I’ve been speaking and writing about productivity for the past two decades, and still, like my clients, I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Because no matter how organized and efficient you are, too much is still too much.
But I suggest you take this perspective: too much is often a good thing. It probably means you are driven and motivated. Your busy life is likely by choice — choices like having children, keeping in touch with family and friends, learning, growing, working on improving your health, volunteering, taking on a big job with lots of responsibility, and striving to be successful.
My goal is not to help people like you do less, but to help you manage the responsibilities of your choices in ways that make you energized and motivated, instead of exhausted and overwhelmed.
My Secret Weapon: A Workflow Management System
I teach my Empowered Productivity System for workflow management, and honestly, I don’t know what I would ever do without it. It makes me efficient, keeps me sane, and helps me achieve my goals. This is not an app or software (although those help, too). It’s a collection of habits and behaviors for optimum efficiency and productivity.
I’ve been using some version of this System since my first job out of college. Habits expert James Clear was exactly right when he wrote in Atomic Habits, “If you want better results…focus on your systems…systems are best for making progress. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
But, even with all this practice and experience, I’m never perfect. And sometimes I fall off my own wagon!
I hope that by sharing some ways I fall behind and feel overwhelmed, and the techniques from Empowered Productivity that I use to get back in control, it will help you, too, regain control of the responsibilities that are required to manage the busy life you’ve chosen.
One of the most common ways I get overwhelmed with work is when I don’t have the time to dedicate to managing my email properly, and so it accumulates. In fact, I only empty my inbox completely about once a week, depending on my client load.
In the meantime, when I haven’t processed all my email, I know that there is work piling up. But since I haven’t opened these emails or given them my full attention, I don’t really know what these messages will require from me, or how to prioritize them.
The more emails that I haven’t checked, the further behind I am in my work. It’s impossible to know the best use of my time and the best place to direct my attention when I don’t have a handle on all of my responsibilities. As a result, I get scattered, and fall into “busy but not productive” mode, which puts me even further behind.
In my experience, most of us complete an average of three tasks from our task list in a day, so three tasks due on any given day is realistic. Note that we actually do dozens of tasks in a day, but most of what we complete each day never makes it onto our task list.
And even though I know that three is a realistic number, like everyone, I tend to be more optimistic about what I can accomplish in a day. Three never feels like enough and it always seems like I can get more done. And yet, it rarely happens. Three is always the average.
So putting too many tasks on my list in a given day is another way I become overwhelmed and fall behind. This is ineffective and inefficient, because the tasks I don’t complete show up as “overdue.” And if that “overdue” list gets too long, then my list is no longer prioritized, and it starts to lose its value.
Planning for Success
The benefit of the list, prioritized by due date, is that it serves as my plan for my days. In most cases, the due date on my tasks is arbitrary. It’s the date I decided that I would like to have a given task done, but it probably doesn’t have to be done on that date. (Tasks that must be done on a given date—not by a given date—go on my calendar.)
Yes, the list is constantly changing as new things come up. But the running, prioritized list saves me the work of starting from scratch every morning—the way typical time management advises to start the day by writing down the things I want to complete that day. Instead, I have a dynamic, running list, that keeps me focused and on track as long as I keep up with it.
Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Task management is a great example of this. The plans change, but the investment in the planning makes me as efficient as possible.
Getting to Zero to Stay Organized
Work is never finished. But, there is a place where I can say, “I’ve done what I need to do for today, I know exactly all the things I haven’t done, and I am comfortable that they can wait.” I call this “getting to zero.” I’m in control of everything, and all of my responsibilities are captured, organized, and prioritized. Even though they aren’t done, I am still relaxed and have peace of mind. I’m at a comfortable stopping point.
In order to get to zero, I have to do two things:
- Process all of my communication inboxes (email, Twist–a great Slack alternative—texts, voicemails, etc).
- Make sure my task list is current, so either my tasks have been marked as complete, or anything undone has been comfortably assigned to another day.
The truth is that when it comes to your workload—or your “life load”—there is no “positive.” There is only “behind” or “neutral” (at zero). You can’t really be “ahead” because there will be many things that come in tomorrow and in the future that you don’t know about yet, including overdue tasks and unaddressed messages.
Review All Overdue Tasks and New Messages Every Day
When there are “overdue” tasks, I don’t always know if it’s okay that they are undone. To get to zero in my task list, I need to review all of the overdue tasks. I must either do them before I quit for the day, or, if they can wait, assign them to another day.
Also, there are emails in my inbox, or other unaddressed messages in other communication channels. I can live with this situation for a few days every week, because even on the days I don’t “process” my emails (which to me means review, dispatch, and move out of my inbox) every day, I still review my emails every (work) day. So I have a sense of what’s lurking in my inbox, and I can deal with anything that can’t wait.
This review makes me aware of all the things that are important and timely, but not immediate. And if I go too long without processing, those important and timely items start to get more and more urgent. For example, if I receive an email on Monday that requests action by Friday, it’s not urgent on Monday, but every day that goes by makes it a little more important.
So until I process all of my communication and bring my task list current, I’m not at zero. Being at zero is the optimal place to be.
When things take longer than I anticipate, unexpected events scramble my plans, and I don’t follow my own advice, I get off track, just like everyone. But the best thing about a workflow management system like Empowered Productivity is that I know exactly how to get back on track.
People often ask me if the time it takes me to “work my System” is more effective than spending the time “doing things.” The answer is an unequivocal “yes!” Because until I get to zero, how would I know the most impactful things to do?
When I get behind, I start to feel stressed, and that tells me I need to spend the time required to get to zero. Even my husband notices when I’m off track with my System! Attention management—a key part of my System—is what gives me the presence of mind to recognize that stress.
I remember that I want to be doing all the things that I do in addition to my work, including helping friends, volunteering, engaging in hobbies, and pursuing new ideas. I am busy by choice.
Another technique to dissipate the feeling of being overwhelmed is to take care of my physical and mental health once I get to zero. This might mean exercising, meditating, or sitting outside in the fresh air with a great book.
A Workflow Management System: The Key to Curbing Overwhelm
Empowered Productivity enables me to usually stay on track, and when I fall behind, to get back on track quickly (usually within about an hour).
A workflow management system like the Empowered Productivity System helps me organize all the details —ideas, thoughts, plans, and responsibilities — for my professional and personal life. It’s a system anyone can rely on to empower you to regain control over the details of your work and life.
The techniques of Empowered Productivity are built for the digital age. It’s a System that is flexible enough to accommodate the 24/7 flow of information that requires us to constantly adapt our task lists.
I’ve trained thousands of busy professionals on the Empowered Productivity System, and they report the same amazing results that I achieve personally. If you’d like to learn the Empowered Productivity System yourself, my self-paced, video-based Empowered Productivity Online Training is the way to go. If you’d like to discuss how to give your team the skills of Empowered Productivity, you can learn more here.