If you are overwhelmed with the volume of tasks that clutter your To-do list, try these techniques to tame the task-list monster.
Why we get overwhelmed
When our task list grows exponentially, we often try to do too much without really accomplishing anything. Most of us who are easily overwhelmed are over-achievers in one capacity or another. Even if the chief reason for our overwhelm is ADHD, a learning impairment, or a combination of challenges, it's frustrating to watch today's to-do list become tomorrow's (and so on).
The problem with traditional tools
Let's face it; most "reminders" are really just black holes. You might be one of those people with a number of sticky notes posted in various places. You know the drill: you grow used to staring at them until they don't draw your attention anymore. Another common trap for reminders is writing them down on a napkin or the back of your hand. These techniques might work, providing you don't toss the napkin away or wash your hands. Notes that are placed in your pocket often get tossed in the washing machine or placed in a hidden location. You could record a voice message for yourself, but then you need to remember to listen to the recording and actually do the task. Alarms can be good, but are too often dismissed and forgotten.
The good news is, between Microsoft Office Outlook and your own mind, you've got all the tools that you need to manage your time. And you don't even have to attend a time-management class to learn how to use them.
Taming the task-list monster
The first step in taming the task-list monster is to devise a way to keep all your tasks recorded and organized.
Quieting the mind
You may find it helpful to write down your list of things to do every night before bed in order to get a good night’s sleep. One way to do this is to record your tasks for the following day into Outlook. This helps keep all the tasks floating around in your head (or scattered on pieces of paper or napkins) in just one place.
Schedule your tasks in Outlook
Now that you have documented all the tasks that have been cluttering your mind, you must schedule a time to complete those tasks. Outlook offers two handy tools to get that done: Tasks and Calendar.
Each tool is useful and has its advantages. Tasks offer more tracking options, and you can set start and end dates. You can even set reminders and have things flagged a certain color when they become overdue. Calendar, on the other hand, offers a convenient way to plan your day.
In Outlook Calendar, you can block out the amount of time that you want to spend on your most important task, and then record the task in that block. You can continue to schedule all your tasks in this manner, making sure that you allow enough time for each task.
Life does happen. If a task takes only fifteen minutes to complete, you might schedule a half hour. If the task takes a half hour, maybe schedule an hour. When you give yourself extra time, you’re less likely to become stressed, and if you finish early you get a little break before the next thing on your schedule.
Dealing with distractions
How do you deal with tasks that require real concentration? If you’re a procrastinator, you might be easily distracted by any "shiny" interruption to help you procrastinate. You answer the phone when it rings. You chat with the grocer. You get lost on the Web. And your tasks go ignored.
If you have a task scheduled that really needs your complete attention, it helps to turn off your phone, shut down your messenger program, and turn off your Inbox notifications. It's amazing how much you can accomplish when you remove your most common distractions. You might be distracted by random thoughts, peering out of a window, or creative ideas that demand your attention. If you're finding you can't shake them, it might be helpful to take a moment to write down these thoughts, or work in a room with no windows. Whatever distracts you, try to remove it from your attention.
If you work from home, let others in the house that you’re working and that you will be with them at a specific time. For example, if your task is scheduled between 4 and 5 P.M., let your family know that you are unavailable during those hours and that you are not to be disturbed. Often giving them a time frame makes it easier for them to be patient.
Make sure that you set time aside for yourself
Scheduling your own downtime is important. Everyone needs it. Even if you’ve not completed the previous task, stop your work on it and go outside. We’ll explain what to do with those unfinished tasks in a moment.
Sometimes decompression time has to wait, so you'll need to find another slot for yourself. Too often, though, we give up our down time to accomplish all the things we have scheduled. Don't do it. If this happens too often, you might experience burn out, which is very difficult to bounce back from.
When you complete a task
One of the best things about this technique for organizing time is that you can easily track your progress. You also know how much time you’ve spent on each task, and what you still need to accomplish.
For example, when a task is complete, you can type (DONE) at the end of the task name in your Calendar or, if you use Tasks, you can click the Completed check box. Feeling that sense of accomplishment can keep you more engaged in the other things you have on your list of things to do.
When you don't complete a task
At the end of the day, look at your calendar or task list for that day. All tasks that were not completed must be moved to the next day. Those tasks now become the priority. If you scheduled your time appropriately, there should very few tasks that you must move over. If you find that you are moving more than two over every day, you are over-scheduling your day.
Tasks shows items in color to indicate a missed deadline. The benefit of using Tasks is that you do not have to move the task to the next day; it remains on your task list until it is complete.
Now that you're on your way to being ultra–organized, you might find that your schedule feels a lot more open. By relying on your calendar, you can easily determine a commitment date for your new task and avoid over-scheduling. If your plate is full, realistically, you cannot take on more work. You are not Superman or Wonder Woman; you are human, and you have your limits. The only skill you need to learn now is how to say, "No."
Now that you have all the details to become more efficient in your endeavors, you are on your way to developing a useful skill that can ease a bit of stress in your life. Stay focused and put your attention where it must be, even if it's on your own relaxation. Remember, the water in a river is stronger than the rocks it flows over, not by strength, but by perseverance. Use your tools, and you will defeat the task-list monster.
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