07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

A Stress-Free Way To Get Things Done

Do you have more to do than you can get done? If so, there's a certain amount of good news there - it means you have something to do! In the past, that was called a job - a job, by definition, is something that needs doing and is almost never finished.

Cleaning the floor is obvious - as soon as you finish cleaning it, dust and dirt begin to accumulate again. Thus, the need for floor cleaning is ongoing and winds up producing jobs.

Got Stress?

In all likelihood, you have a bit more stress than you find desirable. Some stress is good for us, a kind of architectural tension that keeps us upright. Your muscles and bones and ligaments all work in a kind of dynamic tension that keeps things held together.

But that doesn't mean you need to be tense or stressed out about it. In fact, if you can keep yourself exercised, stretched out, and otherwise in a combination of relaxed and energized, you will find you are able to do things in life pretty much stress free and in balance.

The same principle applies in getting things done in your personal and work life. The more dynamic, flexible and fit you are, the more you will be able to get done. Curiously, the more you get done, the less stress you are likely to feel about it all!

The dynamic flexibility we are talking about here is more mental than it is physical. I have worked with all kinds of powerful, intelligent and creative individuals who wind up paralyzed by all the work they have to do. Or more to the point, all the work they aren't getting done.

Pay Attention or Pay With Tension

The game here is one of awareness and focus coupled with doing and not doing.


Years ago, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame and I learned an amazing secret that isn't so secret. The only way to relax at night, on the weekend, or on vacation is to know what it is that you are not doing!

If you think about this one for a minute, you'll undoubtedly get it. Imagine you had a list of all the things that need doing in your life. Now imagine that you read down the list and determine that there isn't anything on the list that demands immediate attention.

If that were the case, you could take the evening, or even the weekend off and just relax.

Another way of looking this: imagine reading down the list and determining that whereas there are some important things there that need doing, none of them is more important than taking your family on a well deserved vacation.

If that were the case, you could probably take the vacation and not worry about what you aren't doing back at the office.

That's because you KNOW what it is that YOU ARE NOT DOING.

However, let's imagine that you are just whacked, exhausted, overwhelmed and otherwise burned out. You know there are all kinds of things that need doing, but you just don't have the energy to address them right now. In fact, you can't even remember what they are.

You just need a break. So you try to take a day off. Or a weekend. Or even just an evening with your husband or wife.

I'm sure you know what comes next. No sooner do you settle in to watch that movie, or enjoy a day at the beach, when your mind starts to remind you of all those things you haven't yet done.

It's trying to do you a favor, that mind of yours. "Hey, what about that proposal?" "Hey, the project team has a big milestone coming up - how are they doing?" Or any of a hundred other things.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Why? Because your mind is a great memory machine. It will remember. You just never know when!

Ever been in the shower when it reminds you of an important call you have been forgetting to make? Thanks, mind! The shower probably isn't the best place to remember, but at least you were reminded!
Or you're driving somewhere and all of those emails that need attending to come flooding in. Another great case of memory colliding with time and location incongruity. With any luck, there won't be a physical collision to go along with the mental one!

Write It Down So You Can Forget About It

If you do have all of your open goals, projects and "to do's" written down someplace, you can simply review the list and determine whether or not anything there has a higher priority than taking care of yourself, handling your daughter's birthday, or just plain relaxing. As soon as you look over the list and determine that you don't need to do any of those things right now, your brain can relax, knowing that you have seen everything and made the strategic decision to relax instead.

If you don't do this kind of review, your mind is going to assume you are in danger of forgetting and will then start reminding you, usually at a most inopportune time.

The notion here is that you have a finite amount of attention that you can apply to getting things done. The more your attention is scattered all over the place - unread email messages, papers stacking up on the desk, sticky notes hanging off your computer, and stray thoughts running around loose in your head because they aren't tracked anywhere - the more you are likely to live in a state of building tension.

So, pay attention to where you have your attention and start tracking that stuff. Notice I didn't say pay attention to where you have your attention and get it all done. Nope. Just track it! If you can track it and make conscious choices about what to do, and perhaps more importantly, what NOT to do, you will find yourself beginning to relax, even in the midst of a very busy life.

Next week, we will look more closely at a couple of simple organizing concepts that can help you keep track of what you have on your plate so you can both relax and get things done.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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