THE BLOG
12/05/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Focus When There Seems To Be A Million Things On Your Plate

This post originally appeared on BrandMentalist.com

Are you feeling overwhelmed with all the work that you've got to do?

There seems to be a million different things that need to be done. We feel overwhelmed and out of control because we don't know where to start. Should I start with project A? What about project B and C that need to be done as well?

We all know that focus is incredibly important to productivity. But it's almost impossible to be working on just one thing and one task in a given month or week or even just day.

From being a student to a professional working in the corporate world or a freelancer, you will find that there's no difference in juggling tasks. Some of us are better than others. As a scatterbrain, I suffer even more.

Here's what I've learned from the past twenty years in how to reshape my focus when working on several things at once.

1. Create a to-do list

Create a list of everything that you need to do -- both major and minor tasks -- and the time required to finish each task.

Type or write it all down on a Google Doc, on your phone's Note app, on a white board, or on a notepad.

2. Prioritize tasks

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After writing it all down, you might feel a little less overwhelmed as you feel more in control of what needs to get done.

Now you need to reassess what to focus on -- where to pay most attention to and pour your energy towards.

This can be complicated when you feel like everything requires the same amount of attention and energy, everything needs to be done at the same time -- and then you just panic.

Use this matrix below to help you prioritise tasks.

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Urgency:
  • What is the deadline for each task?
  • Which one needs to be finished first?
Importance:
  • How important is the task? What would happen if the task is not done in time?
  • What is the effect that the task will have on the other or consequential tasks?
  • Is there any other thing that relies on this task to be done first? Is it absolutely crucial for you to do because otherwise the other tasks can't be done?
  • If the task is left unfinished, uncompleted, incomplete, or done poorly, how is it going to affect you and what's the cost of that?
  • What is the opportunity cost? If you spend your time on A and not B, what will it cost you? What will you miss out on?
  • Can you assign someone else to do the task for you?

After evaluating all the tasks based on these factors, you will know what to prioritise -- what task you should do first, what you should do right after, what you should reschedule, what you should delegate, and what you may cut out completely if possible.

3. Schedule and allocate time for each task

This is what I did best when I was a student. Because I was able to effectively and efficiently allocate time, I finished all my studies and did really well in the exams. My close friends even relied on me to help with scheduling. So why not bring this childhood trick and skill into adulthood right?

Grab a calendar, either on your phone or a notepad, and start allocating time throughout the day. I plan my schedule week by week. Sometimes two weeks at a time. I normally do this on Sunday so I can fully focus and get right into it from Monday through to Friday.

This is what my calendar normally looks like.

8 -9 : Write a blog post

9 - 10 : Meeting with Mr. B

10 - 12 : Work on Task A

12 - 1 : Lunch break

1 -3 : Work on Task E

3 -4 : Gym

4 -6 : Work on Task D

6- 6.30 : Finalise and send off Task D to client

Make sure you stick to your schedule.

If you've spent too much time on one task or got distracted at one point and it affects the rest of your schedule and plan, re-schedule and move everything back a few hours as required.

There's no need to stress. Just go to bed late for a couple of nights and you'll catch up on work.

4. Get in the zone

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  • Disconnect and go offline

When working on a task that doesn't require an internet connection, go offline. Social media, email pop-ups, and SMS can distract you more than you may think. You eyes will keep wandering off every ten minutes. Pretty photos, interesting articles, text messages from your partner, emails from unhappy clients -- all these can affect your mood and emotions which affect your ability to focus.

  • Find your sanctuary

If you don't have a fixed desk at an office, find a cafe or a place where you can go to for a few hours and really focus without any distraction or interruption -- if could be a cafe, a library, or a corner in your house.

  • Block out noise

Some people can work with music in the background. But for me it's best to be in a quiet place where I don't hear the lyrics repeating itself in my head or overhear the conversation of the people sitting in the vicinity. I use noise-cancelling in-ear headphones to block out noise and distraction. Even in a library, sometimes people talk and it's very annoying and distracting!

5. Optimize your time

There are a lot of inevitable activities that waste your time in your daily life -- from commuting, to running errands, and everyday routines.

Time is a limited resource so I try to optimise my time as much as possible and make use of the inevitable wasted time.

  • Commute time
We have to commute -- everyday -- either by bus, train, or foot. I find commute time to be one of the best to focus because no one is trying to talk to me and I can't do anything else but to do some work.

Use the morning commute time to read the news or websites related to your industry for inspiration and knowledge.

Smart phones and light laptops now make it easy for us to do work on the go. I always find myself reading work-related stuff while waiting for the train or the bus, getting my laptop out to do work when on a 30-minute train ride, and writing things down while power walking home from work.

  • Waiting time
Waiting time is annoying but inevitable -- from waiting for the bus or the train, to waiting for coffee or food, waiting for a friend or a colleague who's late, being stuck in traffic, and queueing at the bank or the post office. It is usually short (5-15 minutes) and not long enough to let you do work that requires a lot of focus and a long thinking process.

I use this period to do a little brainstorming or research. Just take out my phone and reply some emails and do some reading and browsing -- whether it be on websites, Flipboard, Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook. Sometimes I use this period to reschedule or plan my day/week and think about the little things that I need to do  -- the little tasks I need to add to my to-do list and my calendar, the things I need to buy, and people I need to call or email.

Believe it or not but I usually find that my best creative work gets inspired on the spur of the moment during my commuting or waiting time.

6. Keep track of each task

Once you've allocated time for each task, make sure you stick to it and that each task is on schedule. If one is left undone, re-arrange your schedule again and make sure you catch up on it as soon as possible to avoid procrastination or postponing.

7. Reap a habit

Finally, it might sound quite easy to do but incredibly hard to follow through. Starting a new habit is hard but repeatedly you will reap a habit. Over and over you will be able to prioritise your tasks, focus, and maximise your productivity without feeling confused, burnt out, or tortured.

The mind has a memory and it subconsciously recognises patterns. Only if you understand The trick to manipulate your own mind, you'll realize that it's not hard to do or achieve anything that you set your mind to.

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Mo is the owner of the famous inspirational blog - BrandMentalist.com. She also runs an online store selling inspirational quote posters on BrandMentalistCollection.com.

Follow her on Twitter @BrandMentalist and Instagram @BrandMentalist.

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