Remedies for “Too Much On” - Next Action Associates

Looking Out Through Airplane Window

I was on a long plane flight earlier this week, about six hours in the air. While I don’t particularly relish time away from home, I do find that the time I spend on planes is some of the most productive time in my life. On a plane all of my various mobile devices are satisfyingly silent. Without a connection to the internet, no new emails are arriving. No one is walking into my office for a chat. I can focus, undistracted, on whatever I choose to.

I had brought onto the plane quite a bit that I needed to clarify and organize. Those of you who have done a seminar or coaching with us will know the red “In” folder that we give out, a tool for mobile collection of physical “stuff”. Mine was full to overflowing with meeting notes, scraps of paper with random scribbled ideas, receipts from travel, and other reminders of the “open loops” in my life. I also had a fair few unprocessed emails to get through. I was feeling a bit daunted by the volume of it all, and it seemed likely that the in-flight movies were going to have to wait for another trip.

While working on all of this about 30,000 feet over Turkey, I was struck by the kind of thing that David Allen calls a “blinding flash of the obvious”. If I have the sense that I have too much on, there are in essence three possible causes. And, helpfully, GTD offers us three cures.

Cause 1: My Role is Too Big

If time was unlimited and there were no deadlines, none of us would have a problem getting as many things done as we could imagine. In reality, I have yet to meet the person who has more than 24 hours available in any given day. The key question is: can the things I am responsible for be handled in a timeframe I (or the boss) am comfortable with? If not, then I’m in an unsustainable situation and something’s gotta give, whether it be my home life, my sleep hours, or the quality of work I’m able to produce.

But how can I tell whether my role really is too big? The Horizons of Focus model from GTD provides a helpful framework here.

I’d suggest you draft two lists: first, all of the outcomes you’re responsible for. This will include all of the “projects” you have on, no matter how big or small. We define a project as any outcome that takes more than one step to complete, and you’ll complete within the next year or so. This list represents level 1 of the Horizons model.

The second list would be all of the ongoing roles and areas of responsibility you have – this is level 2 of the Horizons model. These aren’t outcomes, as you don’t tick them off as “done” but they do have an impact on the amount you have to do. At work this list might include the day-to-day management of your team members, your own professional development, and ongoing responsibilities for things like client relationships and strategic planning.

Now schedule a meeting with the boss. Armed with the lists, the two of you can consider: is this a realistic inventory of things for one person to be responsible for, within reasonable timeframes? Can certain things be delegated to others? Can the deadlines for any of these things be extended to create more space for other things? Can any of the projects wait until next year? To the extent you reduce or defer the outcomes and areas of responsibility you have, you have the opportunity to make your work world more achievable and realistic.

Cause 2: My ways of Working Aren’t Efficient

If my ways of working aren’t efficient, then maybe I’m approaching a sustainable role in unsustainable ways. The question here is whether I have the sense that I have sources of friction in my working life. Am I having the same thoughts over and over without moving them forward? Am I able to focus, undistracted, on the things I choose to focus on? Does my organizational system remind about the things that I need to or want to do, when it’s helpful to be reminded about them? When I need access to reference material (digital or physical), can I get my hands on it quickly and easily?

This is the area where the core five-phase model of workflow comes into its own. The model provides us with a framework for breaking down and optimising our day-to-day ways of working. Do you have effective ways of collecting things that you might need to do something with or about? Once collected, can you efficiently clarify what they mean for you, and then create appropriate reminders in a trusted organizational system? Are you gaining some perspective by reviewing your world in helpful ways? Do you have confidence that you’re consistently focused on the right things as you make your way through your day?

If you think you have an improvement opportunity here, then grab your copy of Getting Things Done and browse it for inspiration about how to improve your ways of working. You could also come along to one of our seminars, or get in touch with us to arrange some coaching.

Cause 3: I’m Not Focusing Enough Time and Energy on My Work

In my airplane seat over Turkey, I realized that this was the major issue for me. I have the confidence that my ways of working are in good shape and generally allow me to operate in friction-free ways. My roles and responsibilities keep me quite busy, but as I reflect on my own Horizons of Focus they seem sustainable. What I hadn’t done was dedicate enough time to applying the GTD principles to the stuff that had accumulated in my life. During my six undisturbed hours in the air I managed to get my “Ins” to zero and to do a review of my system. As the plane touched down I had the feeling that I was back on top of my game.

If your sense is that it’s been a lack of focused time that’s been the problem, then consider how you might create some space. Have a look at your calendar over the next days and weeks and set up some meetings with yourself. Guard that time jealously. If possible, arrange during those times to be undisturbed, maybe out of the office or perhaps in a meeting room where you’re less likely to face distractions.

Where to Start? What has your Attention?

Of course it’s possible, if you feel that you have too much on, that more than one of these causes may be in play. If that’s the case, pick the one that seems to present the biggest issue for you, and apply the appropriate GTD remedy.

My flight back is tomorrow night. This time I think I’ll watch a movie.

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