Task management for the overwhelmed
December 30, 2013 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Are you easily distracted and overwhelmed? What task management techniques/systems have you found successful?

I have two big mental obstructions:
1. I'm easily overwhelmed and feel crippling guilt in the face of any more than one undone task.
2. I'm easily distracted by the slightest interference in my field of vision. If I'm in the middle of one thing and something else so much as catches my eye, I get derailed.

As a result, when I make a To-Do list, within about 30 seconds I'm both dreading the enormity of all the things, and distracted by lots of different tasks all calling out to be done.

Does this sound like you? How do you manage it?

The "Getting Things Done" system was appealing to me at first because the initial "brain dump" helped me let go of all the competing obligations crowding my brain. I want that "trusted system" so I can do just one thing at a time! But having a zillion bins and buckets and contexts for everything made it all fall apart within about 5 days.

Please hope me.
posted by overeducated_alligator to Work & Money (17 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
This may sound dumb, but...if the idea of a to-do list stresses you out so much, don't make one.

Focus on one thing you want to accomplish, accomplish it, and move on. It doesn't matter what you accomplish first, or in what order you accomplish more than one thing - do one thing all the way to completion, and then do another thing. Repeat until your muscle memory's set.

In other words, try to look at the tree, not the whole forest.
posted by pdb at 9:04 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I am in a time of my life where I have limited time and energy--I've got a new baby, say, or my chronic pain is acting up--I often start dividing my day's to-do list into "Must Do," "Should Do," and "Would Like To Do."

"Must Do" items are strictly things that really have to be done today or there will be consequences. So, paying a bill that will otherwise incur a late fee, or keeping a promise, or doing something that is already three days late (I have one of those today!).

"Should Do" items are those things that help life run smoothly and that a responsible person would do, but that can be put off another day. Laundry, washing pots and pans, getting the oil changed in the van, balancing the checkbook. "Should Do" items can eventually become "Must Do" items--laundry becomes a "Must Do" if I know that tomorrow I won't be able to dress appropriately without smelling bad unless I get at least one load through.

"Would Like To Do" items are things I enjoy that can be put off forever without consequences, and that often fall off the radar if I'm too focused on productivity. These might be things like watching a video, reading a book, writing a blog post, taking the kids to the zoo, baking cookies, taking a nap.

This works for me because it is always surprising to me how few things really end up in the "Must Do" category. That really helps me feel less overwhelmed and guilty about all the things I'm not doing. And including "Would Like To Do" helps me remember that these things are important even if nobody cares about them but me.

What doesn't end up on this kind of list are the inevitable daily maintenance things. If I'm taking care of a baby, I don't need to put "feed baby, change diapers, settle crying baby, put baby down for nap," on the list.

For awhile, I used a to-do list system that involved keeping only a single list in a notebook, and scanning it to see what rose up as a thing you felt like doing. You can be more productive if you're flexible--maybe I think the living room needs to be cleaned, but today I'm in a mood to do work at the computer, so I'll choose to catch up on e-mails, pay bills, balance the checkbook, and so on, instead--matching my energy to the jobs at hand. In this system, if something lingers on the list without being done for a long time, you consider whether it really needs doing or whether you can just let it go. I can't remember the name of the system but if I do I'll post a link--it's very different from the "put everything into categories with priorities and do the top priority things first" type of systems, and I liked it quite a bit.

As far as the distraction goes, I find keeping a notebook really helps me with this. I don't have to pack away the outdated photos on the mantel this minute if I have a notebook in which I can take a sec to write down "pack away photos from mantel" and then get back to what I'm working on. I'm a pretty focused person in genereal, though, so such a thing may not be sufficient for you.
posted by not that girl at 9:05 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

I am also somewhat easily distracted. I have found the Self Control app to be an absolute god-send for me. It allows me to block all of the distracting websites I frequent and really buckle down and do my homework or whatever it is that needs doing.

If to-do lists stress you out, you might make two or three small lists instead of one mega list of All The Things. You might have a list of 2-3 things that must be done ASAP; another list of less pressing items that should be done soon but can wait a bit; and a third list of even less pressing items to do whenever you have the time or inclination.

This might help with the feeling of being overwhelmed by tasks, but I'm not sure it will help so much with the crippling guilt you describe feeling when you have to leave tasks undone or unfinished. It could be useful to chat with a professional about this anxiety, so you have tools in place that keep you in a good headspace. All the organization in the world can't replace that.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This sounds familiar. What has worked for me may not apply for you, so take the recommended daily allowance of salt with these suggestions:

1. I realize, every day, that there is more to do than I can do, no matter how hard or long I work. So I focus on triage instead of my sense of being inadequate and overwhelmed. I have *this much* time, *this much* energy, and *this much opportunity.* Given those constraints, what are the most important things to do? Using that framing alleviates a lot of the shame I feel about the imperfections surrounding me.

2. BUT THERE IS SO MUCH ELSE TO DO! And I can't stand it that things are out of order or in need of repair or suboptimally organized... so I write them down. They're sometime projects. Writing it down is the first step to getting it done, at least for me, and I feel better because I've done concrete brain dump. Paper and pen take care of that for me, as long as the list doesn't wander away...

3. I do monkeywork. When I can't focus, or have low energy, I do incidental dumb things that will come in handy for when I am ready to start a larger project. Like assembling a cleaning bucket, or restocking the shower with soap, or scrubbing the refrigerator handle. Any progress counts!

4. I try to remember that other people 1) have help, 2) have different circumstances/energy/requirements, and that they 3) tend to minimize the messes in their lives. Other people are the wrong measuring stick. That said, it's empowering to know how to do things the right way (Cheryl Mendelson's "Home Comforts" is a great compendium for this) when the stars come into alignment for me.

5. Other people's systems exist as insight and potential solutions, not as an aspirational regimen. I take good ideas as I find them, in bits and pieces, and adapt them, but looking to a total system has never worked for me. That's a liberating piece of knowledge. Unfuck Your Habitat (thank you to the MeFite who mentioned this in an Ask) let me see other people tackling one small thing at a time, and that's been helpful.

6. Always Be Cleaning. Pick something up as you pass through a room and put it away properly (or at least put it somewhere closer to its original destination). This is a great habit because it accomplishes something, it furthers the whole project without being overly burdensome, and it can be done on the fly. It all counts toward improvement!

Doing *something,* no matter how small the shoveling against the tide, is better than doing nothing and feeling mired in shame has been the lesson for me. Little strokes felling mighty oaks and all that...

Hey: Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:24 AM on December 30, 2013 [16 favorites]

I was going to say the same thing as pdb. To-do lists are not mandatory to be successful or efficient. If they don't work for you don't use them.
posted by COD at 9:35 AM on December 30, 2013

I've been you for decades. After deeply observing others and myself, here's my conclusion for people like us. There are two routes:

1. Bottom Out and Be Saved
Embrace a system (GTD seems the consensus winner) in a scarily obsessive way, and transform your life to become a "believer", ala AA. Make adherence to that system the absolute bedrock of your life. Breathless evangelization is optional but likely.


2. Settle For Triage
Get an app that synchs reliably between computer and portable devices (I like The Hit List, for mac and ios), and use it to store EVERYTHING (so at least nothing disappears; it can be pulled up via search). Accept that you'll never get to the vast majority of it all, but do constantly float upward the very highest priority stuff. You'll never delve deep into those buckets, but you'll at least have access to it all, and, most importantly, to the short list of what needs to be done to keep the power on and to keep your boss from firing you. The big commitment here is to really put everything into this app, and not fragment your taskload into, like, Evernote, scraps of paper, and notes scrawled on the back of your hand. That's not a particularly tough commitment if you choose an app that's pleasant to use (like The Hit List). Every once in a while, when feeling compulsive, take a trip through the app and clear out some old wood. And accept that that's how it's got to be, unless you bottom out and resolve to be saved.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:46 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was in the Peace Corps, they drummed it into our heads that all we had to do was one thing a day. ONE THING A DAY. And one thing a day also included, like, laundry. That's it! One thing. I mean, you were also adjusting to life in a foreign country and learning a new language and lots of other fuzzy stuff, but as far as active accomplishments went, one was the minimum requirement. Also, it was voluntary, so you always had the option to quit and go home. Therefore, life in the Peace Corps- although in many ways incredibly overwhelming - nonetheless boiled itself down into a very simple to do list:

1. Do one thing.
2. Don't quit.

Sometimes, it is true, I didn't even get my one thing done, but on those days, I was at least passively doing the second thing on the list, which was Not Quitting. Other days, I had a thing on my list but I just didn't have the energy or motivation to get it done, so I just did something else instead. Didn't matter! I still did one thing, and therefore I had achieved success. Using this method, I was not the greatest Peace Corps volunteer who ever Peace Corps-ed, but I didn't quit! I finished my two years, and a whole lot of people didn't.

Then, I started grad school. Without telling my advisers, I implemented a daily regimen:

1. Do one thing.
2. Don't drop out.

Again, I was not an academic superstar, but I did not drop out, and I finished my PhD, when a lot of people didn't.

I am not 100% sure this is a method that will work for everyone, and it probably won't take you to the pinnacle of your field, but if you are at a point in your life where you're feeling utterly overwhelmed, so much so that you're getting nothing done, or you're considering stopping whatever it is you're doing (i.e., quitting or dropping out) because you're certain that failure is imminent, you might want to throw away your to-do list and give this method a shot.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:01 AM on December 30, 2013 [52 favorites]

I've tried approximately every to-do list system that exists. Here's something I've developed over the last few months specifically to address overwhelm.

Get a notebook or binder and a writing implement. I like an A6 / 6"x4" Circa or Arc notebook with nice heavyweight paper. I also think a good pen that lays down a thick, bold line is helpful. (Or, if you don't have a school-supplies fetish like me, just get some scratch paper and a pencil.)

1) On the first righthand* page, braindump a Big List with All The Next Actions. I try to keep things in terms of GTD-style Next Actions, because they decrease the overwhelm and barrier to entry, and I've been brainwashed by The David. Also, follow the GTD policy anything you could not act on today should go on your calendar, if you need to work on it at a later time, or on a Waiting list, if you need some other contingency to be satisfied. Review these regularly, like a good little GTDroid.

2) On the lefthand* page, start a Today list. Begin with any regular, daily tasks that must be done that day. Then copy a ludicrously small number of NAs from the Big List to the Today List in the morning. Like, 3 things, each of which will take 10 minutes. Or 1 big thing that you know you can get done before lunch. (Do not cross these things off the Big List yet.)

3) Work on tasks from the Today list. You don't have to go in any specific order. As all sorts of baloney inevitably comes up throughout the day, either add it to the Today list if it must be done today, or, preferably, put on the Big List. As you finish each thing, cross it off of the Today list. If it's something that originally came from the Big List, cross it off there, too. (As I do this, I like to think "DOUBLE CROSS-OFF!" in a video-game voice and make chain-reaction exploding SFX sounds to myself, but this is not critical to the system.)

4) If by some miracle you finish everything on the Today list, copy over one new thing from the Big List, work on it, cross it off (DOUBLE CROSS-OFF BONUS!!! PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW), and select a new one. Repeat until you're exhausted, the bus leaves for home, or your mother calls you to dinner.

5) The next morning, go over yesterday's Today list. Marvel at all the things you have crossed off! Double-check that everything that got done from the Big List got crossed off. Double-check anything that got put on the Today list but not done was copied to the Big List. Throw away (or just put a big X over) yesterday's list.

6) Go to #2.

Important: Every few days or so, throw away the Big List, and start fresh. You have been staring at this thing for days, you know what's on it, you know what's important, and you won't forget that stuff. But there's also a bunch of cruft that has accreted to it that you know you have no intention of really doing within the next few weeks or so. It's probably very virtuous, worthy stuff, and if you had infinite time and energy, you'd do it, and probably feel wonderful about it, but the world is not going to stop spinning if you never get to it, and you're never going to, so, let the fact that you wrote it on the Big List with your nice bold pen and then threw it away exorcise it from your mind.

The two things that help out with the overwhelm are 1) that the Today list stays doable, and 2) that the Big List gets blown up every once in a while.

You can totally sort your Big List GTD-style into contexts, if that's helpful to you.

In defiance of The David, I no longer keep a Someday/Maybe list, because it was weighing too heavily on me. (I came to call it the Graveyard of Broken Dreams. Not motivating.)

One final thing: I bounced from one system to another to another for a while, and that was also good. It kept things fresh, gave me that little surge of productivity that comes from the novelty and mindfulness that comes from trying something new, and got me away from this illusion that there exists Some Perfect System, and if I can just tweak my setup just right I will glide through my day without stress. There are a lot of ways to juggle to-dos. For example, check out Mark Forster's (eventually hilarious) succession of versions if you want to procrastinate by reading about productivity, try a bunch of systems, and meditate on the ultimate futility of tweaking—because they all fail in some way. So, build failure into the system, and be willing, at the slightest provocation, to trash your current method and try something new.

* This probably seems weird and backwards, but here's the logic: the Big List sometimes waxes long and spills over multiple pages, so putting it on the right gives it room to expand. Using a binder or Circa notebook lets you put in a fresh left-hand page to start each Today list.
posted by BrashTech at 10:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

some parts of GTD are great. Mainly one to-do-list and the 2 minute rule. I have a single to-do-list in excel. It has a column for the case, a column for the task itself, a column for the date due, a percent completed column and a completion status column. I then sort by date due and completion status which throws the completed ones to the top, which I use strikethrough font to show they are completed. Most importantly, I move dates around a lot. I'm always behind, but always organized.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

GTD was too complicated for me too, but I did keep one thing from it: the capture. It's essential for me to have a notebook or something nearby where I can write down the fleeting but not-currently-important things that occur to me.

I've tried a few versions of this, but what worked the best: a notebook with a few different sections tagged like this: Life (i.e. personal to-dos), Buy (shampoo, milk, whatever), Work, Someday

And it goes like this: Let's say it's the weekend and I remember a work thing I forgot about it. I jot it down in the Work section. Then, I know it's recorded and I don't have to spend any energy worrying I'll forget it.

More importantly, it happens like this at work: I'm in the middle of some important task, and I think "Oh I need to look for that book at the library!" or "I need to buy dog food!" or "My son needs new socks!" and then, instead of immediate plunging into that, I write it down in the appropriate section of my brain. This clears my head of some clutter and lets me continue.

I ended up with an electronic work to-do list (an excel spreadsheet but written as a list) -- I update it and print it out every so often and carry it around at work and jot things down on it as needed.

And I did best with a paper/notebook personal list/capture (though, again, with a capture for work when at home). I tried to shift everything to Evernote, which was sorta nice because I could access it anywhere, but I ended up with too many lists. So now I'm transitioning back to this. And it's such a relief to have all my lists in one place rather than scattered about.

Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 11:28 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like a lot of the ideas above, especially MonkeyToes's. They resonate with me as being true and helpful from my own experience.

I've tried a lot of things. Basically, though, I've distilled my efforts down to three main things.

1. I stress when I try to keep everything in my head. So, rule number one is that I need a trustworthy place to have a brain-dump that I'll also reliably check in on, perhaps daily. It might help to have some sort of an organization process for deciding what gets done when, but the most important thing, really, is removing the stress from your head and having a place to put it where it won't get forgotten.

2. You need a reliable way of knowing what the "next step" is for a particular thing. A lot of things sit undone because you aren't quite sure what to do next. Practicing a process of saying, "this is what happens next on this thing" and then putting it into your system for #1 above so that it isn't forgotten and reliably reviewed is very, very helpful to actually getting that list done.

3. I've found it to be essential, as well, to redfine my expectations. As pretentious illiterate noted, you can learn to derive satisfaction through chipping away at the mountain instead of conquering it. On some level, you need to decide what's "most important," and do those first. But on those days that you can't really get going, I've found it immensely helpful to ask, what exactly can I do right now, and then do that thing. There's a psychological benefit to getting something done (even one thing), even if it's not the most important thing. I find then, as I am encouraged by this, I'm more likely to hit that "most important thing" on the to-do list. But, I try to keep the pressure rather low.

So, in a nutshell: find a brain dump, find a reliable way of scheduling a "next step," and try to lower expectations for conquering the world.

Good luck!
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:18 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd like to offer an alternative to Getting Things Done. Personal Kanban has been really helpful in organizing my daily work and my long-term goals. I've tried Omnifocus, RTM, iOS reminders, paper organizers, thinking rock and sticky notes. I needed "a place for everything and everything in it's place." Personal Kanban is just the best and most intuitive way I've found to handle everything. It's the one place where all things "to do" can go. Personal Kanban can work adapted to work with GTD, Covey's habits, and plain todo lists.

You can see everything and can move things between lists (columns) effortlessly. The simplest personal kanban setup uses backlog, doing and done as columns. I use Kanbanflow, with these columns:

On Ice (things that might be done in the future - they are "on ice")
Blocked (something outside of me isn't allowing this to go forward)
Backlog (this is the dump of everything that needs to get done)
On Deck (Things that need to get done in the immediate future / today)
In Progress (with a WIP of 2)
Done (move a card here when thing it done)

Everything gets dumped into the backlog. When the day starts, I pull things from the backlog and put them "On Deck". I hide the backlog, blocked and on ice columns. Then depending on my energy level and how I feel a put 2 in "In Progress" and then I just work. When that thing is done I move it to Done. Rinse, repeat. Watch that Done column fill up with all the stuff you've accomplished.

Things that are awesome about this are:

You can see everything at once and there is just one place for everything.
Prioritization happens naturally as part of putting things on the board.
It forces you to pick "Next Actions" - just choosing a thing to start is often half the battle.
It acknowledges that you have limits - you can really only do one thing at a time anyways, pick the best thing and work on it.
Seeing your Done column full of stuff that you've finished is very reinforcing.

Try it out. This is the simplest, most intuitive task tracking system you'll ever you use. I like KanbanFlow (because they have pomodoro timer built in), but Trello and Kanbanery work really well with this system too.
posted by Brent Parker at 1:32 PM on December 30, 2013 [18 favorites]

Honestly, the only thing that has given me significant help in this area, after a lifetime of struggling and trying one coping strategy after another, was going on adderall. If your attention and focus issues are really recalcitrant and they're having an effect on your quality of life (which they are, since they're causing you guilt and anxiety) then you might want to talk to a doctor (a psychiatrist specifically) about a pharmaceutical treatment. I don't want to come off as cavalier about psychiatric medication, but for some people ADD meds help tremendously where nothing else helps at all. It's something to consider anyway; it certainly changed my life very much for the better.
posted by Scientist at 2:02 PM on December 30, 2013

I get overwhelmed, too, and the thing that's helped me with it is the Unfuck Your Habitat 20/10 system: do 20 minutes of work on your BIG SCARY THING, then take a 10 minute break (there are Android and iPhone UfYH apps that include timers, though I think she had to clean up the name for the Apple store, so the app is called something slightly different there). It gets you to focus on the work in front of you and break the scary thing down into small, manageable pieces. It's been a huge help to me in reducing my anxiety and guilt and getting me unstuck when I'm procrastinating.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:37 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I use to-do lists, but for managing stress, not tasks. When my internal capacity for dealing with things exceeds a threshold, I write a list on paper. Which means I can cross out line items and throw out the whole list. Those are helpful gestures that can't be easily recreated with a software tool. The list is usually short-term in nature, focused on what's causing my most immediate anxiety. Each item should require little time/thought to accomplish ("take out trash," not "finish novel"). When I finish one, I cross it off (positive reinforcement magic). If I'm working on something big, I restate immediate problems I'm working on. Sometimes after crossing off a few items, the cloud lifts and I just keep moving. I dispose/rewrite lists as needed to keep things moving some more.

Even if this specific approach doesn't help, maybe the general reframing will.
posted by rhymes with carrots at 4:04 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use Google's Chrome browser, and I love the Momentum Plug In for keeping me focused on my Big Thing For Today. In the lower right hand corner, I keep a list of up and coming To Do's which I've transferred from my lists on Trello.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 5:05 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may find this HBR article on areas of focus versus goals helpful. I find that deemphasizing goals in lieu of setting time/attention somewhat paradoxically helps me get way more done and with less stress.
posted by suprenant at 11:42 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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