There is so much information coming at you. Your to-do list is full and even more tasks are coming your way. And, as you know, each of these items demands more of your attention.
With so many things you need to do, how do you know what your priorities are?
You have to be able to focus on the task at hand. You also need to be flexible. And that is, I believe, how it always has been—but it used to be easier.
Here are the two reasons why you are overwhelmed:
1. You are handling more information than ever. Think about how much work you do today. How much content you digest, how many emails you handle and how many tasks you handle every day. (Or is this not the case for you? Has your life become easier in recent years? If so, please share in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.
2. You handle more interruptions today. Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Instagram, and many other channels demand your attention. In many cases, there are no set office hours as there were in the past.
These two items can combine reduce your focus and even distract you from your priorities.
Restore Your Peace of Mind
Ultimately, you want to be confident that you’re focusing on the work that matters most to you. When you know that you are working on the right tasks, you’ll feel reassured. You want your time, energy, attention, and money to go toward this priority. Do you want to spend your time on something that is not important to you?
Of course, you don’t.
When you’re working on the right priorities, you will find peace, and you will notice that your thoughts are not as noisy. When you have more silence and peace, you will have more concentration. You’ll get more work done. Best of all, you will have extra time to achieve other things.
Too Many Choices
When you have an abundance of choices, your brain gets confused. This condition makes it difficult to make good decisions.
Think about it: what do you do when you have a long to-do list with no real deadlines? You do things other than the tasks on your to-do list.
Having too many choices is draining. Making a choice takes more time than it should and it takes too much energy. When faced with too many choices, our mammalian brain then takes over and makes a choice. That mammalian brain has a number of preset selection patterns. A threat weighs heavily on the quick, superficial decision formation of the mammalian brain. Only the last of the loudest gets the most attention and time. Anything else is the last or loudest is.
Protect Your Priorities
What are your priorities? You may say your priorities are doing the work your boss gives you or accomplishing the tasks on your to-do list.
Once upon a time, when I was little, Knights fascinated me. The Red Knight was one of my favorite comics. Johan, the Red Knight, protected the weak. Occasionally, he stood along the walls of the castle to protect it. However, the walls were not the only defense strategy.
A castle would have a defense that consists of at least three levels: the moat, the walls of the first ring and the walls of the second ring.
In the same way, you need three lines of defense to protect your priorities.
If you want to live an intentional life, it is important to protect your priorities. Here is a three-step strategy to help.
The First Defense: Your Ideal Week
The first step is to make your “ideal week.”
In your “ideal week” you determine what your priorities are for the upcoming week. Once you have established your “ideal week,” you can use it as a way to set a boundary around your week. You can even view this as a moat around the castle if you’d like.
When you draw up an ideal week that is in alignment with your actions, this simple step will help you move past the competition.
It took me some time before I found success with this approach. Why is that? The main reason was that I didn’t know who was the “enemy.” Over time, I found out that you must have enough mental energy to resist the urge inside our brains to see immediate success or results. Great work takes time.
The Second Defense: Limit Your Daily Adjustments
After the moat (your ideal week), daily adjustments are your first castle wall. What is a daily adjustment? During the day you will get new requests asking for some of your time, energy and attention. In many cases, you will see this in the form of an email.
When you monitor your mental energy as close as possible, you will find that you are more self-aware and you want to maximize your mental energy. As you know, when you spend the day making decisions, you find yourself mentally drained later in the day. And then our mammalian brain takes over and makes decisions for us.
When you add in new inputs, this can change your priorities. The more inputs you allow, the more you rethink your priorities.
So when you take additional inputs from your various sources (your inbox, your notes, notepads, etc.) your mental energy level dips. To avoid this, some tasks are done best when batched together. When you execute simple tasks in this manner, you can build up your mental energy reserves.
For example, I check my email only two times a day. I understand in some jobs that frequency is too low. Here’s a good rule of thumb: take small steps to improve. If you find yourself bored or confused, take a walk instead of checking email. Go to your Master List. Don’t just go to your email without being intentional about it. Instead, when you go to your inbox, use a thought process.
The moat and the first wall protects your priorities for this week.
Third Defense: Your Response to Interruption
You’re focused on the work at hand working diligently. Then, out of nowhere, a colleague interrupts you. When this happens, you must decide whether you will adjust your priority at that time.
You must decide if you are changing course or stick with the work you’ve been doing. This can be a difficult choice.
Here’s a tip that I find helps. Give yourself a reminder of where you were just before the break. Even something as simple as leaving yourself a note of what the last task you were doing before being interrupted can help you stay on track.
You Must Decide
You can protect your priorities and set up your defense by answering the first two questions of the workflow scheme.
1. If you finish the task at hand, does something else need to happen?
If the answer is no, then you can move on to something else. You then priority does not change. If the answer is yes, move on to question two.
2. If you accomplish a certain task this week, do you need to do something else?
If the answer is no, then it also holds for this week. Your priority for the week endures.
If you answer yes, you need to put this item on the appropriate list. Your capacity has some flexibility, but not infinite flexibility. So you must pay attention and be sure not to try to do too much.
The more specifically you answer the questions above, the easier it will be to decide. If you can not answer the question, the danger is that you quickly say yes, and then you add too much to your plate.
It is very helpful to know where you ultimately want to go. If you still do not know the direction you want to go, there is an additional task on your plate.
You will have to decide, so why not do it now?