Overwhelm Series #6: How to plan a wildly productive day
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Listen to this blog here
This is part three of a 3-step process so do go back and start with learning how to stop using your brain as an office before reading on. In fact, I’d highly recommend you begin at the beginning of this series on Managing Overwhelm because there’s a ton of life-changing stuff in these deceptively simple posts.
Today you’re going to put in some clear boundaries around your time using your new friend, the Master To-do list. If you are autistic or an ADHD-er, this will revolutionise your life. Trust me! Part of what makes me so good at this job (I’m a coach for neurodivergent people, if you haven’t already figured that out) is my own struggle to cope in the many years before diagnosis: a legacy of life-hacks and simple tweaks that change everything.
Most people take their to-do list and launch straight into doing things. This is a BIG mistake.
When you are working, you want your brain to be focussed on the work at hand, not on deciding what to do next. You want to make moving through your day, from task to task, as simple as possible. Life is complicated enough as it is!
If your list is BIG (and it should be if it's comprehensive) then there will be a lot of things on there vying for your attention. No matter what you decide to do first, you’ll know that there are at least five other things that also need doing NOW that you’re going to have to neglect.
You won’t have to spend long looking through that list before that familiar sense of misery and defeat creeps in. Before you know it, instead of calmly rolling up your sleeves to start on the most important thing, you're falling back on your go-to coping mechanism whether that’s scattergun overdrive mode, avoidance, procrastination, or your chosen self-soothing practice (scrolling, shopping, eating etc). Sound familiar?
The answer to To Do List Overwhelm is to separate the process of planning what you will do from…. actually doing it.
Take time each day and week when you step back and assess your available time and the current priorities. Use all of your attention for this deliberative process, without the pressure of “must act now”. Ten minutes a day, plus half an hour a week is more than enough for this process.
Then, when you start work, you’ll find you have drastically reduced your stress level and considerably increased the amount of bandwidth you have available for focussing on the task at hand.
The technical term for this is “reducing cognitive load”, a term you’ll hear me talk about again. “Cognitive load” refers to the amount of things you are trying to hold in your head at any one time. Your brain (specifically your pre-frontal cortex) specialises in processing information. Not storing it. The less you ask it to store, the more you’re able to process - simple. The planning process is yet another way we take the storage pressure off of your mind. This is especially important if you have executive function issues - as these relate directly to your PFC’s capacity to store and process information!
If you feel resistant to planning remember that this is about simplifying your expectations, not piling them on. “Today I will ONLY do the following things”. You are liberating, not enslaving yourself.
This is especially helpful if you’re juggling kids at home, because it means you can be ‘super effective’ with the time you have got. Daily planning means you can be flexible, respond to what’s changing and still make sure you get things done.
Do this the night before ideally, or first thing in the morning at a push:
Check your calendar for meetings etc.
Block out time for lunch and rest. Have a clear STOP time.
Decide how much time you have today to spend today on Deep Focus, Client work, Backlog, Admin etc.
Allocate blocks of time for each area ie 9-12am for Deep Focus activities, 12-1 Backlog, 1-2.30 Lunch/nap 2.30-4:30 Clients, 4:30-5:30 Admin
Select from your master list specific tasks to go in each block. “Focus” might just have one thing “write the first draft of the blog about napping”. Admin might have four or five tasks.
Break down your tasks into as many smaller tasks as you need (refer to day 1 for more help on this).
Do ONLY the things on your list.
Any new tasks that “arrive” during the day go straight into the Master List NOT into your plan of attack for the day.
Aim to get as much done as you can in each block, but do STOP when the block is over. Tick off what you’ve done on your day list and your master list.
You don’t have to cover each block each day. If you have a lot of ‘coming and going’, and aren’t going to get much deep focus time, you might block in more admin and vice versa. The point is to silo your attention so, at any given time, you are ‘fully focussed’ on one type of task.
Do the things which require more attention and willpower earlier in the day. The vast majority of people really do function better in the morning: take advantage of that to do the things which need the most from you.
Oh, and do turn off your phone when you’re working, even if you’re just cleaning up the kitchen. Get rid of notifications. Keep as few tabs open as possible. Tell people to leave you alone until your next break.
Here’s to your sanity,