No matter who you are, or what you do, there will be times when your thoughts will feel scattered. Too many ideas, competing for too little time. Your thoughts simply go around and around and you can’t seem to choose any one item on which to focus. I call this painful state — “the stall.” You are so overwhelmed with it all that you stop — dead in your tracks. Your anxiety rises as your productivity falls until it seems you will never escape.
How do I know so much about the stall? Well, it was what I was experiencing right before I started writing this column. As you already know, real life has a way of intruding on our work and I am no exception. In fact, since I have so many differing aspects to my work — computer consulting, writing, volunteer projects — it seems to be a regular occurrence. The more you do, the more life will intrude. This week my parents are in town on their yearly visit and I am sitting at my son’s baseball game as I write. Too many things pulling me in too many directions. There is a way to breakthrough the stall, though and the fact that you are reading this column at all shows that I found a couple of methods to do just that.
When you are stalled it is not important what you do. You simply need to do something. If you want to get moving again, you have to choose one task, no matter how mundane and do it. Sometimes I find it best to pick a task totally at random from my to-do list. Worrying about priorities and deadlines can just lead you deeper in the stall. I don’t care if your random choice happens to be “clean out the cat litter,” — don’t think about it, just get up and do it. Once you complete this first task, you will find that the momentum will keep building. Maybe you will choose another random task. You might even find that your thinking has started to clear and you know exactly what you should work on next. Just like getting a car out of a snow bank, once you get the car moving, keeping it moving gets easier and easier.
Make a list
While sometimes we are hit with the stall because we have too much to do, it can also happen when we don’t know enough about what we need to do. As a devotee of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, it has been made clear to me that if we don’t have a handle on everything we need to do we can also end up stuck. We can get lost in worry that, no matter what we might be doing now, there is something more important that we have forgotten.
One of Allen’s central premises is that of gathering all your “open loops” into one, central trusted location, so you can feel reasonably secure that you know everything you could be doing at any time. Of course, when I recommend this to those who come seeking advice, I often see panic in their eyes when I suggest they try to collect every single item they need to do. They say, “What? If I gather up everything I need to do I’ll just be more stressed. There’s too much. I’ll be more stalled than when I started.”
I can tell you from personal experience, though, that once you have collected everything you should be doing, you will feel better. It may sound counterintuitive, but much of the stress generating by too much to do in too little time is caused by being unsure of exactly what you have to do. If you know everything you could be doing at any point in time, you are in a better position to logically and rationally select the best thing to be doing. Then you’ll be able to pull one task from the list and get to work.
There will be times, though, when none of this works. You have chosen randomly, you have listed everything, but still the anxiety and guilt of the stall will eat away at you. In these crisis times, the best thing you can do is give in. Take the stall as an indication that you are at your breaking point and simply stop trying to force your work…at least for a short time. Get a cup of coffee. Listen to some music. Go for a long walk. Whatever it takes to get away from the pressure. You can’t do this forever, of course. Eventually, you will need to re-engage with your work, but you will come back to the task refreshed and better equipped to face the work.
Don’t let the stall get in the way of your work. Randomly chose work until you can gain enough momentum to keep moving. Get a better grip on everything you need to do. Take some time away. Use these tools to get you out of the stall, keep your work on track and your career moving in the right direction.