This is the first part of a series where I address focusing your attention when you have too many things you need/want to do. In this first installment, I will talk about how it pertains to life. In the second installment, tomorrow’s post, I will talk about how it applies to being a writer.
One of my personality traits is to bite off more than I can chew. That is, to take on too many tasks or projects at once and end up burning out or being paralyzed by everything I have to do. I can trace this tendency backward to something my parents’ told me throughout my childhood. They used to tell me that I can do anything I set my mind to.
This habit has gotten me into trouble in the past. For example, in the 11th grade, I decided I wanted to do the hardest academic program in my school. Not only that, but I wanted to get into the math class a level ahead of where I was. In order to do this, I had to teach myself precalculus over the summer. I did, but I didn’t understand most of what I had learned. Then, when I got to calculus I was so far behind everyone else conceptually that I couldn’t catch up and had to drop out. In addition, my class workload was so heavy that I had no free time to myself. Free time is important to me because it helps rejuvenate my brain. It is as important as sleep if I want to do my best. I dropped out of the program and math class in the middle of the school year with no consequences thanks to a pardon from a very understanding vice principal. The day after, I was acting like myself again, not the dead, zombie-like person I had become.
What had my parents’ kept telling me before, during and after this fiasco? “You can handle this,” or “You could’ve done it.” No. I was on the fast track to the hospital with that situation and they seem to think I can handle a lot more than I actually can. Being the people pleaser that I am, I often listen to them more than my gut. This has led to six hospitalizations from 2015 (my senior year of high school) to 2017.
Only recently have I begun to listen to my gut. For example, when I quit my job at the end of February this year. You can read about that experience here. If I hadn’t, I would have ended up in the hospital again. I am sure of it.
But I still bite off more than I can chew on a regular basis. I want to stay busy and productive, so I created a schedule. You can read about my process to create a schedule here. My new schedule, as of May 8th, 2018, adds more tasks for me to do and cuts back on my free time. I pack ten blocks of time for different tasks into a single day, not including time for meals or free time. These blocks of time can often be broken down into several tasks into a single time slot, making my day a lot busier than it seems at first glance. And it doesn’t account for errands, appointments, or other life chores that need to be done regularly. When one of those pops up, I have to rearrange my whole schedule.
There are definitely some problems with my model, but that’s where my backup plan and new attitude come into play. I allow myself three graces from tasks. If I don’t feel like writing for my blogs, I’ll watch a movie instead during that time. If I don’t feel like walking on the treadmill, I can rearrange things so I walk to the beach instead for an hour or so, replacing podcast time. As long as I am getting the priorities done, like homework.
I am a perfectionist and my attitude usually reflects that. By changing my attitude to worrying if I mess up or miss one of the time blocks, I give myself some self-compassion. I am only human and doing the same thing every single day is not the best thing for me. I need at least a little variety. But I also need structure. Changing my attitude to self-compassion and allowing room for mistakes is one of the best ways to combat my tendency to overwork myself.
So far, I haven’t delivered on the promise I made in the title. How do you focus your attention when you have too many things to do? Here is my process for achieving this:
- Brainstorm a list of things you want and need to work on. Both long term and short term projects are welcome.
- Separate the lists into wants and needs.
- Separate the wants and needs into short-term and long-term projects.
- Number the projects into priorities.
- Work out a schedule where you work a little on the top need priorities a little every day, both short term and long term. Incorporate as many wants as possible while still scheduling in free time. This can be a daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule. Whatever works for you.
- The night before, take a look at the schedule for the next day. Make a to-do list of the tasks you need to work on for each time block. Adjust the schedule accordingly.
- Try out the schedule. Notice what you stick to. Notice what doesn’t work.
- Change the schedule around based on what did and didn’t work. Did you schedule homework for the mornings but found yourself skipping it and working in the afternoons instead? Change the time you scheduled that for. Cut out the schedule blocks you never stick to. Add more free time or exercise if you need to. Again, find out what works for you.
- Give yourself grace if you don’t follow the schedule exactly. But not too much. Too much leeway and the whole schedule goes down the drain. Make sure to stick to those priorities first and foremost. The rest can wait.
- Keep checking in with your schedule at the end of every week. Change it as often as it is needed. What worked for you one week may not work the next.
You can give yourself options of things to do in a time block if that will help you. This is just one way of figuring out what you need to work on. I will put together a list of things to consider when prioritizing in another post.
Sorry for the long post. I hope it helped some of you.