Too much to do is the sounding battle cry of today's work warriors. How do you stay on top of it all in times of "crazy busy"? Do you write to do lists? Does this help you keep track of your priorities and tasks? Deal better with the stress and overload that is so prevalent in today's work-around-the-clock paradigm? What are your best practices?
Overwhelm is a complex and multifaceted affair. We need many strategies and approaches to deal with the volume, pressure, complexity of today's work and lives. Including super basic ones like the to do list.
To do or not to do?
One of the decisions I find myself revisiting time and time again when I talk or write about overwhelm is whether or not to include the notion of writing things down -- as in the to do list of various sorts. It seems so banal and obvious. I sometimes refer to it as the low-hanging fruit of strategies in the war against overwhelm. And especially so in the face of other shinier and seemingly more sophisticated paths to ease like meditation, mindfulness and more.
At least that's what my inner critics try to say. But before we dismiss the to do list....
I say: It's not about one OR the other. It's about one AND the other.
Overwhelm can be triggered by many factors. A one-trick wonder will never be the answer. We need to look at the array of strategies. And yes, that includes things like "writing it down."
This isn't just basic common sense (although there's a big dose of that too). There is some neuroscience beyond all this. Read on:
Three Arguments in defense of the to do List
1. Too much on your mind? To do lists can take you from mind FULL to mindful.
We've all heard the expression "I have a lot on my mind." These days I think we all do. Literally.
Your brain is not built to store short-term tasks, to-do's, and the fur ball of thoughts, concerns, worries, and other thinking bits that we try to jam into our brains. Yet, we fill our brains with so much information prompting a first class ticket to a mind FULL experience.
From a neuroscience lens that is the exact opposite of what the brain needs to function optimally. Our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) -- responsible for critical thinking, decision making, prioritizing and more -- works best when it feels a sense of order and control. Chaos and disorder impede its ability to function. The PFC loves to focus and think. Instead of respecting this proven neuroscience, we do the exact opposite: we multitask, try to remember it all and so on. This causes us to feel distracted, unfocused and experience that overwhelmed feeling.
Writing things down relieves the burden on your brain of trying to hold onto it all. It also pre-empts the stress response. And it's an easy way to keep your attention on the present without losing sight of the other things you will need to attend to. To do lists allow you to be free in the moment but without the danger of losing sight of what lies ahead.
In essence the to do list can even contribute to a more present, mindful you.
Hmm. When put like that it doesn't sound so banal after all.
In sum, the principle here is get it out of your head but keep it top of mind.
2. It's easy to do. Why does effective have to be hard? If the to do list is the low hanging fruit of strategies in the toolbox than I say bring it on! Get me more low hanging fruit please.
Since when did low hanging fruit become bad? When you go apple picking do you ignore the gorgeous apples that are within your reach and instead insist on climbing the ladder and only plucking the ones way up top?
To do lists are like that. They are easy habits you can practise and start to see immediate results.
I've seen this happen over and over again. With myself and with my clients. Like Jose, a super busy, high-performing lawyer working in international affairs. He called into a session one day completely frazzled. In our conversation we discovered he'd fallen off his habit of writing out and prioritizing his tasks and goals. He was burdened by his volume of work, tired and overly stressed. As a result his thinking was fuzzy, his mood compromised and he felt very overwhelmed.
The heavy -- but gratuitous -- chaos from that jammed up load in his brain was relieved substantially as soon as got back on track with writing (typing) out his tasks. That small, simple daily habit made an enormous difference. His clear, critical thinking skills were back, his mood was better and he felt less stressed and more in control.
It can be that easy.
3. From TO DO to TA DA: Celebrate the stuff you are getting done and open up your mind with a hit of positivity.
In the never-ending list of tasks ahead of us, we often forget to acknowledge and account for all that we do get done. The mirror image of the to do list is the ta da list. Taking a few moments to notice, acknowledge and appreciate what you have done on any given day can be very fueling. This moment of positivity can literally open our minds, hearts and broaden our thinking capacity. It feels so good too!
On a final note...
Remember: the tools are many -- it's not one or the other. It's one AND another.
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