Friday, 7 February 2014

Feeling overwhelmed? Isaac Newton can help

I was working with a business client recently who was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer workload ahead of him. He suffered from ‘never-ending list syndrome’ (okay, I’ve just made that syndrome up) where he would have a huge list of things to do but for every thing that he completed and crossed off the top of the list, it seemed that he was adding an extra two things to the bottom. As days and weeks went by, he found he was achieving less and less and any motivation that he had was now turning to procrastination. His focus now seemed to be wavering between various social networking sites, spider solitaire and Sky Sports but very little was being done for his business.

The problem is that we can only consciously process about 7 pieces of information at a time so when we try to think of a number of things greater than that (such as on a long list) we can become stressed, anxious and out of control. We also very often distort the amount of work we have to do so the task just seems so much greater than it really is. One way people deal with this is to give up altogether and do nothing which ultimately makes matters worse as the list will continue to grow.

To help my client, I gave him two very simple but effective tips. First of all, I suggested that when he first got into work that he should decant from his list a maximum of 5 items that are priorities for that day and put them on a new, separate list. I stressed that it was essential that it was possible to achieve all of these things in the day otherwise he was to remove items from the list until it was achievable. The never-ending list was then to be put out of sight and he was just to work on one item at a time until all items on the new list were completed. This meant that he no longer would have a large number of items to worry about. Having only a small number of achievable tasks to aim for can have a significant impact on our motivation and also gives us a feeling of achievement and closure at the end of the day when the list is completed (which the never-ending list never does).

My second tip was that, contrary to some widely held views which suggest it is best to get the biggest thing out of the way first, he should in fact do the easiest/smallest thing first. Why? Well, this is where we look to Isaac Newton and his First Law of Motion (otherwise known as the Law of Inertia), which states “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion”. If we aim to start on something that only takes 10 minutes, we have already created motion so the likelihood is that we will continue onto the next thing using the momentum from the easy task.

So if you are feeling overwhelmed all you really need to do is create a small, achievable list and just get moving!  

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant