As a productivity and organization coach, I emphasize that the most important concept for being productive is CLARITY. What – exactly – am I going to do, how and when am I going to do it?
Since time is limited and the things we plan usually take longer to complete than we anticipate, setting PRIORITIES is critical, or we’ll never feel truly successful – there’s always something else we ‘should’ have accomplished.
Sometimes, the Big Picture is just too big! When we begin thinking about everything, it’s easy to feel anxious (and go into avoidance mode). But when we set aside planning time to decide our key goals and prioritize them, we gain direction and lessen anxiety. This also helps us to be more realistic about what can truly be accomplished in a given time period.
So ask yourself, “What are my PRIORITIES – for today (now), this week or next (soon), in the near future (later) or for now, (whenever).” Priorities change; some get moved up, some pushed back and others deleted, so a weekly Planning/Review Session is helpful. This can be with yourself, but also with your spouse or partner for family and home matters, or with your boss or staff for work-related issues.
Without clarity, which requires prioritization, we’re in that state of confusion or overwhelm that holds us back from doing anything completely or efficiently. With clarity, knowing our priorities, we can more easily put on those blinders to block out distractions, whether external or internal. (A good reason to keep your Parking Lot list handy, so when those distracting ideas, should-do’s, etc. pop up and potentially take you off-task, you can capture, but not get caught up by them.) This clarity drives action and increases productivity.
Once we know what to do, it’s important to decide how we’ll get it done. That’s where project management becomes critical to success. Project management may sound complicated and overkill, but it is a simple way to make it easier to get even fairly simple jobs done.
Many to-do’s, including some that at first glance seem easy, may require a multitude of specific tasks. They are actually projects, not tasks! Even something as seemingly uncomplicated as ‘Clean your room’ can leave some people confused or even overwhelmed, which makes it a job likely to be avoided. Breaking it down into steps and writing down those steps helps make the job more do-able. Leave a space for adding a checkmark as it gets done!. If you are giving chores to young children, use graphics in addition to words on the checklist. Verbally telling someone the items on a list is a recipe for failure, as is trying to remember every step. Most people, especially those with ADHD or Executive Function (EF) challenges, cannot retain much more than one or two steps in their short term memory.
Consider ‘Clean your room’ vs. having a checklist specifying: ‘Pick up any trash and discard it… Bring any dishes to the kitchen… Pick up your clothes and put the dirty ones in the hamper… Hang up or fold the clean ones… Put the comforter over your bed, etc. BTW, this is why many people get overwhelmed by the idea of decluttering; they lump everything together, making it totally challenging to do. We can only accomplish one task at a time, and the smaller, the better!
That’s why project planning is so critical to success (as much as we may dislike the specificity that planning entails!). One minute of planning can save as much as 20-40 minutes of action – or inaction. So unless we take the planning time to spell out each of the individual tasks the project requires (tasks being single-focused actions that can more easily be accomplished in a single time block), and in what sequence we’ll ‘attack’ those tasks, we risk feeling overwhelmed.
And what happens when we’re overwhelmed? On the neurological level, our protective amygdala perceives it as a threat, kicks in and takes over from our rational frontal lobes/executive function brain. Instead of tackling our project, we’re more likely to go into the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response where avoidance rules. Not very helpful for getting things done!
So the more specific we are about what we are going to do and when we plan to do it (clarity and priority), the more likely that we’ll successfully accomplish our goal.
A simple example of how clarity makes a difference: “I want to go to the gym on Wednesday” vs. “I’m going to the 11:15 Intro to Pilates class, so I’ll have to leave at 10:45.” Which statement is more likely to produce results?
The deadline for filing taxes is fast approaching. Many people have difficulty getting their financial records in order (if they can even find them!). This can be especially painful for those with ADHD or executive function challenges.
Be realistic. What is the likelihood that you will have your personal taxes ready to post or postmark by April 15th? (April 17th in 2017.) If it is slim, or predicated on wishful thinking, file for an extension now, to avoid penalties for late filing (you’ll still have to pay taxes and interest, so the sooner you file, the better).
Avoid avoidance. It is possible to overcome major avoidance, which is what keeps many people from getting their taxes done on time. For some of us, just the idea of finding and gathering all of the information feels overwhelming. And when something is overwhelming, we’ll do anything to avoid dealing with it (including putting it off despite the financial consequences). So accept that tax prep is a necessary evil, and make it easier by treating it as a PROJECT – not a task. A project consists of many tasks, and you can only do one at a time!
Begin by breaking down this project into various steps (the individual tasks). Some of these are itemized below. The idea is to focus on a single task at a time, so you aren’t overloaded by everything that needs doing.
Don’t say ‘YES’ unless you can say ‘WHEN.’ After you’ve decided what tasks you’ll need to do in order to finish your Tax Prep Project, decide when you’ll do them. Enter each task on your calendar, as a Task-Appointment, which is an appointment with yourself to do a specific thing at a specific time. This dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll actually work on the task. It is easier to wrap your head and energy around beginning a specific task (activate!) then it is to think about accomplishing the entire project.
And if a task looks like it will take too long to complete in one appointment (given your attention span and other obligations), just work on it for a set amount of time. If you do that, you’ll have met your goal (even if the task itself isn’t finished). By doing what you planned, you’ll feel successful, and so more likely continue with other Task-Appointments and complete the project. Success breeds success.
The following steps will apply to most people:
- Task #1 Gather Papers. Begin by gathering the many financial papers you probably have in several different places, and put them in one location, even if you use the proverbial shoebox to hold everything! Don’t review them; don’t think about them. Just collect.
- Task #2 Sort into Categories. Sort the various papers you’ve gathered into categories (receipts, statements, tax reporting forms). Put them in separate folders (paper or poly project files) or just stack the papers, writing the category name on a blank paper kept on top of the pile. If you do your banking/investing/accounting by computer, set up a folder for the tax year, and include all relevant downloads.
- Task #3 Group your Deductions. If you itemize, group your family’s deductible receipts (medical, charitable contributions, childcare, education, business expenses, etc.). Note: You can request an annual statement from your local or mail order pharmacy that itemizes all medication expenses, so you don’t need to worry about keeping each receipt during the year. Obtaining this statement can be a separate Task (visit the pharmacy… make the call… or download the pharmacy record).
- Task #4 Review Banking Documents. Go through your checkbooks, bank and credit card statements for possible deductible expenses. Note: If you are reimbursed for a medical expense, it is not a deduction.
- Task #5 Determine if Anything is Missing. Are any reporting forms missing? (W2 or 1099’s, property or school taxes, mortgage interest, bank interest, investment records, stock dividends, etc.) You should have a list of what to look for from your accountant or tax preparer (many will send you a tax preparation document that you can just fill in with your information). If not, several are available online or through the IRS or free (legitimate) tax prep websites. If any critical reporting forms are missing, set a Task to contact the originator for a copy. Do this early enough to get the information before the filing deadline! Note: Accountants may have different requirements as to what documentation they need to do your taxes, so check in advance.
- Task #6 Tally the Results. Go through each category, list the details (whether using paper or computer) and add up the totals.
- Task #7 Make your IRA Contributions before April 15th, if you intend to deduct them for the prior year.
- Task #8 Complete the actual Tax Return Forms. Having everything organized isn’t enough – now it’s time to complete the actual tax returns, and submit them before the tax deadline. You can complete the forms yourself, use legitimate online tax software, or give your prep work to your accountant or tax preparer.
Take your Tax Prep Project a baby step, or task, at a time, and it will be easier to complete it without getting into a state of overwhelm or frustration. Hopefully you can do this in time to file by the due date, but if not, by or before the extension deadline.
Don’t ignore them – taxes DON’T just go away! Worse, the amount you’ll owe will increase if you don’t file on time. As a coach and organizer who mostly works with clients who have ADHD or executive function challenges, I’ve seen SO many who didn’t file taxes, even though they had the money to pay them or didn’t even owe money. Some were in dire trouble with the IRS. All because of overwhelm and avoidance!
Prepare now for a stress free next year. If you want next year to be less stressful, set up a system now, instead of scrambling next March. Use the category folders (Task #2) to file the appropriate papers as you receive them, so you’ll only have one place to look when it’s tax prep time. Consider keeping everything in a convenient magazine holder or file tray on or near your desk (the less effort you have to put into filing, the more likely you’ll be to do it). Some people prefer to scan each paper as it comes it in, so they don’t have to worry about storing/sorting papers.
If organizing for tax preparation is a challenge, work with someone to set up a simple system for managing your financial papers. It is worth the investment to hire a professional, given the possible penalties and interest due to late filings, the potential savings from having a clear record of all deductible items and from spending less time (and money) with your accountant and, perhaps most important, the reduced stress and improved comfort level you’ll experience. Find a local organizer who specializes in these systems at the National Association of Professional Organizers, www.napo.net or the American Association of Daily Money Managers, http://www.aadmm.com/findDMM.php.
Are you Insane?
Maybe, so isn’t it time to find new ways to solve old problems!
Einstein’s definition of Insanity:
Doing the same thing over and over
and expecting different results.
The answer then, for many of us, is yes, we are insane. We approach the same challenges with the same resolve, the same strategies, the same expectations, and are then disappointed when we achieve the same lack of progress. We keep thinking the results will be different because we want them to be.
When they aren’t, we wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” We feel like we’ve drunk a powerful cocktail of negative emotions that might include despair, embarrassment, anxiety and even anger.
What’s missing here? Often, it’s an honest, objective acceptance that you’re stuck in an unproductive pattern. Just because you know what you want to do doesn’t mean you’ll do it. (After all, ADHD is not a disorder of not knowing what to do, but of doing what we know.) Just because the systems, tools or strategies you’re using work for others doesn’t mean they’re right for you. Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will keep working.
Think outside of the box. People are different, especially those with ADD/ADHD or executive function challenges. A conventional approach may not register with your brain.
You may lack a basic skill that others acquired by osmosis, so they never had to consciously work at it. I see this a lot when it comes to organizational strategies.
Some people seem to be born with the instinct and ability to keep order, create systems and maintain them. Certainly, most of my professional organizer colleagues are that way. Most of my clients are not. BTW, these gaps and challenges have nothing to do with intelligence.Others can design great systems, whether for organizing their closet, files, projects or schedule, but fail to maintain those systems, which requires a combination of planning and time management. That’s something I struggle with. It’s amazing how quickly order can deteriorate.
- Some of the issues people struggle with at work or at home include organization, time management, juggling multiple priorities, getting started/activation/procrastination, staying on track and task completion.
- Some concerns are interpersonal, affecting relationships and communications.
- Others have to do with self-care – balancing work/home/self, making time for sleep and rejuvenation, exercise, healthy eating or learning to self-regulate addictive tendencies like email or social media, shopping, drugs, alcohol, gambling, overeating, etc.
But you CAN stop the insanity! Find new ways to approach old problems.
Here’s how you would apply my 7-Step PowerPlan to Success™ to help change your approach and get you unstuck.
Start with Step #1, Self-Awareness
Try to identify WHAT isn’t working. Be as specific as you can – you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. Sometimes this is easier said than done. We may need help to understand what we could be doing better, so consider talking with a non-judgmental person who knows you, or work with a coach trained to help move you forward.
Move on to Step #2, Self-Acceptance
Accept that something isn’t working, despite your efforts, and that there’s nothing wrong with you – you just need different tools and strategies to get different results.
That’s where Step #3, Belief in Possibility – That You Always Have a Choice comes in. Allow yourself to believe that you could do some things differently, and so have different results. You can stop the insanity!
On to Step #4, Set Your Goals and Prioritize Them
Remember that we got specific in Step #1? Now set specific goals for improvement and decide which ones are priorities. It helps when you focus on only a few changes at a time.
In Step #5, Strategize for Success, decide what NEW approaches you’ll try, whether mindset, tools or compensatory strategies. If you’re at a loss as to what else to do, work with someone who can offer suggestions based on experience, like a colleague you trust, a friend, family member, consultant, organizer, therapist or coach. But remember that you are unique, and whatever you try has to make sense – and be ‘do-able’ for you. The ‘best’ method is often not the right one, as it may not be sustainable over time.
Now it’s time for Step #6, Take Action. Thinking and planning are important, but putting your ideas into practice is what creates change. Too often we get stuck in the “think, think, think, don’t act” mentality.
Expect some success, but don’t expect anything to work perfectly! If you do, at the first sign of failure you’re more likely to give up. That’s why, back in Step #5, Strategize, you want to create an entire toolbox of ideas.
Step #7, Evaluate, is when, after you’ve given yourself some time to implement them, you determine how well your new strategies are working. If necessary, go back to Step #1 to assess what is/isn’t working and why, then move forward through the Steps, tweaking them to become even more effective. If you expect a degree of failure, you’re not thrown when it happens, can accept that it’s just part of the improvement process and can keep moving forward.
Note: These Steps are from my 7-Step PowerPlan to Success™ Program for getting out of your own way and getting things done. You can download a free introductory guidebook here.
So change your problem-solving approach and STOP THE INSANITY!
- Want some help to change your unproductive patterns? Join my new Online Action Group – the TUIT Project for support to accomplish those important, but not urgent projects that seem so elusive to complete.
- Or contact me about individual coaching by phone or Skype. Schedule a convenient no-cost or obligation initial phone consult by clicking here.
Begin Your New Year with Resolutions that Have a Good Chance of Actually Working!!!
I’d love to hear what YOU plan to change for the New Year – share your intentions below!
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Written by Susan Lasky, Productivity, ADD/ADHD, Career & Organization Coach. Susan Lasky Productivity Solutions, www.SusanLasky.com. © 2016 Used with permission.