Every once in a while, my wife will start a conversation with me with a sigh and the exclamation that she “feels overwhelmed.” What she means by this is she’s decided that she has “a million things to do” (her words) and she doesn’t see a way to get it all done with the time she believes she has to do them. In her world, if she has an idea to do something, it must be done. If for some reason she can’t get every idea that comes to her done, she gets that overwhelmed feeling.
While not all personalities are like that and it may sound like I’m throwing her under the bus here, it’s really an issue we all struggle with on some level, isn’t it? I know some of us may not talk about it as much as she does because maybe we’re not verbal processors, but I have definitely dealt with this as well.
The good news is…it’s not that we can’t do anything about, it’s that we may not know what to do about it.
Our Two Choices
At a high level, we really have two choices when it comes to what to do with our time. We can think and decide, or we can react.
If we react, it’s very likely the things we commit to doing will be managed inappropriately; because we’re deciding what to do based on what grabs our attention the most at any particular point in time, not based on what we think about and decide to be the most essential things to do. If you’ve ever felt like your work (or life in general) is tossing you around like waves in a rough sea, living a reactionary life may be a reason why.
When we do this, it’s very hard to focus in on specific work, be “in the zone” of a task, and accomplish things quickly and efficiently.
The Three Questions
In my opening post to this series about improving productivity, I pointed out how stressed out many people get because they have trouble setting clear and executable boundaries. Working edge-less jobs and living in the most over-communicative culture in the history of the world doesn’t help us with this at all. We need tools and practices that will help us take back control, decide for ourselves which waves we’re going to ride, and ride the heck out of those babies.
In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen gives us a simple series of 3 questions we can ask ourselves at any point in time that will relieve our stress, help us feel more motivated and lead to increased productivity and quality…
- What is the task or situation that is most on your mind or most important to you at this moment? This question shifts you from reacting to thinking and deciding. By asking yourself this question, you automatically take back control of your time and focus your mind on what’s directly in front of you instead of being inundated with the “million things” that are on your mind. You choose one thing and you focus on it.
- What would you consider to be a successful outcome for the task or situation? In other words, what would need to happen for you to check this project off as done? This question provides the vision for your destination. It’s like knowing where you’re going on a trip before you decide how you’re going to get there.
- What is the next action you need to do to move the task or situation forward? This question takes it the last step. Deciding on this brings what you should be doing right now into view and provides blinders that can block out everything else you have on your mind.
Stop reading and try it for yourself right now.
Did you do it? Do you feel a little flame of motivation lit within you to go do that next action?
Break projects down into smaller steps
The reason is when you break it down this way to focus on just the next action you need to do, it makes life feel simpler in the moment. Now, you’ve only got one thing to do, and heck, you can do it. It’s just one little step to one little task. Easy peasy.
Instead of painting the whole kitchen, just open the paint and stir it. It’s the same psychological advice given in one of my favorite movies of all time. Whenever you face a challenge, break it into baby steps.
One you finish that up, you simply go through the 3 questions again. Maybe you move on to the very next action within the same project, or maybe you finished the project up and now you’re on to a new one. Before you know it, you just got 10 or 20 or 30 next actions done in a day and you were “in the zone” on them, not stressing about the “million things to do.”
The bonus? Instead of getting tossed back and forth by whatever demands your attention, you just accomplished a bunch of stuff that is the most important stuff in your work or life right now. After all, most of the stuff on your mind isn’t an emergency. So why let it distract you?
Think, Decide, Do
Notice what changed. You used a mental framework to focus your mind on thinking, deciding and doing instead of reacting. Instead of a project’s importance and what you complete being decided by simply what grabs your attention at any particular point in time, you can now take back control of what you focus on and accomplish.
Do this for the next 3 days and then assess how those days have gone. If you stick to it and not get distracted, I’ll bet you’ll look back on them and see that you were more productive.