Managing tasks, managing emotions: Don’t panic!

Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: Top of a brilliant, too-accurate pyramid infographic by

Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: Top of a brilliant, too-accurate pyramid infographic by

Productivity and task management seem like strictly practical issues, but in fact they’re deeply emotional. That’s what David Allen describes at in the first chapter of Getting Things Done, when he talks about the sense of calmness instilled by having a mind like water.

It seems to me that tuning into and recognizing your own feelings (especially hope, shame, relief, and fear) is THE crucial first step for figuring out what to do, getting stuff done, and letting stuff go. That’s what I’ve been working on today. Here is a little background, and some thoughts and lessons on this theme…

In the last eight months I made several major changes in my life: I ended my marriage (on the best of terms), sold my house, moved to a new state, eliminated my debt, stopped working on some projects I’d outgrown, began some intriguing new projects, had a brief painful relationship with a thoroughly incompatible partner, began a rewarding intimate relationship with a wonderful friend, and downsized my possessions to fit in a room plus small storage area. Plus, I got knee surgery to fix a torn ACL. Plus, a fair amount of business travel thrown in.

Yeah, it’s been a lot to manage — with a lot of mixed, deep feelings involved in every step. And a lot of stuff that needed to get done: projects, tasks, and priorities. Everything from figuring out where stuff goes in the kitchen to selling a house.

Through this process of major life-surgery I’ve had to face something I’ve avoided: I’ve spent most of my life in a near-constant sense of dread. I was scared that my life and work were spinning out of control, and that all sorts of disasters were waiting to pounce due to my inattention or ineptitude. I coped with it by keeping busy. If I just kept doing enough, surely I’d get ahead. Then I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a flat-out panic. And I’d work all day and feel like I’d accomplished nothing by evening, and feel terribly guilty and ashamed. I felt like I was failing at nearly everything.

In fact, I wasn’t failing — at least, not most of the time. Not any more than most people do. In fact, in a lot of ways I’m doing pretty damn well with my life. But because I was certain I was failing, and constantly braced for the next crash, I avoided looking too closely at what was happening, at what I needed to be doing.

It’s kind of like how you shut your eyes and cover your face before a car crash. It’s a reflex. You don’t really want to watch.

But when that kind of mental flinching becomes a permanent way of life, bad stuff happens. Namely, disorganization and procrastination — with all the bad stuff (tax penalties, pissed-off partners, missed opportunities, poor health) that go along with it.

It’s important to recognize that for all the pain that disorganization and procrastination cause, they do offer immediate, addictive emotional relief.

When you deliberately blur your mental vision and don’t look very far around you or ahead, and when you don’t habitually keep close track of information you need, then for short stretches of time you create the illusion that nothing needs to be done or figured out right now. It’s a false sense of security, but it does provide a sense of rest and it’s easy to do. Also, it works about as well as drinking salt water when you’re thirsty.

Since I’ve downsized and simplified my life and commitments, I’ve realized that I don’t want to keep living with that daily dread. I could keep it up — because I’ve done it my whole life. But at this point I’m making a conscious choice to change. Dread eats up too much of my energy. I’m 43 years old, and I’d like to use my remaining time and energy in ways that please me.

So I’ve been focusing on organizing my life, especially projects, tasks and priorities. Here’s what I’ve done so far, and what I’ve learned:

1. I CAN’T THINK AMIDST CLUTTER. Clutter distracts me, and provides a ceaseless nagging of all the things I might have forgotten. I cannot focus on a task when I’m around clutter — unless that task is decluttering.

So I’ve put a lot of effort into organizing my new room so that everything I need has an intuitive place, and that things I don’t need on a daily basis get stored or filed, and things I don’t ever need get tossed. This includes eliminating as much paper as possible from my life: I scan every paper I’ll need, shred most of them, file only a few original copies. I have redundant electronic backups (external hard drives AND offsite backup) for all my data.

The downside: Organizing feels so rewarding to me that sometimes I dive into that for emotional relief as a form of procrastination. I’m working on that.

2. MULTITASKING IS A MYTH. This was truly a devastating thing to admit to myself, since I always thought I was a consummate multitasker. But in fact, tons of scientific research and an honest look at my own experience indicates that human brains really can only do one conscious thing at a time. I cannot listen to two simultaneous voices and understand well what both are saying. I cannot run a quick Google search and track what a client is saying on a conference call. I cannot Twitter or instant message while trying to do another kind of writing. I cannot read an incoming text message while paying enough attention to driving.

Of course, I can TRY to do any combination of these things, or more. And I usually succeed to some level with all of them. But usually not as well as if I’d consciously taken a moment to set a priority and then waited to do tasks in priority order.

Focus is important to getting stuff done. But for me, focus can be another kind of trap. I can get so into doing something that I get obsessive or perfectionist about it, and and up spending way too much time on it. It becomes another type of procrastination.

I’m finding that for me, the skills I need to improve are time management and setting priorities. Not just “what are the things I need to do” but “what are the goals I wish to achieve?” Once I have in mind all my goals, I can set priorities among them, and then decide how much is really enough in terms of moving toward a particular goal for that day.

I’m realizing that my tendency to attempt multitasking often stems from a wish to distract myself (and thus procrastinate), or a wish to please (assuming that people expect me to do everything at once), or boredom.

3. ORGANIZE AT AN APPROPRIATE LEVEL OF DETAIL. I was discussing productivity systems today with a friend. She prefers to list out her to-dos in minute detail, including items such as “find Mr. X’s phone number” and “call Mr. X” in the overall task of “Ask Mr. X. to write me a letter of reference.” That works very well for her because it relieves her of the necessity to figure out the next step to take.

I’ve tried that approach, and I’ve found it does not work for me. The labor involved in listing and checking off so many minute steps feels overwhelming to me, and takes considerable time. In my task-management software OmniFocus I tend to list action items like “Ask Mr. X. to write me a letter of reference” unless I’m noticing that I’m procrastinating on a task. In that case, I may list sub-tasks in more minute detail.

I’m still working with this to try to figure out the best balance for me. But anyone else attempting to use a task management system should tune in to how they feel about using the system. If the system ends up feeling like a chore or a burden, if it scares you, you won’t use it and you’ll feel frustrated or ashamed. Recognize all your emotions involved, and name them. They’re important indicators of what you really need.

4. MOST LIFE-MONSTERS CAN WAIT (AT LEAST A BIT) TO BE SLAIN. For the parts of my life that had become dangerously disorganized, I’ve found I couldn’t just sit down and said “I’m going to face Monster Z right now, and parse out how to vanquish it, and get started.” I tried. I really did. Every time, this effort turned into an emotional wreck, unable to sort out which part of the monster to strike first. I’d make lists of tasks and goals, but be unable to sort them into a doable sequence. I’d feel ashamed, frustrated, and like an even bigger failure than before.

I realized that, with most of these life-monsters, I needed to first build up my strength and skills prior to the attack. I needed to attain more of a sense of my life generally gaining order and purpose on a daily basis. After all, I’d put off wrestling the life-monsters so long that I could put it off a while longer.  In the meantime, I set up doable systems to capture enough incoming monster-related  information to spot flags that would require me to speed up my timeline.

So even though organizing my space or developing a new exercise routine may not objectively be a higher priority than, say, developing a retirement plan — giving myself faster, easier “wins” that directly support my ability to tackle longer-term, bigger goals is what allows me to move forward. Right now, if I try too hard to stare down monsters that loom ever-larger due to neglect, I freeze.

Right now I’m only tackling one life-monster at a time. I’ve learned from the last eight months that trying to do them all at once, or in too close sequence, leaves me overwhelmed, exhausted, depressed, and unproductive on other fronts. Getting through knee surgery and recovery (and dealing with insurance bureaucracy and medical bills) is my current life-monster battle. That’s enough.

Down the road, I’m considering working with a financial planner and maybe a life/career coach to figure out some longer-term monster-slaying strategy. I think getting that kind of support might help, when I’m ready for it. But I’m not ready for that now, so please don’t bombard me with pitches for these professionals just yet. When I’m ready, I’ll ask for it.

5. RECOGNIZE & APPRECIATE WHAT YOU CAN DO OR HAVE DONE. Many people love crossing items off their to-do lists. That gives them a sense of accomplishment. That visual symbol has never worked for me, however. It just feels negative, the act of crossing-off. Not creative, not productive.

I’ve realized that when I’ve been getting depressed because I think I’ve been unproductive, it helps to reality-check myself by taking a day to make a list of all the stuff I actually do in a given day. For this list, anything that takes my time/effort counts. It includes things like:

  • Making my bed
  • Doing my leg exercises (5X/day, to stick with my physical therapy program)
  • Taking my vitamins
  • Making breakfast
  • Corresponding with clients
  • Doing actual billable work
  • Arranging to get a transit pass
  • Hanging a few pictures
  • Vacuuming
  • Scanning, shredding, and filing
  • Sorting out which jewelry needs repairs
  • Reading a chapter of a book

…Most of this stuff would never make my to-do list or get crossed off. I don’t need to track that level of detail day to day. But each of these tasks, and many others, need to get done and take my time and effort. I should at least recognize them. They are not wasted time. So if once in a while I make a “done” list of all this stuff, that reassures me emotionally. In turn, that reduces my tendency to beat up on myself, and gives me more energy to get stuff done.

Those are my thoughts on emotions and productivity for now. I’ll be writing more about this, I’m sure. But what are your thoughts on this topic? How do your feelings — and your awareness of them — affect how you get accomplished in life and work? Please comment below.

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13 thoughts on Managing tasks, managing emotions: Don’t panic!

  1. You are so right about multi-tasking. The older I get, the more I think multi-tasking is defined as: doing many things poorly.

    I have come to realize that I do not need to work all day long with my email, Twitter & Facebook running at the same time. Far too much chaos.

    In my case, real work gets done when those things are turned off.

    Good post, Amy.

  2. This blog topic really resonated with me. I identified with so much of it, including making time for PT, and I like what you’ve learned. Sharing that helped me already. And, I agree with David that turning off online media helps me focus on one thing at a time. Recognizing my physical and mental limits is a good point. Plus, no multitasking–sometimes turning off my phone when I want to relax really helps. And focusing on a garage sale, then donating, really made me feel more organized. However, the emotional stuff is still a mystery…

    Thanks for sharing and letting me vent here…

  3. Hey Amy — Great post. But I can’t imagine you lived with dread! who knew. I totally agree about the clutter — can’t have it around when I’m working. I just cleared out tons of paper and books and stuff.

    And multi-tasking doesn’t work either. Early in my working life I discovered that I really prefer to get rid of small tasks such as email, invoices, etc. (aka clutter of one sort) in the morning, and set aside afternoons for really diving into a writing project.


  4. Thanks, Cathy. Yeah, I lived with a lot of dread. Still do. Naming the monster helps shrink it, first step in managing it.

    Re: time-segregating task types: I’m trying to find the right balance. For me, it’s not so much about time of day but level of enthusiasm/engagement I’m feeling for real work, or general level of focus. If I’m feeling bored or less focused, drudge work is better for me. The trick is, how to manage that? Hmmmmm….

    – Amy

  5. Thanks Hilary.

    For me, I’m not sure that turning off social media, e-mail, etc. is the best option. I need my radar screen. Much of my best work happens from spotting something early and acting in the moment. The trick for me is, I think, learning better how to make sure a quick scan REMAINS a quick scan, so that I don’t get pulled away unless I see something really significant, not just interesting.

    Because for me, social media IS a significant part of my “real work.”

    Tough nut to crack. In the meantime, over the last coupla weeks I’ve generally been tweeting a lot less, about (I think) less interesting stuff, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.


    – Amy

  6. Thanks, David

    Understood, and for many people shutting off communication channels & social media to focus is the right answer. For me, it’s a significant part of my “real work,” so answer isn’t as clear.

    But letting go of trying to multitask… that’s a harder one. I don’t like to admit my limitations, even if that limitation is a function of being human.

    And I’m not holding out much hope that I’m a secret Cylon. But just in case I am, maybe Battlestar Galactica would have a much more interesting and less embarrassing finale 🙂

    – Amy Gahran

  7. Thanks, Amy, for this post. It was so great to read this at 6:30 a.m. as I sit here trying to hammer out some work before I shower and dreading the day ahead! I’ll be thinking of this all day. — Randy

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  9. Wow, Amy! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was at your house in Boulder for a party — what a difference a year can make.

    I’m so impressed with your clutter-free goal. I wish someone would come and scan all the loose papers in my office and make them go away! That would be a great service for someone to offer.

    I’m looking forward to following you on this new path and learning alongside you.

  10. Amy,

    This is a great post. Task overload can blow my emotions out of whack very easily. I also forget to thank myself for all the attention-focused tasks I have done (#5). I struggle a lot with social media – it creates a lot of extra stress and “work.”

  11. Thanks, great post, Amy. This exactly captures a lot of what I feel. I’m an assistant professor of journalism, and trying to find some balance between teaching, research, service, blogging, social media and, well, life – is often overwhelming.

    It’s a constant self-reinforcing cycle – if I feel like I haven’t been productive enough, on comes the guilt in force. The guilt in turn leaves me feeling so exhausted and depressed and inadequate that I’m not very productive. And so on.

    And I hear you – lots of people give me grief – well you must have time because I know you use Twitter and Facebook etc. Just turn that off! Well, like you, I feel like that is integral to my work – it’s where I get my most interesting and creative ideas and keeps me current. But I have tried to carefully limit the amount of time I spend on such things each day – still more than for most people, I’m sure. It stinks to always feel like I’m watching the clock, but thus far it works okay.

    Love your idea of the “I actually did this!” each day. Excellent. Now to just let go of perfectionism. 🙂


  12. Great post, Amy! I don’t think I know anybody who -doesn’t- feel generally overwhelmed, which I think is kind of tragic.

    You’re a few steps ahead of me; “clutter free” is still just a dream! Have you found any good resources along the way that you might recommend specifically re organizing your life — books, websites, experts, apps? (Or what you would tend to tag such things with?)

  13. Hi, Amy.

    Well, I achieved clutter freedom by getting divorced, selling my house, and downsizing my possessions to a bedroom plus a small basement storage area. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach for everyone. 🙂

    For getting organized on other stuff, I’d recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Omnifocus productivity software for Mac & iPhone, a scanner, a Kindle, and Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are: A Guide to compassionate living.

    – Amy Gahran

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