How to prioritize your time, energy, and to-do list with a set of simple questions
One of the most consistent questions I’ve been asked over the last eight months is, “With so much change, how do I handle everything?”
“Everything” may include adding the title of teacher to your list of daily responsibilities. Or perhaps it’s simultaneously managing on-site and virtual relationships. Or, balancing the nuances of being both married and home-office coworkers with your spouse for the first time.
Regardless of the specifics, we can all agree that what is required of us has changed and grown. And yes, different strategies are needed to meet the increased demands we are facing today.
The problem is we focus on finding strategies to help us manage it all without considering if it all actually has to be managed.
Clarifying these two questions is critical because your brain isn’t naturally designed to distinguish between the two under stress.
In fact, the more stressed you feel, especially when that stress is experienced for long periods, the more your body attempts to meet the stress demands by pumping additional cortisol reserves into your system. Cortisol alters your neurological and physiological functioning, priming your body and attention to stay on high alert. You may feel this physically by tense muscles, and emotionally by heightened levels of irritation and lowered levels of patience. As a result, even the smallest things trigger an outsized reaction as your cortisol loaded brain responds by amplifying the significance of the threat while simultaneously awfulizing the negative consequences if it is left addressed.
In a life or death situation, this is ideal, but in everyday environments, not so much. The unintended consequence is that your brain struggles to apply a sense of proportionality to experiences making it difficult to distinguish meaningless and mundane events from the urgent and important.
As a result, EVERYTHING appears to require your immediate attention and best efforts.
For example, when stress runs high and energy runs low your brain may treat your kids instance on wearing their Halloween custom to virtual school (even though it’s not Halloween), with the same urgency as needing to follow up with your insurance agent to understand changes to your health plan and what that means in the time of COVID.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, it’s because your natural response is to dig in and try to do it all. Chances are even higher that this approach has left you feeling both exhausted and perpetually locked in a cycle of never ending overwhelm.
Breaking that cycle requires acknowledging that both time and energy are finite resources. Therefore a strategy will be most useful if it helps you focus on regulating your energy and maximizing your time. This approach is the difference between feeling like you need to manage it all and determining what in fact, needs to be managed.
The next time it feels like the world’s to-do list is smothering you, try practicing the 7×7 Rule in response to overwhelm. Ask yourself these seven questions:
Will this matter in: 7 years, 7 months, 7 weeks, 7 days, 7 hours, 7 minutes, 7 seconds from now?
Does simply asking these questions solve the problem? No.
Does it cross things off your list? No.
What it does is help you put things into perspective, differentiate the meaningful from meaningless, prioritize where to put your time, attention, and how much emotional energy to give. These provide the clarity on what to take action on first.
The “Rule” of this strategy is not to give more time or energy than the amount of time it will matter. In other words, if it won’t matter in a week from now, don’t treat it as something that will matter seven months from now.
Your child wanting to wear their Halloween costume probably won’t matter in seven seconds from now because chances are they aren’t the only one. Let this one go – low energy input, low time input.
Ensuring you have the right health insurance – a much more important spend of time and energy.
Some situations, conversations, reactions, and decisions will have a lasting impact, so divert your best resource to those situations. This is not to say that small things shouldn’t bother you or aren’t worth reflecting on. They absolutely are, and you should use your emotional reactions as information to assess why that situation impacted you the way it did…and then respond in an equally measured way.
Not only is the Rule of 7×7 helpful in the moment, it is a skillful way to keep yourself in-check while preparing for a high pressure situation. This is especially powerful if you are a perfectionist. Sometimes good enough is actually good enough!
It is also a more structed way to reflect on stressful situations, particularlyif you have one of those critical brains that love to analyze your reactions to the day’s events just as your head hits the pillow.
I still don’t have the answer to how to do everything, and unfortunately, I don’t think that answer is out there. Instead, shift your question’s focus to ask yourself how you can use your time and energy the best way today.
Why it’s time you put the “push through” mindset away.
If you are one of those people who can get focused quickly and maintain concentration even while distractions are competing for your attention, this article may not be for you.
If you are great at proactively scheduling breaks into your calendar and taking those breaks throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing.
If on the other hand, you find your legs going numb from sitting too long, your eyes crossing from staring at your screen and you’ve moved your coffee maker onto your desk to save getting up throughout the day. And still find yourself exhausted and somehow further behind on your most crucial work, then this article is definitely for you.
Before COVID-19, the research arm of my company, BrainAMPED, uncovered some interesting data. We found that leaders who proactively build breaks into their day (and took them), self-assessed themselves as being more focused throughout the day, less tired at the end of the workday, and in the case of having a partner at home, felt more present with them outside of work hours.
None of that was surprising. The data on working in 90-minutes cycles followed by a break is well documented. What was most surprising was that the difference between leaders who were scored as being “good” and those being “great” by their manager, direct reports, and their partners at home, wasn’t dependent on the quantity or length of breaks. Instead, it was much more connected to the quality of the breakstaken throughout the day.
Our research shows that high quality breaks consistently have five key elements. I’ve organized them into an easy to remember mnemonic, we call them P.O.W.E.R. breaks. These are short (typically 5 minutes at the low end and an thirty minutes at the high end), reset breaks taken throughout the workday.
Let’s look at the key elements of a P.O.W.E.R. break:
P: Proactive Pause
By far, the biggest difference between those that took breaks throughout the day and those who didn’t was if they proactively scheduled them and diligently worked to keep them free, even when a request came in that would overlap.
When asked why people don’t take breaks throughout the day, even when they knew they are helpful, the most consistent answer was, “because I was too busy.” This is all a matter of brain science. The longer you work, the less time it will feel like you have to take a break. This is because your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), the part of your brain that helps you keep things in perspective, fatigues when constantly engaged – and is less able to recognize when a break would be most beneficial.
The second key piece is that it is a “Pause.” This means you “pause” doing work. If you schedule a 15-minute break following two meetings and you fill that time checking email, you have proactively scheduled a work execution break – not a pause break. The goal is to give that hard-working PFC a break allowing it to function best and therefore serve you best.
This element is about consciously slowing and deepening your breath to oxygenate your brain and body. If you’ve worked with me before, you know that “Oxygenate” is a part of many strategies.
The reason for this is simple – it is necessary. For many of you, much of the day feels fast-paced, pressure-filled and demanding. This stress kicks in the ‘fight-flight’ system resulting in quick, shallow breathing.
Slowing down and deepening your breath activates your vagus nerve. This nerve bundle is critical to turning off the ‘flight-flight’ stress response system. It instead activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.
To build this into your reset break, take a minute or two and just focus on taking some slow breaths. When done throughout the day people report lower frequency of headaches, less muscle tension and more energy.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, one of the biggest contributors to dehydration is immobility. When you are sitting most of the day away, water delivery to the cells is slowed which in turn decreases the flow of waste particles out of those cells – dehydrating the system and increasing the feeling of fatigue.
This is often further exacerbated by attempting to get that ‘second wind’ by replacing a glass of water with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to further dehydrate you.
But it’s not just that you feel tired. Because your brain functions via electrical impulses between synapses, the brain requires water to serve as the conduit. When you are dehydrated the connection between these synapses slows down impacting on your ability to concentrate and think in a nimble way.
Simply adding in more water throughout the day will have a huge impact on energy, focus and attention.
If your initial reaction is, “I don’t have time to exercise in the middle of the day!” rest assured, I am not suggesting that. In the context of a P.O.W.E.R. break, think of exercise as simply standing up, extending your limbs – moving your body.
However, if you want to amplify the impact of your breaks, add in some actual exercise that will increase your heart rate such as brisk walk. There is a reason people often say “I’m going for a walk to clear my head.” It is because the brain is optimized when we move. Focus on adding additional movement to your day, especially if you attend a lot of virtual meetings (because you don’t even need to walk to those ones!).
Now that you’ve proactively disengaged from work, taken some breaths, sipped some water, and moved your body, now it’s time to get back to work. Before diving back in, use that now rested PFC to re-evaluate your approach in terms of time, energy and attention. .
This can be done by asking some simple questions such as, is this a priority? Would a phone call be a better option? Who should I engage in this decision or communicate my decision to? Is this the most impactful work you could be doing at the moment? Is there a better way?
Who hasn’t finished a day and wondered where the day went and what was actually accomplished.
When busy, most people become reactive focusing on the moment. As a result, they end up prioritizing answer emails and focusing on low value, easy-to-complete tasks. This is inevitably at the cost of high-impact, high value, strategic work. A rested brain will question your choices, a tired brain will not.
The P.O.W.E.R. break strategy is simple. Executing on it may not be easy. Your day will fill up and it will feel like you don’t have time. Remember, these are exactly the times you need a break the most.
my computer, you’ll find a folder called “File of Funnies.”
is what the actual file is called. As you might expect, this is where I keep
videos, pictures, memes, stories, and basically anything that I find funny.
Some are just for me and others I share.
you have ever been in one of my audiences, you know that I love to use a funny
video, first to make people smile but also because I believe that when we
laugh, we let the learning in.
turns out the science would back this up. Laughter raises our overall
Increasing perspective and creativity.
Decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Triggering the release of endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good chemicals.
In fact, my research on exceptional leaders and what differentiates the people that experience higher levels of Leadership Vitality versus Leadership Fatigue, (appropriate) humor and laughter are consistent contributors.
This makes sense as laughter inspires hope, it strengthens relationships, it is grounding in the midst of chaos, and it can lessen our burdens, even if only for a short time.
I’ve seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful. ~Bob Hope
I have been filling up my “File of Funnies” lately, not just because there is a lot of funny things being shared, but because with the accumulating impact of social isolating, I need to go into the file a little more often.
Every time I scroll through, I am reminded never to underestimate the power of humor.
How to stop to them from filling your day and draining your energy
I once read a story of a college professor who
became stranded in the desert after Google Maps directed him to turn left –
onto a non-existent road. He obediently followed and ended up stuck; for 11
days. This was a professor! I’m guessing that those reading this are thinking,
You’d never do that, right?
Maybe not with Google Maps, but what about meetings?
Have you ever blindly accepted a meeting invite?
At the start of a workshop a couple of years ago, I
opened by asking what had brought the attendees there that morning. One woman
joked “my calendar!”, which was followed by knowing laughs from her colleagues.
Following a hunch, I asked how many other people had automatically accepted the
meeting invite to be there that morning. Hesitantly, nearly half of the people
put up their hands.
Much like the professor who blindly followed the
Google Maps directions, these intelligent, busy, senior leaders automatically
accepted a two-hour meeting invitation simply because it was in their inbox. This
example isn’t an isolated incident.
Excessive meetings are consistently named as one of
the most prominent organizational vitality drainers. Studies suggest as high
as 73% of
people say that they attend too many meetings too often.
In our research at BrainAMPED, we have found that
there are two primary reasons people automatically accept meetings.
Or secondly, they feel they don’t
have the time to make a different choiceat
the moment, so they default to automatically accepting the meeting. Put another
way, people believe that it would take too much time and effort to decline or
negotiate their attendance, so they make the most straightforward choice available at that moment,
which means simply saying yes.
Though understandable, each of these tendencies will
leave you spinning in a self-created, negatively reinforcing meeting vortex.
More meetings leave you with less time. Less time leaves you feeling like you
have less choice. Less choice and less time will drive you to automatically
accept more meetings – spin and spin.
So how do you ensure you don’t
get stranded in the meeting desert even when your calendar is trying to divert
you that way? Here are two strategies to break out of the meeting
When you feel like you don’t have a choice, turn on your high beams.
Typically, your car’s automatic daytime running
lights are designed to show the objects on the road in front of you. When you
turn on your high beams, it illuminates the objects around you.
Depending on your company culture or role, there are
undeniably specific meetings that you are expected to attend. That is the road
in front of you.
However, what possibilities on the periphery do you
have some discretion to make decisions around? If declining a meeting isn’t an
option, then take control of how you manage your energy, actions, and time
around those meetings.
Perhaps, you go in and block the hour following a
group of back-to-back meetings. This predetermined time block ensures you can
address follow-ups while things are fresh in your mind. Or maybe you pre-plan
some portable snacks to take to meetings to keep your energy up.
I like to put my favorite kickboxing class on my
calendar at the end of a day filled with meetings. This commitment forces me to
leave my work and helps me clear my mind. I am always more efficient the
following day or if need be, later that evening, if something urgently needs to
Push back on the feelings of
meeting overwhelm by turning on your high beams to see where you can take
deliberate control of your choices around future meetings.
When you feel like it’s easier just to accept, create a fork in the road.
This strategy is meant to force you to slow down,
analyze the terrain ahead, and make a thoughtful choice before automatically
accepting a meeting invite.
The decision fork is derived by asking yourself a
series of questions before accepting the meeting. Examples of the ones we use
at BrainAMPED when helping our clients deal with meeting depletion include:
Are you clear on the purpose and what is expected of you in this meeting?
Do you have the physical time and energy to be fully present and effectively contribute?
How will attending this meeting impact on your productivity and critical priorities?
The goal of the
first question is to help you take personal accountability in collecting
Too often, people complain about meetings without
taking action to change them.If you don’t have these necessary details,
graciously ask for them before accepting it.
Remember, the meeting organizer has included you;
assume they see you as a valued attendee. In your request for details,
acknowledge that and let them know that your questions are to ensure you can
contribute best to the success of their meeting.
The goal of the
second question is to push you to be proactive with your time and energy
Take a step back and look at where this meeting
falls within your calendar. Consider both that day of the meeting and perhaps
that entire week. How many meetings do you have?
For example, maybe you need to let a meeting
organizer know that you are in back-to-back meetings in different locations, so
you will be late or may need to leave early. This clarification can help them
proactively adjust the agenda so that you can still contribute or be present
for decisions critical to your work.
I often choose a different location to take a
conference call to decrease distractions. Challenging yourself with these
considerations motivates you to manage your time and energy.
The goal of the
third question is to help you to think about goals and workflow more
If the answers to these questions suggest that your
attendance isn’t ideal from a business perspective, now you have a thoughtful
conversation template to have with the appropriate people.
And if it turns out you still need to attend, go
back to strategy number one and turn on your high beams.
Reframe the first part of the question to “What can
I do to ensure”…I am clear, I have the time, and it has the best
impact possible on my productivity and priorities. You will be surprised how
creative you can be when you make intentional decisions.
Whether Google Maps or meeting invites, you always
have some choice, so double-check before proceeding. It will surely help ensure
you don’t end up stuck somewhere you shouldn’t be!
After a particularly exhausting Friday which consisted of back-to-back meetings, I resentfully looked at the following week only to realize a glaringly obvious problem—it was just as busy.
The most frustrating part of my predicament was that I was following the sage productivity advice. Looking at my calendar, you would see that it was beautifully color-coded with blocks for meetings, exercise, design/writing, email-checking, personal appointments, coaching calls, reflection, and reminders, all snuggly nestled around my travel and speaking schedule.
It was very pretty to look at, unfortunately, I still felt like I was chasing the carrot I could never catch as the fulfilling parts of life felt just out of reach.
What was clear was that although spots in my calendar were filled up with priorities, there was no space in my brain or energy in my body to effectively carry them all out. Instead I just felt perpetually overscheduled and fried by the end of the week.
At around the same time, my speaking schedule was getting busier, so I invested in an online scheduling platform to work with my calendar and automate my bookings and meetings. To begin using the platform, I had to set specific scheduling parameters such as when my workday began, how long meetings would run, or how many meetings a day.
Coming up with these guidelines was easy as I had been trying to follow these for the past year. The challenge was that I’d had little sustained success. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what I need: a system to make the decision for me!”
A few of my scheduling boundaries included:
· A pre-set maximum number of meetings a day
· 40-minutes blocked for lunch
· Meetings would default to 45-minutes versus the standard 60-minutes
· A 15-minute buffer between meetings
As a researcher, I monitored the changes, charting the day-by-day impact (yes, I love data and am a geek for trends). Immediately, I noticed an amazing difference throughout each day.
Adding a time buffer between meetings gave me the opportunity to shake off the emotions from the previous meeting and mentally reset for the next one. I found myself standing up and moving around more between appointments leaving me less exhausted at the end of the day.
At lunch, I started getting outside more, sitting, walking and just enjoying my lunch away from my desk.
The most notable change was that I now had the energy to start the day, and this energy was sustained until the end of the day. It wasn’t just physical energy, which was noticeable, but I also felt this high-quality mental energy that enabled me to carry out more focused work. I found myself more contemplative in how my “to-do’s” aligned with my business strategy. I was less distracted and more able to work on one thing at a time and finish it!
Within days, my family noticed the difference, too—I was more present and more disciplined at shutting off work. I was more patient, and I laughed more. The weekends stopped being a reprieve to catch up and became a time to actively recharge and recover by exploring new things such as learning to box and connecting with friends and family more.
And yet, with all these positive changes, about two months in, I found myself trying to override the system, attempting to squeeze in more meetings. People would request meetings and, even though I’d reached the maximum allotment for the day, I’d just squeeze them in, anyway!
Now, it may not be obvious, but I’m a logical and self-aware person. I realized that no one else would be checking my calendar and scolding me if I overrode it, so I had to ask myself, Why would I do this?
Upon reflection, I realized that there were a few areas this automated platform didn’t address. It didn’t manage my driving emotions not to disappoint. Nor did it manage my deeply ingrained belief that I should give 110% at work every day. Finally, it did not address my shear hubris that if I was feeling so good, I could or should do more.
Yet, as I started squeezing more in, my energy started leaking out and the benefits quickly dissipated. I had successfully found my tipping point, and it became clear that I needed more personal management before I could leverage the automated management. I practiced a ritual that I use when working with clients that forced me to slow down, shift out of “busy mode” and consider the impact of my choices.
When I feel I need to override the system here is the 1-minute habit I now practice:
1. I take a moment to fully stop.
Fingersoff the keyboard. If in a conversation, I stop myself from automatically accepting meetings and say I will check my schedule and get back to the person.
2. I refocus by checking-in with compassion for myself.
I ask myself, What am I feeling right now? I take a few deep breaths and tap into my self-compassion by acknowledging that things are difficult and that I feel pulled in many directions.
3. I then challenge my reality with curiosity.
Why would I choose to be less effective today? This question forces me to think instead of getting swept away in the feelings that contribute to short-sighted decisions.
4. Finally, I shift my thinking out to the world.
Iask myself, What is the value and consequence to saying “yes”? This question realigns me with my values and, just as important, the impact my choices will have on others, before moving outside my boundaries.
Yes, some days require me to go over my allotted number of meetings. Sometimes, I must book a lunch meeting due to a client’s schedule. However, the value of boundaries is that they give you the space to work within.
Now, whether automated or not, my schedule serves as a great reminder to not let the busyness of the moment override my vision of my future. But only my choices will ensure it!