This was a question I was recently asked on Quora, but it’s one that comes up almost daily during coaching sessions with my clients. So, here’s a slightly edited version of my response. While geared towards entrepreneurs, it applies to anyone who wants to get things done but occasionally loses momentum.
The reality is that you won’t always feel motivated, even if you generally love what you do. You’ll feel frustration, anxiety, confusion and boredom (and those are the easy ones!). Even when motivated, you may feel stuck and not able to activate (an executive function of initiating action that doesn’t always correlate with motivation, or wanting to do something).
So, start from this reality and accept you will have challenges staying motivated (even if you didn’t have ADHD, being an entrepreneur is difficult, but having it does make things tougher). But also realize you have solutions! (And not just for getting motivated, but for most entrepreneurial stressors.)
Prepare some strategies and workarounds in advance, so you can pull them out of your handy ‘SOS: I Need Help’ toolbox. This may be a physical box with index cards, a computer or phone file, an actual file folder, or a paper or electronic notebook. Sometimes, we need pre-packaged options to choose from, as ‘doing what comes naturally’ just doesn’t cut it, and it’s easy to forget ideas we’ve had in the past – even ones that worked. Memory is not reliable, especially when feeling overwhelmed. So, when something (a strategy, tool, system, mindset, etc.) works or sounds inspiring, make a note of it and put it in that toolbox. You may need it, or a variation, in the future. At other times, you’ll be able to use an uncomfortable situation as a springboard to inspire your innovative mind to create success strategies on the fly. When you begin thinking like a detective, you will discover solutions that had eluded you when you were caught up in a victim mentality. Go for it!
Allow for ‘Down Time’: Realize that being an entrepreneur is time and energy consuming to the extreme, which drains motivation. Build in white space; free time to recharge your batteries (even at the expense of not getting everything done as scheduled). Make time to reset your brain by being outside, by exercise, mindfulness or meditation, journaling, reading, listening to or playing music, doing hobbies like artwork or gardening, playing with pets or spending time with friends and family you like (note the caveat there!), napping, volunteering, etc. You don’t have time, you say. True, but if you don’t make time, you’re working with the law of diminishing returns. As the airlines say, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Stepping away often gives new perspectives and greater energy (how many ideas do you have in the shower, or when taking a walk?).
Edit Your ‘DO’ Lists: Of those things on your ‘Do’ list, what can you Modify? Delay? Delete? Delegate? Outsource? Not everything is urgent, and even if it is, there’s usually a way to change other’s expectations so you can still deliver, so long as you are clear and considerate in your communications. Or change your expectations about your deliverable, so you’ll want to get it done. Watch out for paralysis by analysis, overthinking or over-researching. Perfection is the enemy of productivity and motivation. Create a ‘Do NOT Do’ list so you don’t get sidetracked. Create a place to jot down non-immediate ideas or concepts (a Parking Lot for your thoughts) so you don’t lose them, but don’t get distracted by those brighter, shinier objects.
Change Your Systems: Expedite what you can so you spend less time on routine (boring) tasks, whether it’s better organization for greater efficiency, setting up templates for repetitive tasks, using productivity-related software or creating systems that improve ongoing processes. Let go of the guilt or need to do it all and get help where you struggle. If you are spending an inordinate amount of time doing tasks that can be delegated or outsourced, hire someone so you can focus on your strengths. You’ll make less profit initially, but you’ll develop a much more powerful business with less likelihood of burnout. Sometimes we just need some support and compassionate accountability. Join a mastermind group, find a business accountability partner who will also benefit, or hire a supportive coach.
Planning Time Saves Doing Time: When there’s so much to do we want to just jump in and get going – until we’re overwhelmed and lose motivation. Build in time for long-term, weekly and daily planning. You’ll save that time and more because your ‘doing time’ will be more effective and targeted towards success.
Avoid Overwhelm. While some pressure or stress is helpful for pushing us towards action, too much will trigger the ‘Fight-Flight-or-Freeze’ response. It’s brain-based and automatic. So, know your triggers. Often, this happens when we confuse a Project with a Task. You can’t DO a project, you can only work on a specific task. The more specific, the easier it is to begin it, whereas when we think of doing a project, all the elements lump together and feel overwhelming, triggering brain-based avoidance (this is NOT a moral/laziness issue!).
Keep Your End-Goal in Mind. Sometimes we get so caught up in the daily pressures that we lose track of why we became entrepreneurs. What does your work mean to you, to others, to the world? Why did you start what you are doing? What do you hope to achieve? Maybe you are going through a rough patch. Maybe you want to rethink some of the details. But you’re in it for a reason. Keep a reminder of that initial vision where you’ll see it.
CHANGE…Often we avoid it, preferring to stay in our comfort zone. Or maybe we just lack the energy to explore new options. This can work for us, but it will keep us stuck. If we want things to be different, we have to do something differently.
Other times we seek out change as a remedy for boredom. Those of us with an active impulsivity trait tend to keep our radar focused on new opportunities (always attracted to that bright and shiny object). It’s probably a good idea to hit the pause button before jumping in.
Mostly, we look towards change to fulfill a desire for something more in our lives.This is a good thing – without it we wouldn’t risk a career change, buy a new house, adopt a pet, go on a date or start a family. Change can be less dramatic, like starting a new health routine, switching to a more helpful day planner or deciding to clear clutter.
When we try something new, it may not work out, but at least we won’t stagnate. We’re also a step ahead, having a better idea of what will work, when we can rule out what didn’t.
Triggers for Change: There are certain times of the year when we’re more inclined to think about making changes, like on New Year’s or a birthday. Why wait? Today is the first day of the rest of your life. For many of us, summer is coming to an end – a perfect time for a new beginning; your trigger for change.
- What do you want to be different?
- What can you do to help make that happen?
- What support will make change easier?
Believe in the magic of possibility. Attitude matters. It is so sad that when people are caught in negative emotions they can’t muster the attitude and energy to try something new. Don’t let feeling hopeless, or like a victim, prevent you from doing something new, or changing the way you do it. Start small. Success breeds success. Limit your goals – less is more; better to accomplish one thing successfully than to work towards multiple goals only to give up, feeling overwhelmed.
An effective way to create positive change is to declare your intent, verbally and in writing. It forces you to be clear as to your specific goals. Say it with conviction (even if you find that difficult), as something you’ve already accomplished: “I am wearing that size 10 dress and looking terrific.” … “I’m sitting at my organized desk and doing great at my new job.” … “I have a special relationship with a wonderful, supportive, smart and sexy person.” Print it out and post it where you’ll see it. If you can, include a photo that illustrates your accomplished goal.
There’s science behind it. Our brains are quick to see the negative; not so much the positive. Some studies declare we think up to 60,000 thoughts a day, and that 80% of them are mostly negative – that’s 48,000 negative thoughts a day. That’s a lot to overcome, and we need all the reminders and reinforcements that we can muster. When we speak in the positive, it changes our expectations. When we say we will, instead of we’ll try, we reinforce our internal belief that change is possible.
So choose a goal to celebrate your new possibilities. Be realistic but positive – this time you can. I invite you to state your possibility and commitment in the comments section below.
I would love to help you turn your goals into realities. Just click here to schedule a time to talk about individual coaching or click here to learn more about my action/accountability group, The TUIT Project.
Here’s to positive, and lasting, change!
An unrealized goal is nothing more than a dream. It’s your choice:
Keep it a fantasy or work towards attaining your goal.
Dreams Can and Do Come True When:
- Desire is strong enough and not in conflict with your basic life values
- Goals are clearly defined and at least partially grounded in reality
- Planning is realistic, taking your resources and motivation into account
- Effort is real, as is your belief that you can do it, so ‘I want’ becomes ‘I will!’
We all talk about making positive changes, and that’s great. But ask yourself how often those changes actually happen. Good intentions aren’t enough — you need a plan, and it has to be one that fits with your life. So set yourself up for success by following these Eight Steps to Turn Your Goals into Reality!
Set a realistic Long-Term Goal. This is a goal that is meaningful, but not necessarily easy. It will take work, and time, to accomplish, but it is do-able.
You may want to be rich, and you might get there (if you’re not already). That could be your long-term goal, but it would be easier to work towards a goal that seems more attainable, even given your current circumstances. Link your goal with a positive, emotionally motivating benefit. State it as a desire, then remove the possibility of failure and state it as a fact. Here’s an example:
“I want to be more financially secure. I will be financially secure.”
Establish one Interim Goal. What is one thing you can do that will contribute towards the success of your long-term goal? Buying lottery tickets is one option, but the odds of success are minimal. A better goal:
“I want to/I will manage my money better so I’ll have more of it.”
Consider what gets in the way. Examine your life and be honest with yourself as you ask, “What issues in my life are making it difficult to achieve this goal?”
My expenses are very high… My income is too low… I already owe on credit cards and back taxes… I don’t spend enough time on financial matters (it’s easier for me to ignore things and hope they work out)…
Isolate specific actions that you can change (now or in the near future). This is where you explore anything that you can do or change to help attain your goal. Here are some options for better money management:
I can stop eating out almost every night… I can plan my wardrobe better and buy during sales… I can move to a less expensive apartment… I can look for a better job… I can pay my bills on time and avoid late fees and interest… I can pull my paperwork together and file past taxes to minimize penalties… I can renegotiate my mortgage… I can get a better handle on where I spend money… I can create a budget that includes regular savings…
Justify (buy-into) each option, or table It as unlikely to work. Ask yourself what are the benefits of making a specific change. Put it in writing. As an example, here are reasons to support the specific action of not eating out every night:
Eating out every night is expensive… It loses the “fun factor” and is time consuming, so I have less time for other interests… It promotes drinking, which is a problem and additional expense… I spend more on gas or car service… It is more difficult to eat healthy when I have all of those menu options in front of me…
Examine the down side of change, isolate potential problems and explore creative solutions. Don’t just ignore the possible pitfalls, or your plans to change won’t last very long. Continuing the ‘eating out less’ example:
Problem: Eating out is my main social activity. I don’t want to give this up!
Solution: I’ll eat out on Fridays and Saturdays, and really plan and enjoy this.
Note: Give yourself permission to act with forethought and moderation, rather than overreact by completely eliminating eating out.
Problem: I never have anything good to eat in the house.
Solution: I’ll use an app to set up a simple meal plan and block in time for a weekly shopping expedition — especially for foods I like… or I can shop online and have the food delivered.
Problem: I hate to cook and don’t want to spend my time in the kitchen!
Solution: I’ll check out services that prepare and deliver meals for a week. It’s probably still less expensive than always eating out — and healthier!
Take steps to make these changes happen! Ask yourself: What can I realistically do to solve this problem? List each specific action you are willing to do in order to make your new plan work. Turn your project into do-able tasks.
How and when will I do it? Assign a specific time to each action, and schedule it on your calendar as a Task-Appointment. Without an assigned task and time, it is likely to remain a fantasy! So if you plan to eat out only on Fridays and Saturdays, schedule a time to confirm with friends or family in advance… make restaurant reservations, if necessary… download coupons or Groupons to save even more…
How can I make this easier/self-motivate? What can you do that will make staying with your plan easier?
Build in immediate rewards:
- Combine your grocery-buying with a special event (getting a massage, meeting a friend for coffee, etc.)
- Link it to something you already do each week. “After yoga class on Wednesdays I pass by Whole Foods, so I’ll go food shopping.”
- Associate doing it with giving yourself permission to spend time on something else, guilt-free. “I’ll shop after work every Tuesday, have fresh store-made BBQ chicken for dinner then spend the evening catching up on my favorite TV shows.”
- Create a ‘fun factor’: “I’ll invite a friend over on Sunday and we’ll both prepare meals for the week”… “My partner and I will have a mini-date night making dinner together”… “I’ll take a cooking class at the Y”…
- Reinforce your goal: Bank the money you’ll save by not eating out, and use the time you’ll gain to join a book club, paint, play guitar, or do whatever brings you joy!
Build in reminders:
- Visual: Have a photo that represents your long-term goal as a screen-saver.
- Physical: Keep a money jar to represent your savings (dimes instead of dollars?)
- Emotional: Post an attractive affirmation of the benefits you will get from your actions… Mention that ego-boosting self-respect you’ll get from working towards something that is important to you!
- Auditory: Have set times to listen to podcasts on topics related to achieving your long-term goal.
Monitor Progress. When we begin something new, we are high on the excitement, challenge and novelty of the project, and eager to see results and reach our goal. So we stay interested, but, sigh…, not for long. Frustration kicks in and other priorities and new bright and shiny objects will take precedence, unless we reinforce and frequently encourage our commitment. If we’re serious about change, we need to track progress (or lack of) to keep it in the forefront.
Track your actions. Write down everything you are doing, or have planned to do, to help reach your long-term goal. Then track how often and how well you are actually following through with those actions. Studies show that people who want to lose weight do better if they write down everything they eat – this is the same concept.
Maintain self-awareness. Tracking your actions isn’t enough. You’ll want to determine how well they are serving you in reaching your long-term goal. Ask yourself, “What am I doing?”… “How am I doing?”… Be honest in your feedback. Ask “What can I change for the better?”… Take time to consider whether your plans need to be modified, delayed, delegated or deleted. Note: Build this review into your regular Planning Time (weekly, or at the least, monthly).
Prepare for dead-ends. It is difficult to maintain actions, however well-intentioned and thought out, over an extended period of time. Sometimes we are fortunate, and actions become sustainable habits or routines. But not always, so be prepared to switch directions when what was working stops being effective, and substitute a different strategy.
Give yourself credit! Even for those baby steps you take to make progress towards your long-term goal. If getting there wasn’t a challenge, you wouldn’t have had to put so much effort into making it happen. So be your own best cheerleader for what you’ve done, instead of critically focusing on what you haven’t yet accomplished.
Hint: Don’t strive for perfection; it’s a set-up for failure!
Get help. It is easier to stay on-track when you have outside ACCOUNTABILITY! Consider working with an accountability partner (preferably, not a spouse or partner) or a supportive coach. I can offer you a terrific online accountability/action group, The TUIT Project, or individual coaching to help you clarify your goals, determine the best strategies to achieve them, and provide support to make this process easier and more successful.
Summary of the Process:
Turning Goals Into Reality
Long-Term Goal: “I want to be more financially secure; I will be financially secure.”
One Interim Goal: “I will manage my money better!”
One Short-Term Goal: “I will cut down on expenses.”
One Action Goal: “I will stop eating out almost every night.”
One Action Step: “I will check out price options for home delivery of meals.”
There is often a collapse in our understanding when it comes to getting things done. We’re taught to believe that if we were really motivated, we would get started on that work project, organize the closet or declutter the entry. We’re told that if we really cared about our family’s health, we would consistently prepare tasty, nutritious meals. We tell ourselves that if we’re not exercising or finishing the online course we started, lack of willpower and poor self-image is to blame. If only we tried harder… Maybe, but not likely.
Activation, unlike motivation, is an executive function skill, also known as Initiation. That means it is brain-based in an area of our brain (the frontal lobes) that may not be as consistently high-performing as we’d like. Especially so for people with ADD / ADHD. This is the area of our brain that is largely responsible for things like organization, time management, prioritization and activation (the ability to get started on something). It is easily overwhelmed by too much to do, confusion as to how to do things, or the dread that comes when a project seems too big or boring to be easily accomplished.
That’s when the protective amygdala— the part of our brain that helps us to manage stress— steps in with its fight, flight or freeze response. So we go into avoidance mode. OK, this is an oversimplification, but it helps us to understand WHY we find that doing some things becomes so challenging that we continually procrastinate, even if we are motivated to get them done.
Just because we’ve decided to do something, doesn’t mean we will actually get it done – despite motivation by desire, rewards or dire consequences. This lack of ability to get going can be both frustrating and scary!Here are eight strategies to help you overcome overwhelm, minimize the avoidance factor, get activated and successfully accomplish your goals.
Stop Identifying Yourself by Failure. Procrastinator. Lack of willpower. Lazy. Unmotivated. Selfish. Inconsiderate. Untrustworthy. These are words that make me want to quit, not put in the effort needed to overcome a brain-based executive function challenge. So recognize that despite the widespread ‘Just do it’ mentality, it’s often necessary to find work-arounds. Let go of the negative self-talk. Accept that you’re having difficulty beginning a task, and instead of being self-critical and judgmental (which accomplishes nothing), be gentle with yourself. You may be anxious about the task, uncertain about how to get it done, uncomfortable about doing it (like calling a company to complain about something), or stuck because you might ‘do it wrong.’ Avoid paralysis by analysis. Often all that’s needed is that first step, which is what activation is about. Identifying what is getting in the way is part of the solution. It’s important to take action despite your feelings, but it helps to understand them. Studies show that you’re 50% more effective if you first get clarity as to why it’s tough to get going, than you’d be if you just push through and try to get it done.
Set Aside Planning Time and Action Time. They are not the same. Planning time is for deciding exactly WHAT you are going to do, and HOW you’ll get it done. It’s the time to determine your priorities and decide WHEN you’ll actually work on your tasks (your Action times). It’s the time to make DECISIONS, so they don’t hold up your progress once you start working. Sometimes we plan to do something without being realistic about how much available time we actually have (the ‘white space’ in our calendars). So when planning, take all of your time commitments into account. And don’t overplan. Activation takes effort, so leave space for recharging, along with time to deal with interruptions, unexpected tasks or spill-overs from tasks that take longer than planned. If you skip Planning time and go directly to Action time, it’s easy to lose focus on what is most important and spend that Action time pursuing any new bright and shiny object (or checking emails, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.). If you haven’t planned very specific tasks for your Action time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the options when you are ready to work.
Use your Planning time to gain CLARITY. What are the specific tasks that will enable you to make progress towards your goal? A project is too big to ‘do’ in one sitting, so the thought of ‘doing’ an entire project is overwhelming, resulting in avoidance rather than clarity. It’s easier to activate when there’s something very specific to do, with no conflicting priorities and a set time for starting –and ending– your efforts. It’s the way you solve that proverbial question, “How do you eat an elephant?” (the project you tend to avoid because it’s just too big, scary or unappetizing). How? One bite at a time! Begin by breaking the project into do-able tasks, or individual bites that aren’t too painful to swallow. The smaller you make them, the easier they’ll fit into your busy schedule. Prioritize those tasks (what has to be done before you can move on to the next task?). WRITE DOWN THE STEPS! Then, when you are in Action time, put on your blinders to stay focused on the designated task.
Make the Task more Appealing. How can you turn a need-to, should-do or must-do into a want-to? Same task, different attitude. Even then activation may be difficult, but it’s easier when you see a positive reason for accomplishing a task (even if it’s just to get it over with so it no longer gives you angst!). How can you add a fun element to the task? Some ideas: Do it with a friend, working together or just in parallel play… get out of your home or office and work in a coffee shop or park… upgrade your writing tools with a special pen and appealing notebook… promise yourself a reward for getting the task accomplished (even if it’s just some guilt-free ‘me’ time)… make finishing the task a game… have a giant check-off list, etc. Or try one of my favorites: get to work on it to avoid doing a task that’s even less appealing! Remember the benefit. Write down what you will gain from finishing the task. Keeping the goal in mind can make the work that goes into accomplishing it less onerous.
Think Progress, not Perfection. It’s easier to eat the elephant (work on that task or project) when you feel like it, or when you’re really hungry (deadline anyone?). But that’s a less effective way of ensuring you successfully accomplish your business or personal goals than if you were to commit to taking small, palatable bites every day (consistent effort). Prioritize the bites and keep them small, triumphing over your perfectionistic avoidance tendencies. Consistent small bites get things done!
Take a Short Detour to Gain Momentum. Sitting and staring at a blank screen won’t get that blog written. First, try doing a tiny action, like writing one sentence. This small action will often get you over the inertia hump, so you can continue. But if you find yourself unable to initiate action, take a detour. Do something physical (energizes your body and your mind). Take a short nature break (relaxes the anxiety and provides a feeling of well-being you can take back to your desk). Call a positive friend and make plans to do something fun. Listen to music that energizes and helps you stay focused. Make sure you eat and drink (dehydration contributes to brain fog). If you take medication, check that you’ve taken it. If you need ten minutes of down time, take it – even if it’s to check your social media or email (be safe and set a STOP alarm!). Remind yourself of your commitment to get to your Action task, and then, refreshed, get back to work.
Be Aware of Transition Trauma. Sometimes it’s hard to stop one activity to begin another. Our brains just don’t want to make the switch. Be clear as to what you plan to do when. Write it on your Daily Action List. Put it in your calendar as a Task-Appointment. Use alarms to define your Action times and alert you that it’s time to begin (activate). Get up and move between activities so you can clear the Zombie-like focus, or hyperfocus, from a previous task (or from that computer solitaire marathon session).
Find an Accountability Partner. When someone else cares whether we’ve accomplished what we said we would, we’re more likely to get it done. This is often difficult when you work alone. Just as it’s easier to get to the gym when you go with a friend, it’s easier to get activated and work towards your goals when there are others who are supportive of your efforts and cheerleaders for overcoming your challenges. Share with a non-judgmental friend, join a mastermind group, consider the benefits of individual coaching, or join a group like my TUIT Project, which is designed to provide support and accountability. A new online group begins each month—visit OvercomeOverwhelm.com.
Also consider the benefits of individual coaching. Contact Susan Lasky Productivity Solutions to discuss how coaching could help you move forward and have a less stressful, more fulfilling life. Susan is based in Westchester, but works virtually anywhere. She can be reached at 914-373-4787 or Susan@SusanLasky.com. You can schedule a convenient, no-cost or obligation Initial Consult at https://SusanLasky.AcuityScheduling.com.
Frustrated by the gap between knowing what you should/want/need to get done and the reality of what you are actually accomplishing? For many people, this is a chronic struggle – especially those with ADD/ADHD/EF (executive function) challenges, myself included! Even when we are at the top of our game there’s still a backlog that can approach critical mass. Do you wonder what the top of your game would be if you could be more Nike™-like and ‘Just Do It.’ Fortunately, there ARE strategies that help, and here are a few:
Begin with Clarity – Know exactly what you plan to do AND why you want to do it. Maybe it’s because you need to get something done, but by phrasing it as something you want (even if the reason is to keep your job, pass a course or stay on speaking terms with your partner), it becomes your CHOICE, and our motivational circuits work a lot better when we choose to do something. So convert your ‘have-to’s’ ‘must-do’s’ and ‘need-to’s’ to ‘WANT-TO’s.’
Confusion by Susan Lasky
Think ‘Task’ NOT ‘Project’ – Often, what we want to do is too big to accomplish in a single sitting, leading to a feeling of overwhelm. For many of us, overwhelm is a trigger to shutting down and doing less, rather than ‘attacking’ the project to successfully accomplish it. Our brain perceives the situation as threatening, and shifts into the protective ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, which doesn’t help with getting things done.
Avoid overwhelm by identifying the PROJECT (it might be to redo the files, create a newsletter, plan a vacation, organize the closet, write the thesis, ‘do’ the taxes). Whatever it is, break it down into the multiple small steps (TASKS) that are needed to complete the project.
The first task of any project is to create a written Project Sheet that specifies everything you’ll need to get it done, from resources needed (information, people, money, tools) to a step-by-step breakdown of each action, with approximations of the time you’ll need for each step – then double it (or more). Reinforce the steps by writing them down and saying them out loud. Keep the Project Sheet where you can easily refer back to it. (Think weekly and daily planning/review sessions, which take time but totally save you hours!)
Set a Conscious Intention (Commitment) – Once you are clear about WHAT you will do, decide WHEN you’ll get it done – PRIORITIZE. Put each step in your calendar or planner as a Task-Appointment, which is an appointment with yourself to work on a specific task at a specific time.
Saying ‘yes’ without saying ‘when’ is a typical precursor to not getting things done. Consider posting a reminder with the specific task you have prioritized, in a place that will draw your attention back to it when it begins to wander (and accept that it will wander!). You might want to expand your declared focus to prioritize an entire day or a week, “This week I will finish …” This doesn’t mean you won’t do other things, but it helps to swing you back to your key priority when your attention drifts or your interest wanes.
Make it Do-Able – It often helps to set a timer for a short amount of time so you don’t feel ‘trapped.’ It is easier to start something if you know you only have to stay focused on it for 20 minutes (or 15… or 10!). If you don’t complete the task within the time you’ve allotted, that’s okay. Congratulate yourself for having done what you said you would, then set additional Task-Appointments to finish what you’ve successfully begun. Take breaks between scheduled appointments. Some people find background music makes it easier to stay focused (volume and genre do matter!).
Minimize Distractions – Put on your blinders and resist temptation by making it less intrusive. Turn off email notifications, and even the phone if possible. Put a sign on your door that you will be available at 3:30 (or whenever), to minimize interruptions. Use a chalk or white board so visitors can leave messages. Give yourself permission to let go of the guilt from the other projects that need your attention, so you can successfully focus on one at a time. (I’m a brilliant multi-tasker, as long as I only work on one task at a time!)
We can’t quite turn off our brain (although a few minutes of mindful focus before you begin the work can help), so keep a ‘parking lot’ handy – a place to write down the thoughts that pop up and can compromise your focus. You don’t want to forget to make that call, send an email, pick up the dry cleaning, order a replacement phone charger, etc., and these are the things that will often pop into your mind while doing something else. You will think about it, so capture these thoughts in writing or tell it to Siri, OK Google, Alexa or your phone companion. Then you don’t need to shift your attention away from your project in order to remember to do it.
Start Small – When you are REALLY stuck, just open the notebook or computer file and look at the page or screen. Then put your pen to paper or fingers to keypad. They may start moving of their own volition. If not, commit to writing just one sentence, which often opens the gateway to moving forward. Or pull out a folder and skim the papers. Or make a list of what you think you should be doing. It’s the ACTIVATION that’s so difficult. Sometimes, all it takes is a minimal start to trigger our brains to become involved with something we’ve been avoiding. And remember how good it feels to get something done!
Take Breaks & Make Time for Self-Care – Avoid ‘overbooking.’ Often, less IS more. Leave ‘white space’ in your day. Especially when you have things to do in the evening or over the weekend. Leave time between Task-Appointments (if you work for 20 minutes, take a 5-10 minute break, then a longer break every two hours or so). Get up and MOVE (keeps the energy flowing). This is easy to forget when in hyper-focus mode, where we can work for hours on something because we are so caught up in it. Try to remember the law of diminishing returns (and ask yourself what is not getting done that is also important.
Take care of yourself! SELF-CARE is often the first thing to go when we feel there is too much to do.
Stop and Smell the Flowers by Susan Lasky
Yet self-care provides the physical AND mental energy to accomplish more. Think about it – how much more cognitively alert and productive are you after a good night’s SLEEP? Multiple studies are showing that our body and brain use sleep as a time to recharge, including eliminating toxins, so it isn’t, as many feel, a ‘necessary evil,’ but part of the productive process.
We know that EXERCISE boosts our body chemistry so we are more functional (and ofter a lot less ‘hyper’ or ‘antsy’). So fit some version of it into your schedule (again, less is often more if it means you’ll actually do it – sometimes our exercise goals may be somewhat unrealistic). DRINK a lot of water (hydrate). SNACK on fruit or have a protein shake. A quick NAP or MEDITATION can be super-restorative. Science is proving that time spent OUTSIDE in greenery can dramatically enhance our mood. (The Japanese even have a concept for this called ‘Forest Bathing.’) Yet when we feel ‘behind,’ as is so typical, we deny ourselves these self-care actions that boost our brain chemistry and pay us back with increased focus and productivity.
We NEED and DESERVE to ENJOY ourselves. Take a break to play with your kids or your dog (laughter totally energizes). Pet the cat and let the purring calm your brainwaves. Allow yourself time to garden, paint, create music or anything that comforts your soul. Have lunch with friends or make some private time with your partner, and you’ll usually get MORE done – and feel less deprived or annoyed by having to do the work in the first place!
Accountability Helps – Don’t try to go it alone. Report your progress to a non-judgmental accountability-partner, whether a friend, family member or coach, or consider joining an Accountability Group. (Check out my Get Around TUIT online action group at www.OvercomeOverwhelm.com)
Here’s an accountability strategy that is especially appealing to the tech-savvy. I ask some of my coaching clients to take a photo of their progress and text it to me. It might be a completed page in their planner, homework assignment or business plan, an organized desktop, newly labeled files or an emptied suitcase from last month’s trip – whatever supports their intention at the end of our last coaching session. If they said they would join a study group, go to the library or attend a networking event, I ask for an on-location ‘selfie.’ The photo is fun, helps them to feel more motivated and gives ‘instant’ feedback as to a job well done – not from me, but from their camera 🙂 It is a testament to their success! You can use this accountability strategy with yourself or a friend.
Commit to a Daily Action Plan, which is different than your 50-page ‘To-Do’ list. It has space for just your 3 primary actions and, if you finish those, 3 secondary activities. If you want to check out my Daily Focus form, you can download it here.
Be a Detective – The best strategies may not work for you, or may work for only a short time (so frustrating, but that’s reality). It is okay to acknowledge you are stuck. Maybe you need new tools, techniques or strategies, or just to tweak the ones you’ve been using. Perhaps you would benefit from a greater understanding of how to do something – a workable office requires an understanding of functional organization, and systems that work with the way YOU think – especially for those of us who are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinkers. Maybe you’ve been struggling with writing papers because you never really mastered the process from a technical perspective (organization, time and project management and keeping a check on perfectionism!). Perhaps you would benefit from a better system for managing your emails or running meetings.
So now, imagine that you’re solving your problem, but for a friend or colleague. When we take the emotional component out of the equation, it’s often easier to come up with a workable solution. Things can be different, but how to effect successful change? (Step #3 in my PowerPlan to Success: Believe in Possibility, and that you always have a Choice.) Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know, and help is needed.
You may benefit from hands-on advice, situational coaching, or exploring the underlying causes that create or compound your challenges. These can include emotional issues, physical problems, learning disabilities, and executive function or attention disorders that can get in the way of success (and here you wasted so much energy blaming yourself for lack of willpower!). Perhaps you struggle with perfectionism, are overly self-critical, feel the work you do isn’t ‘good enough,’ or subconsciously sabotage your success. Remember that it shows strength to work with a consultant, organizer, tutor, coach or therapist to get at the roots of these chronic challenges.
Be Kind to Yourself … Please!!! That’s the most important thing I can leave you with. Studies show that the more you accept yourself, the more productive – and happier – you’ll be!
I’m curious. What do YOU find helps to get things done?
Want to know more?
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?