By Steve Kane

Check list with two pens on white paper
Check list with two pens on white paper

I’ve recently committed to more short-term responsibilities in and out of work than I should have.  We’ve all be in this situation before, leaving ourselves with insufficient time to meet all the demands we’ve put on ourselves.  I’m in the middle of this situation at the moment and I’m looking for the upside.  What can I learn?

Overburden for more than just a very short period of time will force something to give.  It could be sleep, recreation, personal or family commitments, and even work commitments.  Let it go for too long and it could become disastrous.

Gaining Clarity

I have to focus on getting the right things done and not worry so much about the less important items. This means really scrutinizing all the tasks on my to-do list.  Some need to be done right away, some can be postponed, and some can simply be eliminated.  The items that can be eliminated are most interesting to me at the moment.

Getting the important things done means not doing the unimportant.  As Greg McKeown, Author of Essentialism, put it, “If it isn’t hell yes, then it’s no”— a lesson I seem to have forgotten recently.

Email is a major source of overburden.  I read dozens of emails per day just to discover that I didn’t need to read them.  While this may take only moments to do, it’s still an unnecessary cognitive load.

Email traffic is very heavy for me between 6:00 am and 1:00 pm and pretty much dies after that.  This is also my peak performance time.  Unnecessary or less pressing email can be a major distraction.  I often close my email when I’m trying to focus on other things.  One challenge is that much of my work is in the email itself.

Here are a some things I do to maintain focus

  • Stop reading email that is not “Hell yes” important to me.  Unsubscribe or use rules to auto delete or move lower priority emails out of the inbox.
  • Commit to completing only one high priority task per day.  This is a reduction from the three used to attempt to commit to.  It increases focus on the top priority of the day and leads to greater accomplishment.
  • Stop agreeing to things that do not align with my top priorities and responsibilities.  Again, if I’m given an option and my response isn’t immediately “Hell yes,” then the answer is no.  The more I say no to, the more I can get done.
  • Plan my day every morning and reflect on what is truly important.
  • Stop working on things that don’t help me reach my goals.

Saying no

Saying no to unnecessary commitments can feel uncomfortable.  It can also feel liberating.

  1. Josh Worthley

    February 19, 2016 - 8:46 am

    I turned off new email notifications a long time ago in Outlook to reduce some distractions, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough. Just yesterday I made a revision to my leader standard work to only check new email 4 times throughout the workday but like you, a lot of my work is in my email. Thankfully, Outlook has a “Work Offline” mode to prevent new email from being pulled from the email server. My Plan is to Work Offline except for the times outlined in my LSW; moving to Do on Monday!

  2. Anthony Gomez

    February 20, 2016 - 2:13 pm

    My biggest productivity trick is to not use email as a task manager. Dump the actionable info out into a proper task management tool, then archive or better yet delete the email. Do it immediately while you read it.

    I don’t think outlook is good for this because you are still too close to email. I love Trello for task management.

  3. Tomasz

    February 24, 2016 - 9:22 am

    Great article Steve. I especially like the “If it isn’t hell yes, then it’s no” advise.
    I also stopped using my email as a task manager. Now I am using kanbanflow software and are pretty satisfied with it.

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