17 03 2019

Stress, anxiety, and burnout seem to be common infliction in today’s demanding work culture.  Perennial to-do lists, never-ending ad-hoc requests, simultaneously working on multiple projects define the job reality. This is more true for some than others. Often, our unconscious mistakes and tendencies lead us to work-related stress and burnout. These are, of course, much bigger topics and a range of factors affect them. I would just like to touch upon a couple of things in this post.

To-do list is the simplest tool for anyone to get a hang of the number of tasks to be performed . However, in my experience, to-do list is a poor choice of tool to manage tasks and projects. From time to time, I typically list all the things that I want to do and have to do – my work tasks, errands, learning goals, social activities, everything. And when I do that, usually my first reaction would be of anxiety – Oh my God, there’s a lot to do! The to-do list by itself doesn’t provide any ability to categorize or prioritize or set time boundaries on any of the tasks. The only good thing that comes out of it is the surge of dopamine that results upon striking off an item on the list. Ha, that’s really very rewarding. But this can actually act against the utility of the tool, because we will usually end up doing the simplest and may be unimportant tasks first just to strike them off the list and feel rewarded.


The fix to this is to actually use a prioritization tool instead. Yes, I’m talking about the famous Urgent/Important matrix.


Our goal should be to spend the most time in the Quadrant 2 on the important and non-urgent tasks. That should be our sweet spot. However, on any given day, we need to first start with Quadrant 1 tasks, because they are time-sensitive besides being important. But it’s wise to spend majority of time on Quadrant 2 tasks, which are usually more strategic and highly valuable. The idea is that when we spend more time in Quadrant 2, the number of tasks that end up in Quadrants 1 and 3 will be minimized.

Of course, there will always be some urgent things that we need to do, which in the grand scheme of things aren’t important enough for one’s goals. Examples may vary from person to person (in personal life), but in work settings they could be activities like preparing a mundane report, sending that email notification, proof-reading the presentation etc. We cannot really dismiss them totally because they do serve a purpose. The best way to deal with them is to delegate or automate those tasks as much as possible. Sometimes, procrastination also helps. In the sense that we can perform several unimportant things quickly in the last minute rather than spending crucial time early. Think creatively. 😉

Another equally important goal is to eliminate all Quadrant 4 tasks. This is perhaps the toughest one for me because my Quadrant 4 typically has things that I like to do, but are neither urgent nor important to my well-being and/or progress. But I so do enjoy them. And I always start with Quadrant 4 because that is the most attractive to me. And that’s definitely not a wise decision. This is where the next tool may help, which is very similar to the above Important/Urgent matrix – The Want to do / Have to do matrix:


In this model, the sweet spot is Quadrant 2, which comprises of tasks both we want to do and are required to do to meet our goals. However, we need to eat our Frogs first – those in Quadrant 1, which we do not want to do but we have to do as part of our jobs. That way, we can tackle the unpalatable tasks when we have the highest reserves of energy and once done with them, can indulge in dealing with Jewels. It goes without saying that we need to avoid the Knats totally. For many tasks, we may not realize that we need not do them ourselves. Similar to the Unimportant/Urgent tasks, we can come up with creative solutions to get those things done, through others or through automation. In some cases, we may be able to totally ignore them. Butterflies pose a little problem though. These are the tasks that we really want to do, but are not required to do as part of the job. These are usually our indulgences. It’s important for our motivation to be able to spend time on the things we want to do. We may need to spend our time judiciously on butterflies though. 🙂

I agree that getting the priorities right is not an easy thing to do. Often, everything seems to be important and urgent. However, thinking in terms of the above frameworks will help one a lot in taking the first steps.

Saying No:

The other common obstacle in managing our time and tasks is our tendency to take on more ad-hoc requests and doing ‘favors’. Helping others is a very good trait and solving other’s problems give us a sense of satisfaction. However, we should be cautious about the impact of such favors and ad-hoc requests on the regular and important projects. Sometimes, the favors may be really simple, requiring only an hour or less of your time. Even though, if such a request comes while we are in the middle of something and we tend to it right away, we incur a heavy cognitive cost while switching between the contexts. This doesn’t mean that we must deny any such requests and not help anyone. It’s just that we need to help and handle ad-hoc requests in a strategic way.

If taking on the ad-hoc requests is indeed a part of our job, we need to frame it in the big picture. How important is this aspect of our job compared to others? What’s the priority? Depending on that, we may need to attend to it right away or set aside some regular time (Fridays or Monday mornings etc.) and let others know. This way, we will be able to work on your other priorities without interruptions the rest of the time.

Also, not all requests are important and/or urgent.  People may come to you, only because it’s easier for them to get that done by you rather than doing it themselves and of course, you always help them. A simple way to protect yourself against such requests is to simply let the requester know that you are tied up with something at that moment and can get to her request at so and so time/day. Or you can tell them that we are busy at the moment and will get back after checking your calendar about when you can get to the request at hand. Often this tactic is enough for the requester to reconsider. This is saying No, without actually saying it. If the task is really important for them and need your help, they will be open to approach you at the time convenient to you. After a few times, they understand the pattern and approach you only when it’s absolutely needed and rightly do not expect immediate attention from you. In many cases, it may not be urgent at all, but oftentimes we succumb to the tendency of jumping right in as soon as we get the request.  We need to define the boundaries for our time and set right expectations for others. Because ultimately, we want to spend our time and energy on things that are important and beneficial to us and also those which we enjoy most. This will go a long way in reducing or even eliminating burnout and stress.



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