A few days ago, I was going about my day feeling a little off. For some reason, I was feeling some anxiety and stress, and a sense of dread washing over me. It was strange because I didn't have any significant issue looming over me. I didn't have any personal relationship issues plaguing me, I didn't have any hard deadlines for work, I didn't really have anything that would generally bog me down like this.
As I continued wondering why I was feeling like something was dragging me down, I tried to keep on with my day, working on all the small tasks that I had on my mind. That's what it hit me: it wasn't one thing, it was a lot of little things. On that particular day, I had a to-do list with a lot of small tasks that I needed to handle in the next few days. On top of that, I also had a few small tasks that weren't urgent, but I still wanted to tackle during the next few days.
These tasks, on an individual level, were not a big deal. They were small tasks - like responding to an email or buying flight tickets for an upcoming trip - that I could do in less than 10 minutes once I sat down and decided to do it. But they accumulated to the point that it was apparently having an effect on me mentally. I didn't realize that I had so many tiny things to do, and that's where this is dangerous because it can creep up on you and drag you down before you know it.
It reminded about the ancient form of Chinese torture labeled as death by a thousand cuts. This form of torture would have someone being sliced with a knife in deliberate small cuts, to the point of perishing. Of course, my issues were in no way near that amount of torture, but I had been reminded of it because a thousand tasks were causing a bit of "death," at least from a mental perspective.
How to deal with a thousand small things weighing you down
When I realized what was going on, I was able to take a few actions to help me get the weight off my mind. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you can use some of these tactics to get you in a better spot.
Dump everything from your brain
The very first thing I did was to sit down with a notebook and a blank page, and began writing down all the things that were on my mind with no structure and no limitations holding me back. I didn't think that I would have much to write about, but 15 minutes later and one fully-written page, I had an extensive list staring me in the face. I was surprised at how much I wrote down, including some things that weren't actively in my mind that I almost completely had forgotten about.
You may not realize how many things you're juggling at any given time, and it can subconsciously be causing you to feel like something isn't right. The way our brains typically work is that we only have a finite amount of attention to give. You'll have the most important things for you front and center of your mind, but that will bury everything else. You might not notice all the things you have to deal with, but they'll be there, taking your mental energy away. The first step towards fixing the issue is being clear, and dumping everything out of your head will get you the clarity you need to move forward.
Separate what's really important from what isn't
By writing down everything that's on your mind, you free your brain from holding on to the excess that you need to work on but won't get to any time soon. It provides almost immediate relief. More importantly, it also gives you a sense of the number of things you have to deal with, so you can focus on the essential stuff and deal with the rest separately.
We often misjudge what really needs to be done, and what can be pushed away as useless or busy work. When you have your brain dump available, you have an easy way to label what you really need to be spending time on and what you can do later, delegate to someone else, or discard altogether. Be ruthless with this process - don't keep tasks hanging around for any reason. It's easy to justify keeping something around because you think it may be important. But if it's not something that you need to do quickly enough, get it off your hands.
Find common tasks and group them together
Once you have your list of things that were on your mind in front of you, use this opportunity to group them into categories or buckets that you can work on simultaneously. For example, if you have to send multiple emails to different people, lump them into one block so that you can tackle all of the related tasks in one go. Doing that will help you avoid context switching between different types of work and let you finish everything quicker.
By grouping similar items together, you can have a better understanding of where your time is going. Often, we tend to think about things in order of perceived importance, keeping everything separate from each other. When this happens, we lose sight of what's really taking our time away. If you can see what's taking the bulk of your time - for example, you notice work-related tasks account for over 75% of the things on your mind - you can begin to take steps to fix what's taking up your day.
Do the hard stuff first
Any time you have a list of things to do, the best tactic you can employ is to find the hardest thing on your list and take on that first. By "hardest," that can mean the stuff you know will take the most time to complete or the one that you're merely dreading the most. Brian Tracy popularized this method in his book Eat That Frog, one of the most well-known books on productivity.
The reason behind doing this is simple - once you get the most difficult thing gone, the rest of your work will be significantly easier to complete. You'll be less stressed to take on what's left, and you'll become more effective with managing your time. The momentum you build will carry on throughout your day. It also has the bonus of building discipline and focus over time. The more you take on the hard stuff before anything else, the more you'll get done over time.
One of the main reasons to spend time in the beginning writing down a list of the things you need to do is to get you focusing on one thing at a time. Like when I was feeling stressed and anxious because I had many things in my head at once, trying to do multiple things at once will just cause unnecessary pressure on yourself. The simple solution to this is to focus on doing one thing at a time strictly - no more.
We're not wired to juggle multiple things at once. You can do more by taking on less at a time. It'll reduce the amount of tension you can feel by trying to handle a lot. You'll avoid simple mistakes that you'll have to deal with later on and do more work for you. Even if you have a to-do list that's a mile long and are feeling burdened to do as much as you can, resist the urge to take on more than one thing at a time.
No more until you've cleared most of your plate
There's a good chance that the reason why you have so many things to deal with is that you find it difficult to say no to anything that's thrown your way. It's usually how we all end up with so much work that we feel like we're drowning and can't get out. If that's the case, you need to be very careful about agreeing to do more while you still are carrying too much on your shoulders.
If you pile on more tasks while you still have plenty of things going on, it can easily discourage you into thinking that you'll never finish and slow your momentum down completely. So be very careful about any extra work that's thrown your way. It might not be possible to reject everything that someone asks of you but limit as much as you can to give yourself a chance to finish what you already have.
Take the weight off your shoulders and keep it off
The key here is that holding on to a lot of small things carry a lot of pressure when it's piled on. Often, we don't realize how much weight is piled on until we're feeling stressed. If you can continuously keep track of the things you need to do, you can avoid having an accumulation of work that can push you down and keep you from doing more with your life.
Be proactive and keep your life in check by protecting your time with less small issues to deal with. With a clear head, free of stress and anxiety, you'll be free to pursue bigger things for your own life. Don't let the minor things in daily life be a burden that's preventing you from achieving your big goals and desires in life.
Small steps for your Practical Good
If you're feeling stressed, don't let small tasks strain your daily life. Taking some small steps will allow you to free yourself up to do the things you're meant to do.
- Write down every little thing that you have to do on paper. Spend all the time you need emptying your brain so you can lay down what you need to do. Often, you'll have more things than you expect, which can worry you. But it's necessary to see what you have so that you can take the best plan of action.
- Defer, delegate, or discard everything that isn't necessary to do now. When you have a list of things to do, be strict in deciding what's really important for you to focus on, and get rid of the rest. Discard what's really not needed. For the rest, figure out if you need to handle it yourself, and if not give it to someone else. Don't hang on to things you don't need to do.
- Don't add more until you finish. One common mistake that people make is taking on more work before their existing work is done. Not only will you always have things to work on, but you can also start to feel disheartened since you think that you'll never have a chance to breathe freely. Block any new things thrown your way or try to limit what you can so you can spend more time on the things you want to do.