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Reducing Overwhelm with Just One Piece of Paper

One common refrain I hear from technologists is, “When am I ever supposed to get any work done?”

The biggest challenge working in technology is the amount of information and distraction that hits us all day, every day. It seemingly never stops.

You’ve got emails, Slack, or Microsoft Teams (or if you’re really “lucky” BOTH!), text messages, ticketing systems, ringing phones, drive-by customers with urgent needs, coworkers with critical issues, etc. And that’s just the start. Adding on the back-to-back meetings and boom — you’re overwhelmed, and it’s not even 10 am yet! The crawl of heartburn creeps up your throat as you think about it all.

Once you’re buried in the overwhelm of distractions and workload, it feels as if you’ll never get out. With that in mind, it’s hard to be motivated.

So what do you do? You can stand up like Michael Scott in The Office and yell, “I declare bankruptcy!” and it will work for you as well as it did for him — which is not at all.

You could quit your job and find another one. But unless you fix the problem, you’ll be right where you are again in no time, even at your shiny, fresh new job.

What’s the answer? As with so many things, it’s all about mindset. If you have the mindset now that you’ll get everything done with perfection, it’s time to let that go. On the flip side, if you have the mindset that you’ll never get this under control, and it’s just your destiny to always be buried, that attitude needs to go too.

The new mindset is positive yet realistic:

  1. You can manage this.
  2. You’ll get better at it over time.
  3. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

Take Control: Your First Step

There isn’t anything much more simple than a piece of paper and a pen.
This is your new system for the next week. Seriously. Find one — any blank piece of paper — and remove all distractions for the next fifteen minutes. On this paper, you’re going to do one thing: write down every commitment you can think of out of your head and on this paper. Don’t limit it only to work or home life. If you’ve made a commitment to someone else or yourself, write it down.

Your brain is terrible at tracking commitments. And if you depend on it for that, you’ll clog it up and leave no room for creative thought.

Every time you take on a new assignment or are given a task, it goes on this piece of paper. If you’re exceptionally busy, filling both the front and back of the paper, just grab another one and keep it up. As you complete things, cross each one off. Your mission ISN’T to cross everything off. Rather, it’s to get the right things done. Remember, you can do anything. But you can’t do everything.

How do you determine what is the right thing to do right now? It depends.

What to do next is all about context: what can you do right now? And what is your energy level? For example, if the most important thing on your list is to document a new system you’re building, it doesn’t do you much good to try to work on that if you’re away from your computer or if your energy is low. That’s the power of the list! If you had a big lunch and got the afternoon doldrums, then you probably can’t do the work on your most impactful project. So pick some things that take less energy and focus. This way, you’re productive even as your energy levels ebb and flow.

We can’t manage time. It continues, no matter how productive we are. But we can manage our energy levels and work around them.

Using something as simple as one piece of paper is contradictory to most of us in technology. We want software and systems and complexity to solve complex problems. But in reality, we don’t need it. Some of the most effective solutions are the simplest.

Trust your one piece of paper. It’s simple but extremely effective. As you learn to work with your commitments on it, you can layer on things that help you. Then, you’ll have a system that is yours, and it’ll help you get the right work done at the right time.