I lost the plot. Help me snap back.
June 17, 2008 8:47 AM   Subscribe

How do you get back in the swing of things - catch up on work, personal goals and commitments after getting lost/overwhelmed/giving up etc..?

This year started out a bit hectic. A breakup of a live in engagement, a move, death in the family, and personal health issues ranging from an infected tooth and jawbone to a viral infection. In the process I've completely lost touch with my commitments, the flow of the work I do for a living and my hobbies and interests. I really need to get back into the swing of things, but my usual methods aren't working. Currently I am working on listing everything I need to catch up on and making a task list from that. Then trying to buckle down and focus on each task, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. So my question I guess is how/what methods do you folks use to get back on track with work, etc... when your so far behind you could work for 24 hrs a day for two weeks and be just about even? What are some tools - organizational or mental - to focus on the next thing rather then on everything that needs to get done. I should note, I don't have the time to learn a whole new system at the moment (though maybe for future reference that might be helpful). thanks.
posted by jeffe to Work & Money (16 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
www.flylady.net taught me how to do this.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:56 AM on June 17, 2008

Charles Spurgeon said that you should "Learn to say 'No.' It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin."

I think he's right. At work, with friends and even family, and especially with yourself - your personal goals, everything you want to do with your life - in all things you need to exercise a measured amount of setting limits by just saying "no" to some things that you used to say yes to. You don't have to go out to dinner just because everyone is going out to dinner. You don't have to run that marathon this year if you're still struggling with basic health issues. You don't have to take on additional projects that management is dumping on you if you're already fully tasked.

Learn to say "No."
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:58 AM on June 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, you can't do it all at once! I had the same problem recovering from mono (as a working adult--yikes).

Try to do three things every day. Then relax. Repeat. Don't beat yourself up. You've been through a lot.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:59 AM on June 17, 2008

It sounds like you have analysis paralysis. Basically the large scope of what you are trying to do is overwhelming you, so that you can get past the "What should I do?" stage.

When I get into those situations I usually use a divide and conquer strategy of some sort. That may mean picking out one thing (such as a single activity that you want to restart) to tackle and leaving everything else on the back burner. Another strategy could be to just pick out a small list of really obvious important things that you should do, and do those first before trying to figure out any other less important things. The point is to not focus on coming up with the perfect plan to do everything, and instead focus making some progress right away.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:03 AM on June 17, 2008

Take a deep breath! I really understand that overwhelmed feeling following a series of derails,
the solution is to ease up on yourself by paring down - you've had a big load of mental resource expenditure of late and you need to divert energies to 'essentials only' for a little while. This doesn't mean totally jettisoning stuff, but it might mean sticking some things on in a big mental cupboard marked 'Later''.

What you absolutely shouldn't do is try and work out dependencies, i.e. 'if I don't do so-and-so then I can't achieve so-and-so further down the line' - this will inflate to your tasks by tying them to future unknowns, so focus only on the things that have an immediate outcome. Once these things are achieved you can open up the 'Later' cupboard and see what drops out. Some things magically solve themselves when you aren't worrying at them.

If you're having problems working out what is more pressing, try posting a general list to the thread and we can maybe lend some perspective.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:17 AM on June 17, 2008

Mark Forster suggests declaring a backlog. Don't worry about the details of his system, but here's how I would adapt it:

1. Like you're already doing, list everything that's on your plate.
2. Do anything on that list that is really, really, really urgent and important.
3. Eliminate everything from that list that you can get away with eliminating, even if it means calling people up and renegotiating commitments you'd made.
4. Start tackling the list for one hour a day, first thing in the morning, or following some other similar brainless rule if that one doesn't appeal. The rest of the day is for getting on with your life, dealing with new incoming things, etcetera, and taking time to relax and have fun, however counterintuitive that seems right now.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:22 AM on June 17, 2008

(That Mark Forster link)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:24 AM on June 17, 2008

Randy Pausch's Time Management lecture (google video) or summary here.
posted by DarkForest at 9:31 AM on June 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding sondrialiac's little list of three things a day; I do exactly this when I'm feeling overwhelmed and have to get myself back on track. At first, when I'm feeling the most overwhelmed, I always include something I'm going to do anyway (like take out the trash) just so I can feel good about crossing something off the list. It's a silly mind trick, but as I really need inertia to keep myself motivated, it works.
posted by phatkitten at 9:45 AM on June 17, 2008

Something I am finding helpful is to keep a daily journal. Write whatever you want in it, but be sure to devote at least a small portion to what you did that day and what you are going to do tomorrow or the next week. Don't think of it as an extension of your endless to-do list, but as something separate. An overview of your life including your responsibilities.

When you fall really far behind, a lengthy to-do list eventually reaches a point of no return. I would look into declaring to-do bankruptcy and maybe consolidate my list into a few categories or break things down into short, long, easy, hard, personal, professional, unattainable, etc... That way you can focus your life a little bit more: i.e. this week is for professional progress, next is personal and so on.

Also, lifehacker does the occasional article on this subject. Here's one to start you off... Good luck!
posted by willie11 at 10:00 AM on June 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

You actually sound like you're on the right track. Break your list into smaller and smaller pieces, like 'morning', 'afternoon'. Set yourself a 10 minute timer, or 15 minutes, and force yourself to really focus for those 15 minutes. See how far you get. It may just be what you need to get yourself into that groove.

I think it's from Getting Things Done, but instead of saying "No", start giving a 'qualified yes'. Like, "Yes, I can help you with that, but only for about a half-hour." "Yes, I will meet with you, but only on X day, and I will put you into the calendar."
It is a baby step to learning to say 'no', but it allows you to keep your sanity and still meet obligations.

Go out and sit in a coffeeshop and see what happens. Meeting new people might make life happier too.
posted by msamye at 10:03 AM on June 17, 2008

Recognize that you are still in recovery. Your energy level and creative are probably still very limited - don't beat yourself up for not getting more done in a day (OK - maybe that's me and not you).

Many people have already advised you to pare down the list. It's not that you will never do those things but rather you need to postpone them. Do keep somethings on the list that give you energy and/or pleasure - it is part of taking care of yourself as you recover.

One good idea from Getting Things Done, is to identify the very next action item. It needs to be a specific thing to do, not a general goal. That will help you move through the list.

Also, from Flylady - you do anything for 15 minutes. Get a timer (really, don't just look at the clock) and commit to spending 15 minutes on the next thing that needs to be done. When 15 min are up, get to a stopping place and go on to something else. If you need to, do another 15 minutes later.
posted by metahawk at 10:24 AM on June 17, 2008

I like to keep a little notebook next to me when I really need to get something done, so when the next "OMG I have to do that, TOO!" hits, I can just write it down right then to get it out of my head. Even if I already have "send Grandma a card" on some other list, writing it down and then getting back to work seems to help my brain stay a little clearer.

I find myself sometimes finally getting the lists onto paper (which, credit where it's due, is a brilliant first accomplishment for getting back on track) and then just staring at them or avoiding them because they're just too long. Picking and finishing any one thing, absolutely anything, will chip away at the list and, more importantly, kick-start your mental state into the good kind of inertia. There have been times when I've waffled on a list for so long that I finally just handed the list to a friend and asked them to pick something.

And be super easy on yourself! It's easy for the feeling of overwhelm to flip into depression, at least in my experience, so I have to remind myself that I wouldn't be nearly as hard on a friend with tough times as I can be on myself. Sorry that the first part of the year was lame; a mentor of mine once told me, "Sometimes there are just bad YEARS," and for some reason I've found that endlessly relieving.
posted by lauranesson at 10:35 AM on June 17, 2008

Sorry about your rough year.

Do the urgent or small stuff first. Then, if there's some ritual thing you can do that will make you feel that life is good and progress is possible, take some time to do that. (I believe for Flylady it's cleaning the sink, but how often can you do that and still feel good about it?) Give yourself a good evening meal (always). Good food and rest are important. When you begin to see progress, your energy level will increase.

Spend the early part of every evening planning the next day, then put your list out of your thoughts well before you go to bed. You don't want that list running through your mind while you're falling asleep, because you really need your rest. It sounds like you already have motivation; plenty of sleep will give you the energy to tackle the list.
posted by sevenstars at 12:07 PM on June 17, 2008

Having a list is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for getting anything done.

I'm not saying it can't be a useful tool, and it's a good way to remind yourself that there are plenty of great things that you enjoy doing. However, at the end of the day just chuck it out, relax, take every thing one step at a time. Take the time to enjoy your recovery, feeling happier, less depressed and having more energy are enjoyable things in of themselves. Taking your time also mean s you can build your recovery in a sustainable way, remember even though your feeling better than you once did, you sill aren't 100%; you still can't handle everything you once could so don't put yourself under preassure to.

Finally, getting better is a creative and transgressive process, that list is a list of how your life was, it's not how your life has to be now, nor can it be. This isn't a good thing, it isn't a bad thing either, its just one of those things that happen. So it's a good idea to prepare yourself for it now.

This advice comes from my experience of having a depressive friend, who is also at times a compulsive list maker.
posted by munchbunch at 12:23 PM on June 17, 2008

I'm sorry to hear about your rough year, and I can definitely relate.

What works best for me is a calendar/planner. I wake up and look at it everyday, and everyday, I write down a to-do list of things I want to tackle. In the back of the planner, I keep a more general to-do list of things that don't necessarily have a deadline, and when I see open spaces in my calendar, I consult the list in the back and try to slot those bigger projects in.

When things are tough for me, I tend to get lost in my sadness, so having a written reminder helps tremendously, to the point of even getting so detailed as to write:

Monday: Buy Father's Day Card
Monday night: Write in Father's Day Card
Tuesday: Mail Father's Day Card
Sunday: Father's Day

I know it's kinda anal, but it gives me the prodding I need to get things done. And yes, it feels really good crossing completed projects off, and it also feels good to flip through old pages and see all the crossed-through items.
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 12:38 PM on June 17, 2008

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