We all have times when we feel like we’re underwater—like we can’t catch up with all of our work responsibilities. That feeling can be especially strong in late autumn, when it’s magnified by “gotta get this done before the end of the year” pressure. Fortunately, there are plenty of great strategies that can help you accomplish a lot of important work during this time of the year.
Breaking something big into its constituent parts will help you organize your thoughts, but it can also force you to confront the depth of your ignorance and the hugeness of the task. That’s okay. The project may be the lion, but the list is your whip.
Santa’s not the only one who needs to start making a list when the mercury plummets! Now is the time when everyone needs to start making lists of what absolutely, positively has to get done by the end of the year. Santa has only one list to worry about·—the “naughty or nice?” one (in which column might you fall?), but most people are juggling responsibilities in multiple areas and therefore need to create not one but several lists.
In addition to your holiday gift list (if you have any seasonal shopping to do at this time of year), create two other critical lists: “Big Work Projects” and “Big Personal Stuff.” On the first one, write down all of the significant things you need to get done in your professional life; on the other one, write down the important tasks in your personal life.
Next comes the tricky part: trimming each list. Be ruthless (and honest with yourself) about how much you can reasonably expect to get done between now and the end of the year. Counting Thanksgiving week, there are roughly six and a half weeks left between now and the end of the year. By cutting both lists down to six (maybe seven) items each, you put yourself on track to get an average of two big tasks done each week—and you have a shot at actually getting a lot accomplished before we welcome the new year.
Manage your calendar (not the other way around)
Don’t be fooled by the calendar. There are only as many days in the year as you make use of.
After you’ve drawn up your two lists, it’s time to come up with a plan for tackling one item from each list every week until the end of the year.
On your calendar, block out time for your “Big Work Project” and “Big Personal Stuff” tasks. If possible earmark the same time each week for them; this can help you get into a long-term routine of working on big projects on a weekly basis (and not just during the end-of-the-year runup.)
Once you’ve blocked your calendar for your big projects, create a weekly “task list” of smaller action items that also need to get done. Then sort them into three groups:
- A—“This is critical or time-sensitive”
- B —“This is important but not time-sensitive”
- C—”I would really like to get this done at some point”
Then put your energy into the tasks in group A. Once you’ve cleared those, celebrate your accomplishment and (if time permits) move on to those in group B. If you don’t manage to get to group B or group C, though, don’t sweat it! The tasks in those groups aren’t high priority for now, and if they are important they will eventually find their way into group A.
(To help ensure that I don’t forget about the B and C items, I keep my weekly lists in a notebook that I review every Monday when I put together that week’s task list. By writing those items there, I know that I’ll remember them and can upgrade them to A status when and if the time is right—which helps me avoid waking up at 4 a.m. worrying about what needs to get done! For more tips on seizing control of your calendar, check out my earlier post “Top 10 Tips for Defeating the Time Thief.”)
Take it one step at a time
One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time.
In her excellent book of writing advice, Bird by Bird, author Annie Lamott explains how she learned one very effective technique for dealing with what feels like an overwhelming number of tasks: carefully working your way down the list, focusing on one task at a time.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that . . . was due the next day. . . . [H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears . . . immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Although adults usually have to balance greater (and more complicated) assignments against many other commitments, they can still learn a lot from Lamott’s father. Even after you’ve pared your to-do lists down to the critical tasks, you might still feel as though you’ve got way more than you can handle on your plate. That’s when it’s time to pause, take a deep breath, and use your list to guide you. Don’t run around trying to do everything at once. Just focus on one task (or bird) at a time to finish out the year strong.
Ignore the siren call of e-mail
Your e-mail inbox is a bit like a Las Vegas roulette machine. You know, you just check it and check it, and every once in a while there’s some juicy little tidbit of reward, like the three quarters that pop down on a one-armed bandit. And that keeps you coming back for more.
How often do you get sidetracked by small tasks when you should be tackling the big ones? E-mail is definitely one of the biggest time wasters out there. Who among us hasn’t been sucked in by “I’ll spend just a few minutes dealing with my e-mail, and then I’ll get back to my project” only to find that an hour or more has passed? Considering how much e-mail lands in our inboxes these days (some people easily get dozens—or even hundreds—of work-related messages daily!), it’s no wonder that e-mail can dominate our attention.
If you want to get your Big Things done this year, though, you need to give them the attention they deserve. That means muting your e-mail notifications or even shutting down your e-mail interface for a chunk of time so you aren’t tempted to “take a quick look” at your e-mail. That also means tackling those important tasks when you’re at your peak each day. (So if you’re a morning person, work on your most difficult task before you ever open up your e-mail!) Otherwise, you wind up going down the e-mail rabbit hole and spending time and energy—two of your most valuable resources—on insignificant stuff rather than on what’s really important.
One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.
Take a good look at your work environment and think about what distractions get in the way of your productivity. Then take steps to mitigate them.
- Do visits to the break room for water or coffee refills interrupt your train of thought? Bring a large reusable water bottle or insulated mug to the office so you don’t need to make as many of those trips.
- Having trouble focusing at your desk? (Maybe your gaze keeps drifting over to the stack of file folders in your in tray or to notes about other projects you need to work on.) Sometimes a change of scenery can jump-start creativity: relocate to an open cubicle, office, or conference room for a couple of hours.
- Are the usual office hubbub and chatter making it hard for you to concentrate? Close your office door (if you have one), or work from home.
- Do you feel too tired to focus? Stretch your legs! Taking a brief walk—around the block, for example, or up and down the stairwell—can shake things up enough for you to feel refreshed and more attentive.
And let’s not forget one of the biggest distractions of all (along with e-mail): meetings! Yes, meetings are important, but they’re often not the most efficient use of time—and when you’re up against a hard deadline (i.e., December 31), you’re much better off skipping most meetings and using that time to crank through your to-do list instead. Go to the meetings that involve important decisions (especially those decisions that will affect your job) or are critical to end-of-the-year or start-of-the-new-year deadlines, but skip the rest if you can. You can get back into the meeting frenzy after the first of the year.
With the right attitude, clear prioritization, careful planning, and realistic expecations, you can complete many important tasks between now and the new year. The only differences between these next six weeks and six weeks at any other time of the year are having to balance seasonal/family/holiday commitments as well, and the significance of the end-of-the-year deadline looming before you.
You’re in the home stretch now, though! As long as you keep your priorities straight (and remember to say “no” so you don’t add even more to your plate—perhaps the best time management technique of all time!), you are fully capable of accomplishing great things. You can do it!