have trouble getting it to slow down, let alone stop.
But in the past few months, I’ve learned how to control it a bit better. When I start the day feeling incredibly overwhelmed, drowning in tasks I need to accomplish, I ask myself the three following questions:
1. Do I Really Need to Do This Right Now?
I get a natural high from crossing items off a list. So much so that I cross each one off twice. I created a productivity beast (cough, myself, cough) that can cause me to operate under a sense of urgency pretty regularly, even when things aren’t time-sensitive.
The agenda for the student training I’m conducting in a few weeks, for instance, doesn’t need to be finalized right this very moment. Sure, I have two short work trips before that, but I also have an entire week immediately prior to the training in which I can nail down the details. Plus, I’ve already created the draft for it.
But the email to my supervisor about who’ll cover the one-on-one student meetings while I’m out? Well, that should be done by the close of business, considering my first day of travel is tomorrow.
And those wish list projects that have no due date? Well, I created a separate list for those called, “Long-Term Projects.” I stuck it on a corkboard next to my monitor, and when I have down time, I’ll pay it a visit.
The point is, more often than not, the answer to this question is “No, I really don’t need to do this right now. Or even today. Or even at all.” By asking myself this question, I can identify what I really do need to do, reprioritize, and narrow my focus.
2. Do I Really Want to Do This Right Now?
I know what you’re thinking (mind reader over here): It doesn’t matter if you want to do something or not. You have to do it, so get over it.
Well, yes and no. If you have a deadline today, then yes, you need to do it.
But this question helps me decide where to start with my updated and reprioritized list. I determine which item I feel like doing first. Because I can power through the things I want to do most quickly and dedicate the rest of the day to the tasks I may be struggling with.
3. Why Am I Doing This?
This last question’s useful when I’m doing something I enjoyed at one time but may not love so much anymore.
I used to have a blog, for example, and after two years, it became a chore. Something that hung over my head every day as I thought, What am I going to write about this time? What pictures do I need to take?
I was over it. I already knew I didn’t have to do it. It was my blog and mine only, and it wasn’t my source of income (or of any money at all, for that matter).
But I’d kept doing it because, at one point, I thought I could make it my full-time job. But that’s not a dream of mine anymore. And I only realized that when I asked myself this question and the answer was a concrete I don’t know. So, I let myself off the hook and let my domain expire.
Though blogging was merely a side gig, giving it up made work a little less stressful, too. I was no longer trying to cram blog posts in during lunch or surreptitiously type them up during meetings. I made more room in my life for what I really had to do and space for new dreams I'm envisioning.
You see, the thing about pinball is that the ball only flies randomly around the machine when you launch the ball. And it becomes even more erratic when you press the flipper buttons.
Sure, there are things you’re going to have to do. And, sometimes, maybe oftentimes, there’ll be a lot you have to do. But I challenge you to ask yourself these three questions. Maybe there’s something you can do to make your little silver ball slow down a bit.