Sometimes stress and anxiety management in the form of mindfulness and self-care just doesn't cut it. It doesn't change the fact that there is still so much to do, so many competing obligations, and not enough hours in the day to get them done. The to-do list just sits there in our cognitive space weighing us down and distracting us, while at the same time telling the body to release cortisol and adrenaline because... DANGER. Relaxation techniques might address the symptoms, but the underlying issue remains, ready to rear it's head as soon as we're given a new task, or reminded of an existing one.
There are three factors that contribute to the stress that comes with too much to do:
Reality - how much actual stuff there is to do. This is the part we focus on, and why it feels impossible to manage. It seems as though nothing will take away the actual reality of what needs to be done.
Practicalities - how you tackle it. What systems/processes do you use? What comes first? How do you prioritise?
Attitude - what are your feelings about the above? How competent do you feel? How important is each task?
A simple to do list covers the first point, but not much else. Sometimes the list helps, other times it just adds more stress. Look how long it is! I can't possibly get all of this done! Cue panic and inefficiencies.
Now I can't take credit for this technique, because it is already established and widely used, however I came across it recently and can strongly recommend it as great way to manage all three of the above. It's called the Eisenhower Matrix, and it looks like this:
Basically each item of your to-do list sits in one of these boxes, organised by urgency and importance.
But, as with everything, it's not quite as simple as it may look, because for many people in the thick of feeling overwhelmed, everything is urgent and important. So the first skill we need is an objective framework for what goes on the list, and where on the list it goes. Here's the one I use:
What do I include? Everything. Not just the things you need to do, but also the things you tend to do - things like checking social media, attending to interruptions, reading emails etc. And remember, this is just for today or this week (whichever time-frame you choose), it's not inscribed in stone. Once you've had a productive day/week, the next list might look different. Don't overthink it, just start writing.
Is it urgent?
Can it wait until tomorrow? No = urgent. Yes = not urgent. And I don't mean "do you want it to wait until tomorrow?", because that answer is undoubtedly no. So can it? If it can? It doesn't belong in an urgent box.
Is it important?
Will the outcome of this task matter 5 years from now? Does it contribute to my goals? I know everything you want to get done is important to some degree, but think practically... does it matter? Getting some exercise done? Yes, it probably matters. Sorting out your desk or your inbox? Probably not. Not right now anyway.
Right, so now that we have a system for sorting the items, the next step is a system for tackling them. And this is where this technique really earns it's value, and it's important to get this part right. It's not just about the order in which we address the boxes, although that is definitely part of it, but it's the strategy we use for each.
BOX 1 (important and urgent): this one is straightforward. Do these first. Don't delay by trying to get a bunch of other things in place first, just do them. These few things are the acute side to your stress, knock them out fast.
BOX 2 (important but not urgent): yes I know, every part of your being wants to skip to box 3, I know it. And you will, because the strategy requires it (which will make sense when you read the next point). But box 2 is what I call the chronic stress box. These are absolutely the tasks that are often ignored or dropped to the bottom of the list, because we're concentrating on 1 and 3. We don't get them done, and they weigh heavily on us. In my opinion, this system is about getting box 2 done, and the resulting satisfaction and peace that comes with that. For now, schedule in the tasks from this list just like appointments, and do them at the appointed time. No exceptions.
BOX 3 (not important but urgent): So box 2 and 3 are competing, and 3 always seems to win because... URGENT. These items steal your attention, but aren't really contributing to anything that's getting you anywhere. But here's the thing with box 3 - they do need to get done, but they actually don't need you and/or your full attention. This box is for delegating, either to another person or to a process. The point is to make room for box 2, so box 3 can quit hogging your time. Something like 'sort tax receipts' could possibly be delegated to an accountant, or if not, a process could be introduced whereby receipts are filed throughout the year. Interruptions? Utilise a phone service, or use technology to block interruptions for certain periods of the day. The first few times you use the matrix, you might need to really think about delegating and/or new processes. You will need to think outside the square, but once you've got the hang of this, your productivity will improve immensely. And you'll feel far more satisfaction from getting those box 2 items done.
BOX 4 (not important and not urgent): scrap it. Forget about it. Don't even think about this box until absolutely everything in boxes 1-3 are complete. Maybe these items will fall into a different box on a different day, or maybe the system will make you so efficient that you'll eventually be able to cover every single task in a day. But for now, box 4 needs to be dropped like a sack of potatoes. Draw an imaginary big cross through it and free up that psychological space. It doesn't matter if you don't get to it.
So there you go, that's the process. It is quite simple once you get the hang of it, and it really does improve productivity (it has for me, at the very least).
Here is a .pdf so you don't even need to draw one up, you can just print it off and get going. Let me know how you go!
B Psych (Hons), M Psych (Clin), MAPS
Content note: Unless otherwise labelled, all blog posts are intended as discussion pieces, and are not academic texts. Articles pertaining to research or making an academic argument will be labelled as such and include supporting evidence/references.