On a recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked me what to do when one feels overwhelmed with incoming tasks, requests, and ambiguous obligations — a problem that has become unfortunately common in our current period of largely remote and persistently frenzied work.
The temptation in such moments is to curl up as the onslaught engulfs you; perhaps answering the most recent emails to arrive, or tackling a sampling of tasks that seem particularly urgent, but otherwise just hoping the rest will dissipate.
In the mythology of your professional life, in other words, you decline to confront the dragon, and instead put up a half-hearted warning sign, or rage to anyone in earshot about the unfairness of the dragon’s existence in the first place.
My advice was to resist this temptation.
I told the listener to instead confront the dragon. Jot down every loop that opens; whether it comes via email, or a phone call, or a Zoom meeting, or Slack. Because these loops might emerge rapidly, use a minimalist tool with incredibly low friction. I recommended a simple plain text file on your computer in which you can record incoming obligations at the speed of typing (a strategy I elaborate in this vintage post).
Then, at the beginning of each day, before the next onslaught begins, process these tasks into your permanent system. In doing so, as David Allen recommends, clarify them: what exactly is the “next action” this task requires? Stare at this collection before getting started with your work.
It’s quite possible that the list will be terrifying — way more assignments and activities than you can ever hope to accomplish in time. But you should still confront it. Quantify the impossibility of your load. Visualize its contours. Walk into the cave, shield raised, prepared to face what lurks.
I can offer three justifications for this recommendation:
- As David Allen argues, obligations that are kept only in your head cause stress and drain mental resources. An overwhelming number of tasks captured in a system that you regularly review will generate a fraction of the angst spawned by trying to instead pretend that those same tasks don’t exist.
- Quantifying the impossibility of your assignments makes it much easier to argue for change. When you instead just battle your inbox all day, switching haphazardly between the easy and unavoidably urgent, you can convince yourself that you’re simply busy and need to hustle harder. Enumerating the absurd quantity of these demands will sharpen your conviction that something has to give.
- You can optimize. If you have 400 tasks on your list, there’s no way you can accomplish them all in a single day. But if you can see all 400 obligations in one place, then you can choose the five or six that will have the biggest impact. This is almost certainly better than just jumping on whatever caught your attention most recently.
In summary, I told this podcast listener not to confuse the systems with which he organizes his work for the actual quantity of work with which he has been burdened. Abandoning the former won’t reduce the latter, it will only make its metaphorical fiery breath burn all the hotter.
Speaking of productivity, one of my favorite productivity writers, Laura Vanderkam, just published a new ebook original titled, The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home. I couldn’t think of a more relevant book for the frustrated many, like my overwhelmed podcast listener, currently struggling with the “new normal” of the remote workplace.