Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Chris Ronzio.
I remember reading The Giver, by Lois Lowry, when I was a kid. Maybe you’ve read it (or seen the recent movie!). In the story, an older man (the Giver) trains his apprentice to hold the memories of their ancestors, memories like pain and temperature and color that have long been forgotten in this futuristic world. The weight of the memories eventually becomes too much to handle.
Working as a consultant for small business owners, I sometimes feel like the Giver. Every day, I collect stress from entrepreneurs and their employees and try to give clarity in return. Do I get stressed? Hell yes. But I’ve learned to manage it until it slowly dissipates. I use the divide and conquer method.
Step 1: Divide
I’ve worked with the professional organizers at Neat Method on a few projects now, and there’s one thing they do when they start tackling any messy room. They empty everything out and take inventory of what’s there. If you’ve cleaned a closet or garage before, maybe you’ve done the same thing. You empty off all the shelves, you dig things out of places that haven’t seen light in years, and then you step back and marvel at how much crap you’ve collected.
Processing stressful tasks and projects should start the same way. I use a blank slate like a new Evernote note or Workflowy list to empty my brain and take inventory of everything that’s floating around. At first, you want to just get it all out. Order doesn’t matter. But then, for the sake of sanity, divide.
Divide by What
Once I’ve emptied my brain, I like to categorize, and the easiest way to categorize a huge mess is to use the lowest common denominator. In a closet, you might divide by clothing type: pants and shirts and shoes and accessories. For my consulting business, my mess can always be divided by client. At any given time, I might have a hundred different responsibilities, tasks, and random thoughts on my mind, and the lines between them begin to blur.
In these cases, I prefer nothing more than a massive wall covered in Idea Paint, or a whiteboard, or a blank sheet of paper. Even index cards on the floor will do. There, I transfer items from my master list into organized groups – like tasks sorted by client – keeping them all visible in one place. This method lets me see the State of the Union better than I could by clicking back and forth through any project management system. When you see all groups at once, you immediately see where the real urgency or bottleneck is that’s causing the stress.
Divide by When
Not everything matters at the same time. So the next filter I use to manage stress is to divide by when. Maybe something keeps popping into your head too early because it has nowhere else to go. But when you associate a timeline with everything on your plate, a lot of the noise begins to fade.
For emails, I use tools like Sanebox and Followup.cc to remove reminders, questions, and other correspondence from my plate and delegate them to my future self. Even Gmail has gotten in the game of productive procrastination with Inbox.
All other tasks fall into one of two task lists: now or later. Only tasks that must be done in the next day or two get to stare me in the face on my regular to-do list. Everything else is stored on a secondary list with a reminder set for the appropriate time.
Divide by Where
I’ve noticed that my environment has a lot to do with what I’m able to accomplish. When I’m intentional about where I work to complete a certain task, I can shelve the responsibility and stress of that task until I arrive at the right location.
Because it’s so easy to work from anywhere, entrepreneurs have a hard time sticking to a location-based schedule. But adding a little structure to where you do what you do can relieve a lot of the chaos.
Some of the tasks on my plate require working directly with a client, so I know I can ignore those tasks until I’m at that client’s office next. I like to write when I’m on the road, so I save up my newsletter and blog ideas for when I travel.
Maybe it’s because I have a three-month-old, but working from home is tough for me. When I’m home, I prefer to be as present as possible for my family. So I joined a membership workspace that I can retreat to and that helps me disconnect and do. I go to the space only when I have a clear list of tasks to complete, and I always leave the space feeling accomplished, because nothing else happens there. Most of the time, I even shut off my phone.
By being intentional about isolating my most pressing responsibilities, I’m best prepared to conquer them quickly.
The TV show Extreme Home Makeover was a guilty pleasure of mine for years. Actually, so is any show where there are makeovers, or dramatic changes that happen really quickly.When it comes to making progress and reducing stress, I define conquering in much the same way: making dramatic progress as rapidly as possible.
If you’re feeling stressed, it’s because your loosely defined responsibilities are creeping up on you. You’re not conquering; you’re getting conquered.
But with a well-defined, timely focus, you can turn things around.
Conquer with Others
Makeover-style shows, like the one I mentioned earlier, have another thing in common. They bring in an army of builders, managers, volunteers, and experts to get the job done. It’s hard to conquer alone.
The good news is that if you’re feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, you probably have the revenue or the salary to show for it. So don’t be afraid to spend money to build a team around you, however big or small.
First, look for vendors or contractors whom you can send specialized work to. I found developers, designers, tech support, and physical organizers whom I’ve developed great relationships with, so I can send them work whenever I need the help.
Last, clone yourself by hiring and training people to take over the jobs you’ve perfected, so that you can move on to new, higher-level work.
Conquer with the Right Tools
I can bribe myself into doing something pretty easily. It’s sort of like how, for a brief moment in August, kids forget about homework and tests and get excited to go back to school so they can use their new backpacks and jeans. Buying the right tools – even a nice latte – can inspire you to sit down and do the work you’ve been dreading.
Beyond novelties, you also need tools that don’t hinder your ability to get things done fast. I’ve developed a heightened awareness of things that bother me (or, as my wife says, I’m judgmental). But it’s true! I judge things that aren’t producing the results that I need or expect.
If my computer keeps freezing, I can’t afford not to replace it. If my pen is leaking all over my hand, I need a new pen. If I find myself annoyed with a piece of software that I’m using, I need to find a better solution or build something custom. A lack of tolerance for life’s little frustrations will open your mind to finding solutions.
A weapon is dangerous in any hand that holds it. (Click to share – thanks!)
Conquer During Downtime
To conquer as much as possible, you don’t need to work every hour possible. But you do need to capture the downtime when you could otherwise be productive.
One trick I’ve used is to take Uber or Lyft rides to my meetings and appointments across town. Rather than spend a half-hour commuting, I’ll intentionally pay to get that time back. And because I’m paying for it, I’m committed to making sure I get as much done as possible.
Downtime could also mean time standing in line, or time waiting on hold on the phone, or even time when you’re sleeping. By outsourcing certain responsibilities to people on Fiverr or oDesk, you can wake up in the morning with a shorter to-do list than you fell asleep with. Those are some sweet dreams.
The holy grail of conquering is when you conquer without trying. It’s like arm wrestling a baby (yes, I’ve done it, and I beat my son every time).
One of my go-to resources recently has been IFTTT. IFTTT, or “if this, then that,” lets you create thousands of unique actions by using connections between apps – for instance, “email my virtual assistant a list of websites that I bookmark so he can create a new post on my blog.” By building recipes for the tasks you want to automate, you don’t just save time, you eliminate it.
When you automate a process, it means zero intervention from you and your valuable resources. And that means one less thing to weigh down your to-do list. Time invested in automating pays dividends for a while, so I automate at every chance I get.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, recognize the feeling and do something about it. Get everything out of your head and into one catch-all location. Group tasks into categories; then filter by when and where they should be accomplished. Empower a team to help, and arm yourself with the tools to motivate yourself and make yourself efficient. Then focus on getting things done, and on documenting your process so that you can automate where possible.
Stress doesn’t stand a chance.