Recently I was meeting with mentor of mine, and I was telling her about the mayhem that has been the last few months of my life. As we talked, she shared that her strategy for managing when she feels overwhelmed is this: “One Step at a Time.” It doesn’t really seem like a ground breaking revelation, and I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase before. But for some reason, at that time, it really resonated with me. Think about all the times you are simultaneously trying to manage many things all at once. How often are you successful at managing all those things the way you want to? I’ll answer for myself: very infrequently.
So, I had been thinking about this simple suggestion: One Step at a Time… and then, I heard a podcast, that solidified the concept for me. The episode is title “Deep Work” and a researcher/computer scientist named Cal Newport explores the detriments of multitasking and the benefits of engaging in “Deep Work” where we focus our attention completely on one thing. Check it out here: Deep Work.
Anyway, so the combination of these two ideas really got me thinking about how we can work smarter, not harder, when it comes to managing the daily tasks of our lives. What if, instead of tackling everything all the time, we tackle one thing for a period of time, do well, and then move onto the next thing? When I think about the times I have felt most stressed and overwhelmed, they typically revolve around me having “too many things to do” and not enough time to do them in. Typically, to get myself out of that place, I have to make some radical decisions about priorities, even if that decision is only temporary. We can find ourselves in this situation for a number of different reasons. Sometimes, we have a YES problem:
“Can you help with this event?” Yes.
“Can you run this errand for me?” Yes.
“Can you sacrifice your own happiness to make my life easier?” Yes.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes, it’s great to say yes. Many of us want to be helpful and we all like to feel like we are giving something to others in our community. However, when we say yes without thinking, we can end up in situations that leave us taking on more than we can reasonably handle. So, before you say yes, ask yourself: “Given all my responsibilities right now, can I commit to this the way I would like to?” If the answer is no, govern yourself accordingly. A bigger issue (for another post coming soon!) is the internal explanations we give for saying yes all the time, often because we are afraid of what would happen if we said no.
Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed because we don’t manage our time well. How often do you sit down and plan out your day before you start it? How often do you find yourself flipping through social media and before you know it, an hour has gone by? How often do you give yourself an estimate of how long a task will take before you start it? If these questions have you stumped, do a little experiment. Write down your schedule for the WHOLE WEEK- all 7 days. What do you notice you’re spending your time on? Are you ok with your answer?
Other times, we are overwhelmed because emotionally, spiritually, or mentally, we are just not equipped to manage all the tasks in front of us. Here’s where the “One Step At a Time” piece comes in. It’s ok to prioritize. Don’t try to take on the world if you don’t have to. Write a list of all the things on your plate right now, and categorize each of them in two ways: important/not important and urgent/not urgent. This system will help your prioritize. Once the tasks are categorized, you can prioritize them in this order:
- Important AND Urgent
- Urgent and Not Important – Do you need to do this at all?
- Important and Not Urgent
- Not Urgent and Not Important- Do you need to do this a all?
So, when you settle down to tackle the first thing that is both urgent and important, mentally commit yourself to that thing. If it’s a project at work (and it’s feasible for you), take a break from checking email, looking at your phone, or chatting with coworkers for a set period of time. If it’s a life project, (weight loss, managing your finances, etc), tackle that thing, and get to a benchmark point before you take on anthing else. In other words, it may not the best idea to start your plans to lose 50 pounds, raise your credit score 200 points, and double your devotional time ALL at once. Focused attention helps us to commit more fully, be more successful, and feel happier overall. When we try to do too much at one time, it’s easy to feel swept away by the winds of life, holding onto anything you can. This isn’t sustainable for a fulfilling life in the long term. Try deep work to build some deep roots!
So, let’s start simple. What is the most important goal you have for yourself right now? Think about the things you are doing to currently work on it– are they working? Consider a shift in strategy- focus your attention and energy on this goal, and give yourseelf a specific target to reach. Think about ways you can commit yourself more fully to this goal. When you’ve reached that target, you can move on to the next thing!
Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!