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Caroline L. Arnold Headshot

How to Kill the Backlog -- Forever!

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Stacks of unopened mail, a bedroom chair covered with discarded clothes, piles to file, an endless to-do list, a maxed out credit card and that five pounds you've been trying to lose forever -- life's backlogs are a major cause of stress, eating away at our sense of well-being, hampering our productivity and casting a shadow over our free time so that it never really feels "free." Some weekend soon, we tell ourselves, we will finally catch up and be able to live in the present moment. One day, someday, we will get it together, vanquish our backlogs and live fit, neat and organized.

Fuhgeddaboudit! You could spend hours of weekend time attacking those backlogs, and it wouldn't make a difference for more than a few weeks (remember the last time you cleaned off your desk, organized your drawers or went on a crash diet?). Your problem isn't finding time to clear your backlog, your problem is building behaviors to manage your pipeline. When you focus on a backlog, you're working the symptom instead of targeting the cause, looking backward instead of forward.

So try a different approach: Just forget about catching up and focus on the present moment. Because you don't really need to catch up, you simply need to catch on to the personal behaviors that invisibly build backlogs. Backlogs sneak up on us -- we don't wake up 10 pounds overweight, we wake up one quarter ounce overweight, and if the trend continues, a pound overweight two months later. Our overflowing inbox creeps up one razor-thin paper at a time. Our relationship sours not over one big fight, but over unresolved frictions that become grudges -- old business that that threatens our happiness in the present moment. But the good news is that the same invisible habits that quietly create backlogs can be converted, one or two at a time, to equally mindless behaviors that keep pipelines moving and backlogs from forming.

Let's take backlogged mail as an example. You might have a shopping bag full of mail, but unless you saw a scary notice from the IRS or your mortgage lender, there's probably nothing in that bag that's as urgent as what's coming in the door. If you can succeed at three microresolutions to manage incoming mail, you'll effectively freeze your backlog and stay on top of what's new:

  1. Resolve to discard all junk mail before bringing in the post. (There goes three quarters of the pile.)
  2. Resolve to address routine mail on a specific time and day each week. (Honestly, you can do it while watching American Idol.)
  3. Resolve to handle non-routine responses on a specific day and time each month.

Once you get on top of your mail pipeline, the backlog in the shopping bag can be fed by handfuls into the weekly process (where you'll find that most of it has turned into yesterday's news).

It sounds simple, but following through with any one of these mail resolutions requires concentration and four to six weeks of practice to stick. Building a new habit means repeating a behavior faithfully until it becomes an established pattern, part of your personal autopilot. The behavior you target must be practiced rigorously -- a vague resolution to do something "once a week," will have you deciding every day whether or not "today is the day," and that's exactly how we defer ourselves into backlogs.

Every conscious deferral you make is a decision and decision-making is an expensive mental activity (see Vohs, et al). Decision-making, active initiative, and willpower are all part of the same limited neurological store, and tapping any of these resources depletes the availability of all three. Every time you ask yourself to decide (Will I or won't I? Today or tomorrow?), you chip away at your willpower and hasten the collapse of your resolution.

Habits are the opposite of decisions -- a habit is something you perform without conscious intent, like wiping your feet when you come in or finding your way home every night. Habits manage your daily routine and conserve mental energy for the day's big challenges. The paradox of habit building is that you must be hyper mindful (relentlessly and consciously practicing a particular behavior) in order to achieve mindlessness (a habit so automatic that it requires no conscious intent).

Eliminating life's other backlogs can be approached in the same way as in our mail example, by nailing a pivotal behavioral change that promotes here-and-now management. The general principle is that focusing on the present will take care of the past and that today is more important than yesterday. Here are a few microresolution examples to get you thinking:

  • Organization: If you resolve to handle within the workday any task that requires less than two minutes, you'll keep simple items from forming a backlog, manage your time more precisely, and spotlight big-ticket items by clearing noise from your priority list.
  • Weight Control: If you're gaining weight at the rate of two pounds a year, when you resolve to eliminate 50 calories a day from your diet you will halt scale creep (freeze that backlog!), and eliminating 50 calories more will lose you five pounds over three years (2.5 year one). To make the calorie reduction mindless, it must be specific and repeatable daily, such as eating one less piece of toast at breakfast or giving up food sampling while cooking dinner.
  • Clutter: If your weekend often includes a mind-numbing session of hanging up (now very wrinkled) clothing, you might resolve to hang up your coat immediately when you come home. After I did this for months without fail, my other clothes began finding their way automatically onto hangers, following the autopilot pattern I had established with the coat.
  • Relationships: You can give your love relationship an instant boost if you resolve to stop hassling your partner about a particular issue (yes, give it up, just like that!). If "she" comes home late some Friday nights after drinks with friends, why not just get on board with it, rather than holding a grudge until the next weekend (when it might happen again). If "he" leaves the toilet seat up, is it really worth the nagging? You won't believe the good will you'll create when you surprise your partner with a smile instead of a glare, and you'll feel lighter after dropping some emotional baggage (i.e., backlog).

There is no magic bullet to kill off all your backlogs at once, if there were you would have already fired it. But there's plenty of magic -- greater productivity, reduced feelings of stress, a measure more of happiness -- in mastering the present moment. Today's the day!

Read more about how microresolutions can reshape your life in Small Move, Big Change (Viking, 2014).

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