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Overwhelmed? You Can Eliminate Most Your Work by Reorganizing It - (Archived)

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Try to remember what it felt like the last time you had a to-do list so long it made you want to give up and declare “to-do bankruptcy.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if you were feeling that way right now. In 2013, a study by Harris Interactive found over 80% of people in America are stressed out at work. [1]

Until a few months ago, I felt the same way. Every day I would sit down at my desk and, before I even started working, I would say to myself, “There’s no way I’m going to get everything done.” I was defeated before I even started.

This problem might be even worse for introverts like me. Even though I’m self-employed and spend much of my time working from home, you might work in a company where the personalities of most your co-workers don’t match yours. You get sucked into endless meetings, the chatter is loud and, no matter how hard you work, just the environment you’re in can be exhausting.

But there’s good news. If you haven’t taken a hard look at the way you do your work, there are probably some incredible opportunities to eliminate a large portion of the work you do every day.

And just how is that possible? It’s all in the order of the work you do and how you prioritize. Here are a few examples from my own experiments in making my introverted work day just a little bit more sane.

Problem #1: You’re Doing the Wrong Work

We all know that different types of work suit different types of people. But, if you’re the type who likes to say yes to new things and accept challenges, it’s surprisingly easy for work that is not a good fit for you—and never will be—to pile up like a turd mountain. As you can imagine, climbing a mountain of turds is a nearly impossible feat—you just sink in or slide back to the bottom.

I found myself in exactly this position a year ago when I said yes to a new business partnership. As part of the deal, I agreed to take over customer support for the project. What I didn’t realize then (but quickly learned) was that I am comically bad at customer support. As an introvert, my strengths lie in building systems and working on projects that can help lots of people. I’m a poor fit for actually interfacing with those people on a daily basis.

The problem goes beyond just doing the wrong work, though. It takes a surprisingly small amount of it to foul up the work you should be doing. You think, “Hey, I have eight hours in a day to get things done. I can spare one or two on this soul-crushing stuff. It’s a good opportunity.” But you’re wrong. If you’re an introvert like me working on something that’s a better fit for an extrovert, then just an hour of “wrong work” can easily eat up four or more hours of productivity because it’s so draining. When you finish it—if you finish it— it’s hard to get motivated to do anything else.

time-vs-energy

Solution #1: Time Box & Delegate Your “Wrong Work”

So what’s the solution to a problem like this? You can’t just stop doing your work, right? People are relying on you to get things done whether you like it or not. But, whatever the situation, when you’re doing wrong work, you have to find a way out of it. Success—and your sanity—depend on it.

After finding myself in the wrong work situation I was in, I did two things that helped:

  1. I talked to my partners and we agreed to hire someone else to take over customer support.
  2. I committed to spending no more than 20 minutes each day answering support tickets.

Those solutions worked. Delegating support to someone else will be a permanent fix and, until then, I know I can triage support and keep us running without losing most of every day to wrong work. My day doesn’t get derailed by 20 minutes of draining work, so I can happily commit to that until we have a more permanent fix.

If you don’t work for yourself like I do, this might sound like an impossible solution. What if your boss regularly dumps work in your lap and doesn’t care if it’s a good fit for you? Sometimes, this can be fixed with a long-term commitment to improving communication.

Your best shot at fixing the problem will be to show your boss two things:

  1. How much more effective you’ll be when you’re working on your right work. If you spend a week ignoring the work that drains you and just doing what you’re good at, you’ll have proof of what you can accomplish when you’re not saddled by draining tasks.
  2. Regularly reinforce what your right work is. In order to make sure the assignments that are handed to you are the right ones, take an active role in reminding the people around you of what you’re good at.

If you work for a company that sees the connection between their success and how productive you are, you won’t be stuck in an impossible situation.

Related: How to Get Your Boss to Listen to Creative Ideas

Problem #2: You’re Working in the Wrong Order

This is a problem that causes an equal amount of havoc but you also have a lot of control over it. If you’ve never spent a day or more thinking hard about the order of the work you do and how you prioritize your time, you can be sure you’re wasting a lot of time somewhere.

In my case, the problem I was having by handling support requests was two-fold. First, the time I spent actually doing it ruined productive work time in the future. Second, I was so focused on getting through it each day, I didn’t have time to actually work on solving the problem.

You and I are only human. We’re hard-wired to focus on what hurts and go for easy, short-term gains. For me, that meant the first thing I focused on each day was making the pain of the overstuffed support box go away. It was so relieving to see the inbox empty.

But what I ignored by doing that is all the harder, long-term work I could have been doing to make the pain go away forever. By laser-focusing on squashing a small problem each day, I was ensuring the root problem would never actually be addressed.

Related: The Art of Doing Nothing: A Procrastinator’s Manifesto

rocks-vs-sand

Solution #2: Build Systems That Eliminate Work

The fix for this problem is obvious—focus on the big picture ahead of the urgent—but it’s oh-so-hard to actually do when the pain of doing wrong work is front and center.

Funny enough, what helped me start to solve this problem was a meltdown. One day, I woke up, and I could not get myself to answer support tickets. I gave myself three failing pep talks before giving up and watching Netflix all day, too defeated to do anything else.

When I opened up the support box the next morning—dreading what I would find—something unexpected happened: the world, indeed, had not ended. Sure, there were more tickets than usual, but nothing had gone wrong. There were no problems that came in yesterday that couldn’t be fixed today and no one was so impatient they couldn’t wait a day for a reply.

It’s not ideal to make customers wait, but this was an incredible discovery for me: I instantly gained a free morning every other day. And I used that extra time to beef up our knowledge base, format automated replies for common questions, and fix up a few other systems that lowered customers’ need for support in the first place.

Related: 5 Ridiculous Things I Do to Increase My Willpower and Make Smart Choices

It was like magic to me. All of a sudden, life was infinitely better. I had more time to do what I was good at, and that work translated to the creation of less work I was bad at. If I hadn’t had that panic-induced breakdown, I might never have realized it.

to-do-rearrange

 

It’s difficult to do, but when you force yourself to prioritize your big picture right work, it can actually reduce the amount of wrong work you need to do forever.

Examples in Real Life

I’ve used an example from my own life to illustrate how doing wrong work nearly broke me and how re-prioritizing lead to salvation, but you might wonder where you could actually put this to use in your own life. The opportunities are endless, but here are just a few that you have complete control over and start fixing right now.

  • Paying bills. If you find yourself constantly juggling funds between accounts and forgetting and remembering and forgetting again to pay recurring and one-off bills, this is an area of your life ripe with opportunity for improvement. Sit down on a weekend and pick one account that you’ll spend money from. Set up every bill you can on auto pay and transfer enough cash into one place so there’s enough cushion that you don’t have to worry about checking and juggling every other day.
  • Grocery shopping. Always struggle to find time to go grocery shopping? Don’t know what to buy when you do?  Take a 24-hour fast and spend the time you would normally spend eating building a meal plan. Find recipes that are easy and build a system so you always know what you’re eating—for important meals—for the next seven days. Grocery shopping will become easy and you’ll never waste time wondering what to eat.
  • Running errands / doing unexpected tasks. Life is filled with small to-dos that pop up at inconvenient times. If you focus on the short-term, you might stop everything to try to fix the problem when it comes up. But if you were to take a long-term view, you might set aside a specific time each week to work on “unexpected tasks” and ignore small things that come up until then. Keep a list of what needs to get done, and batch it all together in one pre-determined session.

This is but a tiny fraction of all the opportunities in your life to refocus yourself on your right work so that the wrong work becomes less urgent or goes away entirely.

Final Thoughts on Reorganizing Your Work

As I think about the things that have helped me take control of my overwhelming to-do lists, the words that come to mind the most are “focus” and “systems”.

When I force myself to focus on the big picture I’m always happier with the result because it usually means getting rid of many smaller frustrations. And systems for managing things I have to deal with but don’t want to, remove a lot of the pain of figuring out how to do them or make time for them.

Both of those things add up to having very little wrong work to do day-to-day and the little that’s left is no longer overwhelming and can be done without having to think too much about it. It’s made every day tremendously more enjoyable for me.

If you see a little bit of yourself in the struggles that I faced, I hope the solutions here make your life better, too.

Footnotes:

  1. Source here. This was part of a recurring study, and it also found that the problem was getting worse every year and “workload” was one of the top reasons why.

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