We’ve all been there before. Musing over the endless laundry list of untouched tasks and work seems daunting to many. The pressure starts to build as deadlines creep in and unfinished projects mount up.
This nightmare scenario is becoming increasingly common in the modern workforce and especially in the academic setting. If Thomas Edison can promise “a minor invention every 10 days, a major one every 6 months,” I’m sure we can all push ourselves a bit to reach our goals. Here are a few tricks I picked up on to maximize your time when pressed with too many activities:
Form mental deadlines to create immediacy
Often, it is best to think about each activity you have to do before you actually get started. Estimate how long you predict it will take and how much effort might be required. Then, set deadlines. For instance, plan to finish exercising promptly at 10 AM, the quarterly financial report by 2 PM, and the letter of intent by 3:30 PM. Setting strict deadlines creates a sense of urgency in your mindset that will give you the needed motivation to finish each task on time. After repeated use of delegation, you will eventually form a better handle on how long activities and take and will be able to more quickly and efficiently plan out your day. Delegate the most work time to activities that are the most urgent. Susan Bernstein, Career Empowerment & Leadership Coach from Work from Within, suggests charting out the work that will get you the most results first before anything else. By structuring your time, you will gain needed confidence that you will be able to finish your heavy workload on time.
Take breaks…but not the kind you’re thinking of
We all need some recuperation during hard work, right? Of course, however you should not be drawn into taking ill-advised breaks. Try to avoid activities that will keep you hooked–television, surfing on Facebook, watching YouTube–because once you are caught up in these, it is hard to stop. Even once you muster up the will to go back to work, you will immediately get a sense in your mind that “Hey, I just really don’t want to do this.” Jordan Bates, a productivity writer for Refine the Mind, states that technology use not related to work can be “one of the biggest drains” on productivity. This makes sense, as it is difficult for the brain to transfer from a fun activity to one that requires extreme focus. Instead, take breaks that center around activities you aren’t extremely interested in–exercise, eating, cleaning up the office. This still allows for your brain to recharge, but it also doesn’t initiate mental resistance to returning back to the task at hand.
Focus on a couple small tasks first and then move straight to the most important
Early in the morning, you might be feeling a little lethargic and unmotivated to do any work. If you jump right into the heavy load, you will feel pressured and unenthusiastic. You can break this spell by accomplishing some easy activities quickly and early in your day. Whether that may be answering a couple important emails or working on a minor report, the sense of finishing a task gives the brain confidence and helps set you up for success throughout the day. Once you do so, you can then tackle the major assignments and have the confidence to finish them. David Kaiser, a Productivity Advisor from Dark Matter Consulting, believes you can apply this goal even to a longer-term assignment. He suggests asking, “in six months, what will I wish I had done today?”.
Recognize when to hit it out of the park…and when not to
Every activity has a different priority for you. Sometimes, when you are pressed against the wall for time, you simply cannot spend adequate time on each task as you may have been accustomed to in the past. It is acceptable to say no sometimes to less important tasks, as David Kaiser explains . You may have two very important projects that are both going to be reviewed by major potential vendors. If you can’t spend enough time on each, realize that and then prioritize. Is it better to have two average projects or one robust one? The answer depends on your situation, but you need to adapt differently each time you are faced with this dilemma. If possible, delegate your work to others in the office.
Keep a handwritten planner or electronic task app
You may be as intelligent as Sherlock Holmes but even he has to take notes sometimes. In the academic setting, planners called “agendas” are often given to students to write down homework in each class. In the work environment as well, handwritten daily planners have been proven to increase productivity and efficiency. Instead of trying to recall every minor and major issue that needs attention, you can simply spend a minute or so writing it down each morning and then forget all of it immediately. Make sure your planner is separated by days; recording obligations each day allows for better organization and less confusion. If you want, you can even separate your tasks by section (i.e. department, importance, recipient, etc.). After you complete a task, cross it out; this helps give your brain a confidence boost that you are making progress in your day.
Use desktop notifications
How many times have you checked your inbox today? Spending time constantly looking at an empty inbox, especially at instances when you are pressed for time really hurts your productivity. Consider enabling a feature known as “desktop notifications” (or some similar name, depending on your email provider). This nifty setting allows a notification to pop up somewhere on your screen each time you receive an email. By enabling this, you can eliminate the need to keep checking for email or the notification center on your phone. If you are in a place where sound is allowed, enabling notifications on your phone that make a sound each time can also work. However, if you are at your computer and a sound goes off, you have to stop what you were doing to look. With desktop notifications, a snippet of the email appears right on the screen and you can then decide if it is imperative to respond immediately or not.