How to Bite Off More Than You Can Chew—and Get it All Done
Some days, I wake up and feel like everything is just moving too quickly. Dozens of emails poured in during the night. A handful of meetings, coffee chats, and calls are scattered throughout the day. There are so many people to get a hold of, errands to run, and loose ends waiting to be tied up. Life seems to be hurtling forward and propelling me with it.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling.
But then I remember a line by racing legend Mario Andretti, “If everything seems under control, then you’re not going fast enough,” and I realize this sense of not having everything under control may not be a bad thing. After all, feeling like you’re on the fast track simply means that things are getting done, and things you had been planning are now set in motion.
The key, I’ve learned, is to not resist the speed of everything that’s happening, but to stay mindful to make sure it’s not getting the better of you. If you’re starting to feel a little overwhelmed, but cutting back isn’t exactly an option, try some of these seven tactics to keep getting important work done—without going crazy.
1. Find Ways to Compartmentalize
Quite often, the feeling of being overwhelmed is amplified mostly by your perception of the situation. It could be the case that your list of to-dos is actually a mile long, or more likely, that it simply feels like it is—especially if everything from different parts of your life is all tossed in together.
Because how much you’re able to tackle shifts based on where you are and what you’re doing, it makes more sense to compartmentalize and “block off” the tasks or worries that you can’t do anything about at the moment, focusing instead on only one item, task, or project at a time. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan have been known to use this technique with success. Keeping a mental barrier to separate your feelings of responsibility allows you to break down your obligations in sizeable chunks. This way, you’ll be able to deal with them individually when it makes sense to, and preserve a peace of mind at all other times.
2. Carve Out Time to Think Deeply
A lot of the stress of moving too quickly comes from not knowing exactly where you’re headed. Being too caught up in the white noise of constant activity makes it hard to get quality thinking time in to determine where you’re trying to go and if the work you’re doing really contributes to that.
It may help to reorganize your schedule by how thought-intensive your activities are, and schedule less intensive events (such as one-on-one catch-ups) before or after your prime time for productivity and thinking. If you find that you’re most likely to get in the zone early afternoon or late morning, make it a point to preserve a block of uninterrupted time for these key intervals. By identifying your working rhythm and protecting your peaks of clear thinking, these valuable opportunities to truly tap into your brainpower won’t fall to chance or interruption.
3. Evaluate the Nice-to-Haves Versus the Need-to-Haves
In other words, make sure you’re working on the right stuff that will actually take you toward your goals. Determining what’s absolutely necessary to get there suddenly reduces the scope of the problem and helps you filter out distractions, effectively letting you reallocate time to what is truly essential. While this may seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how much of your time ends up being devoted to gaining fringe benefits that seem nice to have but actually divert you from what actually matters.
There are so many opportunities for distraction that isolating what is actually necessary is akin to finding the “big rocks." Once these are in place, your priorities are immoveable and everything else will fall into place—or, at least as much as will fit—and you’ll discover the rest was probably all extraneous anyway.
4. Prioritize Based on Others
Another good way to prioritize is to make sure that anything on your overloaded plate isn’t preventing anyone else from getting work done. In other words, if someone else’s job is contingent on something you do, get that piece done first.
For example, if I know I’m getting behind in emails, I take a moment to sort out how likely my lack of response will hold other people up. If others are waiting for my reply to complete the next step, then those tasks are my first priority. This way, progress will be made as soon as you hand off the baton to others, lightening your guilt (and perception of stress) for holding them up.
5. Don’t Mistaken Busyness for Productivity
Busyness mimics the actions of productivity, but one gets results where the other, well, may not. Make sure what you’re doing is actually consistent with getting results that you need.
The most common way to fall into the busyness trap is by filling your time with small, unimportant tasks. Checking things off your to-do list may strike a sense of accomplishment, but they may be things that are better delegated to others, or worse, don’t actually matter. Thinking critically about whether the tasks you’re working on are actually important or if they’re just filling your time can mean the difference between feeling like you’re getting stuff done and actually getting stuff done.
6. Focus on the Mission Behind the Tasks
A long string of tasks seems daunting to anyone, but those who are able to push forward are probably not thinking of the tasks in and of themselves, but as small pieces that fit within an overarching goal.
For instance, seeing yourself as the agent in the context of a larger mission allows you to focus less on how much you’re taking on and more on the vision of how your work will have an impact. Often, putting your day-to-day responsibilities in the context of why you’re doing them and how they align within the bigger puzzle can lend more meaning to your individual assignments—and give you the extra oomph to forge through.
7. Opt Out of the Resistance Mindset
A lot of the discomfort that accompanies feeling swamped comes from resistance. The more you expect everything to be manageable but find yourself buried under mounting work, the more you feel the contrast between your idealistic expectation and a tough reality.
It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes trying to maintain control when things are spinning out of control just makes it worse. Accepting that more deals, engagements, or projects are happening more frequently for the next few weeks is an effective way to take a fast-paced life (and everything that comes with it) in stride.
Perhaps actor Paul Hogan says it best: “The secret to my success is that I bit off more than I could chew and chewed as fast as I could.” Taking on more than you can handle all the time certainly is not advisable. But sometimes it’s necessary for moving forward—and when you do find yourself in a situation where you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ll have some strategies to help you stay level-headed.
And hey, who knows? Maybe you’ll even take yourself by surprise after seeing how much you can gracefully take on under pressure.
Photo of sticky notes courtesy of Shutterstock.
Before joining The Muse, Sarah worked in social business innovation for Virgin Unite in London, strategy and innovation at Market Gravity, sustainability research in the Dominican Republic, and business development for a NYC startup. Wrapping up her time at Columbia University, she’s headed to McKinsey & Company after graduation. Say hi on Twitter @sarahlichang.More from this Author