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How to Get Things Done

Strategies to ease the stress of a too-much-to-do summer

My To-Do List is a bit eclectic but totally consistent with my crazy-busy, summer schedule: Finish up an article on hypnosis, draft an blog post on independence, make play-dough, meet with the trainer, sign the 8-year-old up for morning soccer, clean out the craft cupboard, wash the whites, make the tacos, water the tomatoes. You know the drill.

Why then, with all this stuff to do, do I find myself chatting on Facebook and paying the bills that aren’t due for another couple of weeks? Why am I putting off the must-do’s – the article deadlines – when I have little time to get anything done while my daughter is, er, otherwise engaged – okay, watching television.

I’ve got a little bit of time to get big articles written and yet I procrastinate.

There are plenty of reasons we put off til panic sets in what we could get done now: Fear of failure, self-doubt, faulty thinking that leads us to believe our projects won’t take as long as they will. Sometimes we lack motivation and decide to wait until later thinking we’ll feel more energized, inspired, prepared.

Baloney. It’s time to start crossing things off the to-do list, right now. Here are three strategies that can help us do that.

1. Plan your schedule around your strengths. Are you a person that works well with music playing in the background or do you like it quiet? Are you most motivated at 2 p.m. or are you an early riser ready to work at 6 a.m.?

For three days keep a log of your energy flow, motivation, and the moments when you feel most focused and attentive. Identify too, the moments when you feel like sipping margaritas and eating chips.

Then build your schedule around those work preferences and abilities. Plan to do the tasks that require the most concentration at the times you are generally most attentive and create an environment that supports that. Do the easy stuff, when you are flagging or more restless or, feeling sloth-like.

If my house is other-people-will-notice kind of dirty or I have a ton of unanswered correspondence sitting in my inbox, I find it hard to focus on my writing work. So, I take care of that stuff first, while I’m still groggy in the morning. Then, I have a cup of coffee, (or seven) and hone in on the tougher tasks. My focus arrives usually around 9 a.m. and this is when I take on the more complex writing structural tasks and revisions.

Find out what works for you. Experiment. Then get the job done. But do hold off a bit, if the task would be better done later. If you need more information to do it well, or if you have a big block of time later to do a better job. Wait to give yourself the best shot for successful completion.

Sometimes, we are so eager to check things off our to-do list that we do them quickly, immediately so that we don’t have the stress of them hanging over our heads.

Pennsylvania State University researchers call this pre-crastination. And it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“Our findings suggest that the desire to relieve the stress of maintaining that information in working memory can cause us to over-exert ourselves physically or take extra risks,” said study author study author David Rosenbaum.

So, be deliberate. Don’t plow through things simply to get them done. Match the tasks with your focus and attention, do what makes the most sense in the time you have available. Ultimately, you’ll be more efficient.

2. Stop the multitasking madness. About two-percent of the population is what psychologists call supertaskers – able to effectively and efficiently juggle a bunch of responsibilities at one time. You, my friend, are probably not among them. Either am I. Sure, I like to think I am. And, I’ve been known to successfully put on a little make up while driving and talk on the phone while making spaghetti sauce, but too much multitasking ramps up stress, leads to a greater number of mistakes, and setbacks and an inability to focus later at the times when we really need to. If you’re checking e-mail, check it. Paying bills? Do only that. Then, move on to the next task. One thing at a time, you’ll get the job done faster and more accurately.

3. Take on a 20-minute task. Most of us can stay sharp for about 15 or 20 minutes before our focus wanders. But, when we chunk bigger task down into 15-minute blocks, even the big jobs seem more doable. As we make progress toward the bigger goal we tend to feel better, more motivated and that helps us keep going.

So break the bigger tasks down into smaller 15 to 20-minute pieces and just get going. Once you begin, you're more likely to finish the job.

Then, at the end of the day, celebrate the things you did get done rather than worrying about all you have left to do. With these strategies, you're bound to see your summer to-do list begin to shrink.