Are you overwhelmed? It seems like almost everyone I know feels like there is too much on their plate or there just isn't enough time to get everything done — at least not done well. I used to think that if I could just be more productive, I could handle it all, but what I've learned is that is just not true. We all have a limit —there is a finite amount of time in the day and I only have a finite amount of energy. If there is truly too much, something has to give.
You may feel like nothing on your to-do list can be delayed, delegated or deleted, but I think that most of us don't even know what all is on our list. The general feeling of overwhelm follows us around because of the sheer amount of things we need to do but also because of the things we fear we have forgotten or are spending energy trying to remember. If you could free your mind of trying to keep track of your to-dos, you would have more bandwidth to "do the stuff." This is where a brain dump comes into play. You can get it all out of your head and then organize it into a trusted system. Here's an easy brain dump how-to that you can use for personal or professional purposes or feel free to do both at once.
1. Write everything down
The supplies you need for this step are blank, lined notepad and a writing utensil. Set a timer for no more than 15 minutes and then begin writing anything you can think of that you need to do, want to do, or even ideas that have been floating around in your head. Write one thing on each line. Some of what you write down will be projects or categories and others will be actual tasks, don't worry about differentiating, just write everything you can think of. The timer is just to give you a sense of urgency and create focus, it's not to limit you on getting everything out of your head and onto paper. So if the timer goes off and you have more to write, keep at it!
2. Transfer all notes to your "dump" list
If you're like me, you take notes in meetings, while on the phone, and when you randomly think of something. These notes could be in a journal or notebook, on a scrap of paper or sticky note, or even in a note taking app on your phone or computer. It's likely that you have notes in multiple places which makes it hard to know what all you really need to do!
In this step you are going to gather all your notes and transfer any tasks onto your master "dump" list. Try to quickly scan each note rather than re-reading everything. If after you've transferred the to-do, you don't feel like you need to keep that note, draw a big X on the page so when you are all done, you know that it's ok to throw away.
If you've never done this process before you could have a lot of notes to go through! I suggest making a judgement call here that anything older than a certain time frame is either no longer relevant or probably has cropped up again in more recent notes. This means you simply choose not to look through those older notes, but since you actively chose to do that, you can release that from the things in the back of your mind to worry about. If you feel it's necessary you could archive those old notes "just in case."
As you are working through this, a note may job your memory for another project or task you hadn't written down. That's a good thing, you are truly emptying your head! Just add anything else that comes to mind to your master list.
Depending on the amount of notes you have, you may want to use the Pomodoro technique in this step so you don't get burnt out. Work for a set amount of time and then take a small break where you get up and move around, and then go back to work.
3. Organize and categorize
By now, you should be feeling much lighter because everything is out of your head and onto one giant list. Don't feel overwhelmed by the size of your list because now you're going to make it manageable.
Review each item on your "dump" list, and if it's a project or category mark it with a star. A project is something that requires multiple tasks to complete and a category is a way to group like tasks together. An example of a project is "Plan Spring Break trip" and an example of a category is "Phonecalls."
After you've gotten through the whole list, you can continue in one of two ways — 1) Continue using a notepad or 2) Use blank sticky notes. I'm going to explain how to do this using both methods, so read through both options before you decide what works best for you.
1) Continue using a notepad.
Write each item you starred on the top of a separate piece of paper. Spread the papers out on a clear surface. Then go through your list and add each task to the appropriate project or category. If you get to a task that doesn't have a project or category, either create a new sheet with a new heading or if it's a standalone task, add it to a sheet titled "miscellaneous." As you add tasks to project sheets, mark them off the original list. If you run across a duplicate, just mark it off as well. Continue until every task has been transferred.
2) Use blank sticky notes
Write each item you starred on a separate sticky note and stick to a large empty table or counter, or better yet, a blank wall. Then go through your list and write each task on it's own sticky note and stick under the appropriate category. If you get to a task that doesn't have a project or category, either create a new sticky note for that project, or if it's a standalone task, add it to a "miscellaneous" category. As you add tasks to project sheets, mark them off the original list. If you run across a duplicate, just mark it off as well. Continue until every task has been transferred. The beauty of using sticky notes is that it's easy to move a task from one project to another if you change your mind about how you'd like to categorize.
4. Defer, delegate, and delete
Now that you can physically see all the projects, and tasks that you have on your plate, it's time to get rid of, or delete, some of them! Scan each project/category for items that are no longer needed or relevant, and mark them out (notepad method) or wad up and throw away (sticky note method.)
Review remaining tasks for things that someone else can do. You may have taken on a task because you felt obligated or thought you were being helpful, but if you continue to add to your responsibilities you won't be able to complete even your required tasks. If YOU don't have to be the one to complete a task, consider who could help you, or even do it better than you. Once you have successfully delegated a task to someone else, mark it off your list!
Finally, look through what's left and select the projects and tasks that can be pushed to the back burner. I have a "someday/maybe" category that I store these deferred tasks in. I review these periodically to determine if any should become active again.
5. Enter remaining tasks into a trusted system
Now that you have a somewhat more manageable list to work with, you should enter what you've chosen to keep on your list into a trusted system. If you already have a task management system, make sure to review what's already included, and mark off the ones that are completed or no longer relevant before you begin adding new projects and tasks. If you haven't chosen your preferred task management system, you have a lot of options! You can use a simple notebook, a color coded binder, or you can go with an electronic option. In past posts I've talked about a few of my favorite digital options including Nozbe and Trello.
Regardless what you choose, make sure you can easily prioritize and assign due dates to tasks if needed. Once you've gotten to this step, maintaining your system is critical. Make sure to add ALL tasks to your system so you don't have to go through this entire process again! You should review your system daily so that you are always in tune with what your next action should be on each project.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!