Too many tasks
One of the problems with having a lot of things to do is that the stress of not doing the rest of your tasks can make it hard to focus on any one task. For instance, if I have edits to complete on a writing project and I also need to finish my bimonthly budget (I keep a budget in a spreadsheet to get a better idea of where my money’s about to go), working on either task can be difficult because I worry about needing to complete the other.
This problem gets much worse when there are a lot more than two things that should be done right away. Having recently taken several vacation days to spend time with family members, I’ve come back to my tasks this week facing just this kind of situation.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: if I can get truly involved and engaged in one task (like writing this post, for instance), my focus on that task can prevent other issues from distracting me. This is a very good solution to the problem, but it contains one pitfall: picking the wrong task.
Picking the wrong task
If I have a list of things that need to be done, and if I notice one that particularly catches my interest, start in on that one, get engaged with it, and see it through to completion, that’s great–unless that task isn’t high on my priority list, in which case it’s progress of a kind, but it’s also preventing me from getting my top tasks finished.
An example: if I have edits one a writing piece that are due tomorrow, checks that need to be sent out today, and an upcoming appointment that needs to be rescheduled, it’s all too easy for me to look at my task list and see an item like “Research Google+” (a useful thing to do in terms of keeping abreast of important social computing and Internet promotion developments) and get caught up in that. As useful as the research may be, by the time I’m done it may be too late to reschedule my appointment, I may not get the checks in the mail on time, and/or I might miss my writing deadline. My productivity has actually caused me harm in this case.
The worst thing about this kind of problem is that it uses some of the best motivational tools and therefore feels really good. While I’m doing the not-important task, I may be getting excited and engrossed. I may be highly productive and focused, all while working on a truly useful task. And yet I’m shooting myself in the foot.
Picking the right task
What’s the solution? Turning my attention to the single most important task I have to do and getting engaged with that instead. Does this mean that my enthusiasm and energy that I’ve just started to put into the lower-priority task are lost? Sadly, yes. Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and changing tasks generally means getting out of our previous mindset and getting into a new one, which is not a trivial (or instantly reversible) process.
Yet the payoffs of taking care of the most important and/or pressing things first are great, and this kind of change is well worth the effort.
How to change focus to a different task
One good way to quickly get interested in a different task is to do it in very small, easily-tackled steps, not forcing anything. The first question to ask ourselves is “What would the single most beneficial task be that I could do right now, all things considered?” If there are so many tasks that it’s difficult to pick just one, one option is to make a list of the front runners and then pick the top task for the moment from that list–that is, to narrow down the field. It sometimes helps to remind ourselves that we can only really do one thing effectively at a time, so our job is only to focus on the one best choice for the moment.
With that top task chosen, there are a couple of ways to proceed easily, depending on the kind of task. If it’s something that requires a series of known steps, then it can work very well to just ask ourselves “What’s the next small step I would take if I wanted to get this task done now?” Whether it’s taking out a file, looking up a phone number, getting the shovel out of the garage, or opening a document in a word processing program, choosing the smallest possible task makes getting started on that task fairly easy. From there the process can be repeated until we feel engaged and have some momentum.
The other way to proceed, which is helpful for tasks that don’t readily break down into easy steps, is to ask “What would it look like if I were working constructively on this?” Imagining ourselves working on the task activates a lot of the same mental processes we use to actually do the task. Getting focused on the task in this way makes it much easier to get started.
Look to the top
Regardless of how we involve ourselves in our top tasks, the key takeaway is that focusing on something low-priority can sap energy, time, focus, and success away from the things that really need to get done, leading to a sense of working hard and still always being behind. Mastering the habit of looking to our top priorities first will nip this kind of constructive procrastination in the bud.
Photo by dsevilla