Productivity for the Overwhelmed & the Anxious

Productivity for the Overwhelmed & the Anxious

A few years back I was suffering from terrible anxiety which basically made it impossible for me to get anything done.

It was a mix between

  • Fear of wasting time on wrong thing
  • Fear of prioritizing incorrectly
  • Fear of forgetting important tasks
  • the list goes on...

Many of these were valid concerns and while I knew about a few task management systems (GTD, Pomodoro, etc) they had some strict rules (and for good reasons) but not useful when suffering from anxiety and indecision. I had to come up with a system that would work while taking my anxiety into account.

Few things the system had to do:

  1. Let me categorize tasks in order of importance/significance.
  2. Be flexible in case of wrong categorization.
  3. Create a sense of progression.
  4. Let me add new tasks when they pop in my mind during the day.
  5. Create certainty around time spent on each task.



The System

I started with a sheet of paper and writing down a table with four columns/categories.

Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
. . . .

Categories/Columns

  • Immediate tasks are what you feel should be done immediately or by EOD.
  • Important tasks are important and you want to get to ASAP or perhaps by next day.
  • Bonus tasks are nice if you can get to them today.
  • Back burner are tasks you need to get done but they aren't as pressing as other tasks.

First Steps

  • On first day add in all the tasks that are in your head with the priority based on column
  • The order within the column is irrelevant.
  • Strike Out Rule: Once a task is done, strike it out.

Picking a Task

  • Look at the list of tasks and pick the task that appeals to you the most at the moment.
  • Try to pick from Immediate & Important.
  • Do not pick a task from Back burner during the day unless it's really crucial or your guts really tells you to.

Adding new tasks

  • New Task Rule: If new tasks pop up in your head add them to any category EXCEPT Immediate.

At some point you might realize that you are done with the original task but there is follow up work to do. - Strike out the original task (Strike Out Rule) - Treat these new tasks as described in New Task Rule - Keep going through the task list for as long as you can manage.

Timeboxing

  • Divide your time into manageable time slots (try 25 minutes) of work
  • Pick a task, start the timer and start working.
  • After the time is up, take rest for 5-10 minutes.
  • If you have been working for more than three time slots take longer rest if required.

On Task Completion

If the task is completed within the time slot

  • Strike it out (Strike Out Rule) and
  • Relax for rest of the slot or,
  • Pick another task (maybe from Bonus?) you think you can fit within the slot

If time runs out on Task

If the task isn't completed within the slot

  • Continue working on it in next slot or,
  • Pick another task for next slot

Languishing Tasks

Some of the tasks in Immediate might be sitting days for more than a couple of days.

Three Day Rule: At this point, it is important to answer honestly if this task is really as important as you imagined it to be? In such a case, you have two options:

  • It isn't as high in your priority list as you initially imagined it to be and it's time to move it down by at least one category ie., Immediate -> Important -> Bonus -> Back burner.
  • If it is of high priority, you should complete it on the third day. If you still can't get to it on fourth day, you HAVE to move it down a category.

Remember that even if a task is in Important or Bonus, you can still work on it within the same day. The categories are there to help you clarify your thoughts and provide a structure when you need it, they aren't meant to be dictate the order of completion.

Next Day

Next day take a fresh sheet of paper and start filling out the categories with tasks.

  • Tasks from previous day can be in same category as before
  • You can move them to different category if priorities have changed
  • Since you are creating your task list for the day, New Task Rule does not apply. ie., New tasks that pop up while creating the list can go into Immediate category.

Example

Now let's look at an example:

Day 1

At the start of the day I have following set of tasks.

Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
A G D E
C B F H
I M J X
L
K

  • I start working on Task A (Immediate)
  • I complete it by end of my time slot
  • I strike it out (Denoted by Bold & Code style)
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
A G D E
C B F H
I M J X
L
K

  • After my 5 minutes of rest
  • I pick Task K (Important)
  • I complete it with 15 minutes to spare
  • I decide to rest
  • I strike out the completed task
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
A G D E
C B F H
I M J X
L
K

  • I skip the 5 minutes of rest
  • I pick Task F because I want to get it done (Bonus)
  • At some point, I remember that I have to take care of Task Z, I add it to Back burner
  • I complete Task F by the end of slot & I strike it out
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
A G D E
C B F H
I M J X
L Z
K

I can do more tasks but I decide to end the day.

Day 2

I start by taking a look at my list from yesterday and picking out the tasks that are yet to be done.

Yesterday's list

Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
A G D E
C B F H
I M J X
L Z
K

Carry over tasks

Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
G D E
C B H
I M J X
L Z

Now that I have the list of carry over tasks, I can start with creating my task list for the day.


Let's fill in today's tasks

Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
. . . .
  • I feel C & I should go into Immediate
  • Tasks G, B, L should go into Important
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
C G
I B
L

  • Turns out task L & J are no longer pressing, so they go into Back burner
  • A new task R came up and I think it is Important
  • Two more Q & P tasks pop up but they can go into Bonus
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
C G Q L
I B P J
L
R

  • Task Z, which I put on Back burner yesterday, is urgent and now goes into Immediate
  • Back burner tasks E, H & X haven't changed in priority, so they stay put.
Immediate Important Bonus Back burner
C G Q L
I B P J
Z L E
R H
X



Conclusion

I hope you can find some use for this system if not as much as it helped me. There are scientific reasons for why the system works but I will elaborate them on another post.