Whenever I feel overwhelmed (like today) I do my best to throw everything out— deadlines, todos, wishes, hopes, expectations, etc — and focus on one thing: the task in front of me.
When there’s nothing but one priority in front of you, then you can disappear in the work and the overwhelm fades away.
First, I clear out my physical space. I tend to believe that ‘a cluttered space is a cluttered mind’ for me personally. When I’m surrounded by distraction and desires of my own making, everything becomes a todo: something I could / should be doing. A stack of books on the desk. A guitar that needs to be restrung. An app that needs to be built. But when I stop and clear my physical space, I begin to feel much better and I can focus on what’s in front of me.
Second, I pick either the simplest task or the highest priority task to focus on. If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, start with the simplest task. Check something off your list. (Even if that todo is ‘make a list’. It counts.) Starting simple allows you to get the cogs turning and wheels moving in the right direction. If you are feeling perky, go for the highest priority task. Ask yourself, “If there was only one thing I could work on today, what todo would make me feel the most accomplished?”
When everything becomes priority, nothing is a priority.
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about the history of the word priority and how ‘priority’, meaning, singular, has come to mean ‘priorities’ plural:
“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.
Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.
People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.”
Lastly, if you finish one thing today, congratulations. You are facing overwhelm head on. Now, pick another task. Focus all of your efforts on this one now. Don’t add two new priorities — just one.
One and done — repeat.
This works really well within the task you’re focusing on too. Break your work into the smallest pieces possible and focus on getting each piece done separately, one at a time. If email is making you go bald, focus on one email at a time, not the 10,000+ emails in your inbox. If writing is overwhelming you, write one word. Now write two. Now ten. Work, errands, art — one and done.
And if none of that works, I call it and give myself a break. Walk away for a while. Go move your body. Exercise. Get some sun. Go meet a friend. Don’t let overwhelm win and paint you into a cage for the entire day. If you can’t get anything done today, fine. There’s always tomorrow. At least go have some fun. You are in control here. Go prove it to yourself.
STAY BOLD, Keep Pursuing,
— Josh Waggoner
Daily Blog #626
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