4 ways to get more done and feel less overwhelmed

Author: Paul Axtell, Author, Speaker and Corporate Trainer 

I’m fascinated with the idea of accomplishing more while being less stressed. I believe it is possible to be really good—remarkable, in fact—but not unless we think a bit differently and find some new ways of dealing with work and life.

Cal Newport speaks in his book Deep Work about our minds being capable of working for 14 to 16 hours, but only if we change focus after six hours—spending six hours totally engaged at work and then shifting to reading for pleasure or playing bridge.

Understanding when and why I’m at my best is part of the puzzle of being remarkable. This excerpt from David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, captures another idea that forces me to confront whether I am truly focused on what I’m doing in the moment:

“Tell me about exhaustion, I said.

He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation, and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along to say a life-changing thing to me, he said, in the form both of a question and an assertion:

You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?

The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence. “What is it, then?

The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.

He looked at me for a moment, as if I should fill in the blanks. But I was a blank to be filled at that moment, and though I knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the wherewithal to say anything in reply. So he carried on:

You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organisation has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.”

The sentence, “You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while,” reminds me of the downside of multitasking or going through the motions or doing just enough to get by. Instead, choose to treat this moment, this conversation, this activity as though it truly matters.

In other words, being kinda, sorta present isn’t an effective way of being in life. Thoughtfully choosing where to put your attention is powerful and unusual in today’s hectic world. Try this:

1. Choose three things to accomplish each day and let that be your focus:

These may be something that will take 15 minutes or they might require an hour of undivided attention. Make sure they are realistic given your schedule. Meetings and colleagues may pull you away from time to time, but each time you get an opening, return to your top three. The point is, choose three tasks that would give you a true sense of accomplishment for the day. String five consecutive days together and you have a remarkable week.

2. Another way to train yourself to be focused and present is to ask yourself these questions:

  • At the start of the day: What is my focus for today?
  • Throughout the day, look at the situation as though you were an observer: How is it going? Am I doing what I set out to do? What’s in the way?
  • At the end of the day: How did I do? What could I have done differently? Use this knowledge to help you do better tomorrow.


3. Twice each day, choose to free yourself from multitasking and technology:

Multitasking is a myth. Our minds simply jump back and forth between two different tasks—a process that interferes with being mindful about either one. Technology is wonderful, but we must be able to set it aside when being with someone or doing something well is more important.

4. Take breaks:

Put the day on pause. You can’t force concentration, and your mind needs to refresh for a few minutes each hour. Observe and learn about yourself—maybe you can do 40 minutes of deep work or maybe you can do 70. Then take a break and do something different for five to ten minutes. A walk or a conversation with a colleague will refresh you and allow you to return to your task in a more focused way.

None of these ideas are new or earth-shattering. Together, they harmonise and allow you to get more done and feel less stressed. 

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