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Aug 15
You've got a ton to accomplish today. Whether it be tasks at work or things you want to get done on your day off, you definitely don't lack in meaningful, productive content with which to fill your time.
But you find it extremely hard to get started. You stare at you tasks list. It's quite long. Maybe depressingly long. How will I ever finish all this in time? Which one do I even begin with?
These notions are often at the core of procrastination. I personally identify these notions with the feeling of being overwhelmed into paralysis. When there's too much to do, when the plate is too full, many people either delay getting started or give up completely. This is quite natural, actually, and it is not our weak character that is at fault here, but the very nature of how our brain works.
This is good news, because once we identify what causes our brain to get off track, we can develop strategies to bring it back in line and keep it happily churning the tasks we care about.

There's so much to do! Well, let's check Facebook

You open your team's task list and there are 10 tasks with your picture next to them, all marked to be done ASAP, all of them at the highest priority. Great. To make things worse, the first one you look at is actually kind of huge. It may take your entire day to solve, or even more. Ugh. Well, maybe I can look at Facebook for a moment, you think. I haven't checked it in the last 5 minutes. Perhaps I need to reply to some comment by now?

Replying on Facebook and work tasks provide
the same mental reward when completed

And so it begins. The more you have to do, and the more urgent and huge your tasks seem, the harder it is to take the first step. As I said earlier, it is not that you're just a weak person that can't do what needs to be done; it is your brain that is simply seeking the easiest path to gratification. When you realize how much you have to do for work, your mind seeks easier, faster tasks to accomplish elsewhere to get some chemical reward for completing something. For your mind, replying to someone on Facebook, and completing a task at work both fall under the same general category of "something that needs to be done", and they provide more or less the same reward when completed. From that point of view, it is quite understandable why your mind wandered to the wrong browser tab.

Step 1: Clean your mental plate

Imagine for a moment that you had only one task to do today, and you knew exactly how to do it. Once it's done, your boss would be so pleased with you that for all she cares you could spend the rest of the day by the beach with a beer in your hand, her treat. And this task is actually so small that it would take about 5 minutes of concentration to complete.
Would you have a procrastination problem then?
I hope the answer is no, because step 1 is all about emulating that state of mind. One of the reasons getting things done when you know you have a lot to do is that it's very hard to focus on only one thing when you know you have about a hundred coming up next.When a problem or a task occupies your mind, there are multiple mental processes at work that try to solve it, many of them entirely subconscious. This is the source of the old saying "sleep on it", which turns out to be a valid advice: When you go to sleep with a problem in mind, you may very well wake up with a solution or a better understanding of the problem, because your subconscious was working on it while you were dreaming. Have you ever solved a problem while taking a shower or brushing your teeth? The same mechanism is at work.

Every task that occupies our conscious,
occupies our subconscious as well

Let's combine the realization that our mind works on problems that occupy our conscious, with the realization that when we are fully aware of all the things we have to complete today, they all occupy our conscious. Is it so surprising, then, that under such conditions our ability to focus is extremely hindered? When we are worried about many things at once, we make it very hard for our brain to utilize every mental process to help us get things done. The processes working on the other things we're worried about can demand attention from our conscious at any moment, making the ability to focus a demanding mental task in and of itself.
So before you take on a task, you should clear your mental plate.
Here's a trick I like doing: Let's go back to that wonderful imaginary day where you had only one task that needed to be accomplished before everything was great forever. Now, let's make our current, active task be that task that you had to complete. Forget about the rest of the tasks you have beside it, you are all, entirely and completely, about this one. Whether it takes you an hour, a day or a week to complete it, everything will be great when it's done. You will feel productive and proud of yourself if you complete it, even if it's the only thing you're going to accomplish today. Believe it fully. Can you do that?
Great, because step 2 is about creating a new task for you to fully commit yourself to.

Step 2: Prioritize

When some tasks share the spot of "to be done now", it's harder to keep the other tasks away from your mind. Any ambiguity about what should be done needs to be eliminated - as the ambiguities are a mental task of their own - a part of your subconsciousc will be busy trying to solve them, draining you of mental energy. Further, if you do manage to finish a task, you will be faced with a decision of which task to pick next - another mental task on its own that will drain you and reduce your ability to focus effectively for the duration of the day.
Therefore, first thing you should do is to eliminate all ambiguities. Create a new task for yourself and put it at the top of the stack: Prioritize your todo list.

Always be confident that you're working on the right thing

This task should be quite simple - decide, according to any criterion whatsoever, which tasks goes first, which goes second, and so forth. Don't spend too much time on this - if you've got 100 tasks to prioritize, only handle those that you're expecting to probably get to today. Part of the benefit of prioritizing is that it's a task that moves you forward that should be relatively straightforward and quick to complete, so you are already getting rewarded for being productive and investing yourself in your tasks.

Step 3: Simplify

Ok, so you know exactly what your next task is, no question. But oh no - it's a huge task!! You stare at the specifications, and your mind is already trying to figure out how to even approach this behemoth... Wait. This is a good place to stop and take a step back before we feel overwhelmed again. What's going on? Why are we feeling overwhelmed when we're facing only one task?
Imagine your original todo list that overwhelmed you due to its length was all bunched up into a single task called "Do everything". And within it, it specified everything you had to do today. It's still the same amount of content, only organized (or rather, camouflaged ) as one single mega-task. It'd be surprising if you WEREN'T overwhelmed; the same psychology is at work here. Too much to do, not enough rewards, let's see what Facebook has to offer...
Every task you encounter can be seen as multiple tasks masquerading as one task. Many times it doesn't matter, as the content of the task doesn't exceed your capacity to handle at once. If you don't feel overwhelmed, just do the task and don't give it another thought. But when you are feeling the creep of despair, stop working on this task and instead create a new task to handle immediately: Break the scary task to subtasks.
This is what you're all about right now: Your purpose on this earth is to figure out how to fragment the big task into several (or more) subtasks so that each one of them can be handled individually and without an overwhelming amount of content and time investment.

The carrot of completion should always be within reach

There is a subtle art at effectively subdividing a task, and that is to make sure you end up with a list of tasks that for each one you can mentally imagine doing it and completing it within a reasonable time frame, so that the reward of marking the task as complete is visible to your mind's eye and will motivate you to keep going. When the task completion is far off, your mind will not see the task-completion carrot and will stray around looking for other, more visible carrots. There goes your focus.
Once you have a new list of tasks, go back to step 2: Prioritize them. Now you can get back to work without overloading your mind with too many details and too few promises of upcoming accomplishments.

Don't be overwhelmed

Always be on alert to this feeling of being overwhelmed. It is usually a sign that either you're trying to bite more than you can chew, or that you are allowing other tasks to creep into your mind and overload your processes. If you feel you've got too much to handle, take a step back. Perhaps you need a moment to drive away thoughts of other tasks so you can act as if your current task is the only thing that exists in the universe beside you? Perhaps you underestimated the current task and need to simplify it a bit more?

You are not a damaged human being,
you are simply overloaded

Whatever it is, don't be a victim to despair. Remember that your problems focusing don't stem from you being a damaged human being; they are perfectly normal, and are almost always a response to a mental overload, which is something you can address. Clear your mind of other concerns, make sure you are handling a task specific enough and short enough that you can keep it all inside your noodle, and you should be good to go.

A word for managers

A large part of what you should be doing for your team is exactly what I suggest in this article: Prioritize and simplify. If things to do are food, then you are the mouth that chews it first, and they are the digestive system that actually converts the food to nutrients. Have you ever tried eating food without chewing it at all? Oh, you will eventually digest it, but it will take much longer, and may be quite an unpleasant experience. On top of making sure everybody has a clear understanding of WHAT they should be doing right now and HOW they should be doing it, make sure they know you're available to help them solve priority ambiguities or help them simplify tasks.

Further reading

Books

  • The Organized Mind - A great book covering multiple aspects of clearing your mind to allow for clarity of thought and creativity.
  • Your Brain At Work - while discussing "The Organized Mind" with a friend, he told me in detail about this book that covers very similar areas. It sounds an amazing read and is on my own to-read list. [edit: I am now reading it 🙂 ]

if you consider buying any of these books, please consider using my affiliate links above as a way of saying "thanks" for the reference 🙂

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