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Ever had one of those days (or two!!) where the day disappears without your making any progress on your most pressing task?

You have a deadline to meet but you decide a couple of small matters need attention first. Unfortunately those small items turn out to be more involved than you expect, and worse – you keep being interrupted and distracted!

The phone rings, emails arrive, you find yourself helping put out other people’s fires . . . and the hours tick by.

You’d think that having the pressure of a due date for a task would motivate you to focus on it. But sometimes the pressure of a deadline can generate avoidance, especially if you’re not 100% clear on how to proceed.

Can’t Decide?

If you have a number of pressing tasks, all calling for your attention, you may even fool yourself into believing you don’t know where to begin; so you don’t.

Columbia University Business School did a study where one group of people were offered samples of six different jams available for purchase, while another group were offered 24 different jams, including the six jams offered to the first group.

You’d be forgiven for expecting the group offered the choice of 24 jams would be more inclined to purchase one. But the opposite occurred. Those in the six-jam group were ten times more motivated to actually purchase a jar of jam.

It seems the more choices we have, the more difficult it can be to choose and focus on just one. At least it’s often that way for me.  My thoughts will try to seduce me into feeling I’ll never keep up, and so I delay starting the day’s most important task.

Doing It All

When I try to get it ‘all’ done, I find myself only starting to work on the priorities towards the end of the day and then work ridiculous hours into the night. Well before the week’s end I’m already over-tired.

The need to ‘do it all’ is disastrous. It’s part of our cultural myth that you need to be ‘perfect’ in order to be of value. Creating long To Do lists intensifies guilt and stress. And as busyness increases, so too, does overwhelm or frustration.

To really focus on the things that are most important, I have to resist trying to get it all done.  Moving forward really only requires a few essential tasks. It’s the dough that makes the bun, the rest is just decorative icing that’s pleasant to the eye and sweet to the tongue, but it won’t feed you.

Bite-Sized is Best

Chunking tasks into smaller bites to be taken in smaller time-frames also helps prevent stress.  It’s the old addage of eating an elephant one bite at a time.

One practical approach is to begin the day listing everything you think needs to be done that day. Then give yourself 15 or 20 minutes – no more – completing as many as possible of the easiest and quickest tasks on your list. This generates a sense of accomplishment – you’re getting things off your list early in the day. But don’t allow yourself to do more than the 15 or 20 minutes – set your phone alarm if needed.

When your alarm sounds, turn off your phone, log out of email, close any open windows and start on the highest priority task or the one you least want to do. Work on it for a full 40 minutes without allowing yourself to be distracted.

You’ll likely find the self-discipline required to work within a specified and limited time-frame will be repaid with a delicious dose of the reward hormone, Dopamine! Your body will be alert and your brain focused.

After 40 minutes take a short break, drink some water -your brain needs it for concentration – and move around the room, but don’t start an unrelated task or lengthy conversation with anyone. Then repeat the process, quickly working through the short tasks for 15 minutes before refocusing on the priority task for 40 minutes, until you complete either the short tasks or the major work.

Instead of feeling frustrated and stressed at the end of the day, you’ll feel pleased and confident you can complete the most important tasks on time and without stress. And at the end of the week you’ll be more relaxed for the weekend, knowing you are effectively and efficiently moving toward your goals.

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