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.
If nothing in this title strikes you as strange, then we are in more trouble than I thought!
Late last year I came across an article
describing how Netflix had quietly started testing a variable playback feature
which would allow viewers to watch content at faster speeds.
Perfect! And while we’re at it, Spotify, you should have an option to remove the chorus from all songs. Why waste all that time listening to a repeat of the same thing? We could get through so many more songs that way.
Alright, perhaps I was being a little dramatic. Besides, no one would want to watch Stranger Things in fast forward, it would ruin the show!
I tried to let it go and hadn’t really thought of it again until a few weeks ago on a flight home when the gentleman sitting beside me had his tablet mounted up on the seat in front of him. I noticed that he was watching a movie in what looked like fast forward. Since he had his headphones on and was intermittently laughing, it occurred to me that he was using the Netflix feature.
Oh no, it isbeing used!
To be clear, I am not upset with Netflix for testing this option. It can’t be ignored that one of the things that have made Netflix so successful is their commitment to both anticipate and respond to their subscriber’s desires.
From a purely strategic perspective, Netflix is a business and thus in competition with others. They disrupted an entire industry by listening to the customer. Can I blame any organization for staying curious and keeping their finger on the pulse of future trends? Of course not!
At the end of the day, this isn’t even about Netflix. Its more about how this user feature, when enabled to race through content, represents our collective obsession with the notion of more, faster, newer, sooner.
Netflix offering a feature that potentially exacerbates that is what concerns me.
As a researcher of human behavior, these are my top three reasons why I would like Netflix to say no to the variable speed option following the testing period, even if users give it the green light.
There is nothing wrong with watching Netflix within
reasonable limits. There is a case to be made that immersing ourselves in a few
episodes of our favorite new series offers a brief reprieve from the stressors
of life. There are also some amazing documentaries that inspire powerful
conversations, challenge our beliefs, and fill us with pure pleasure. No one
would argue that Netflix can be both relaxing and enjoyable.
Though intermittently entertaining, there is a neurological tipping
point where too much, too often and for too long pushes enjoyment into addiction.
My primary concern is that the addition
of variable speed watching, which promotes watching more, may lower that tipping
Whether we watch Netflix because we love being able to escape life or because we simply love the show, our brain responds by producing pleasure-induced dopamine. At 11:30 pm when our eyes are stinging because we are so tired, but we feel this need to watch just one more episode that is us becoming situationally addicted to the shot of dopamine we get by starting the next episode.
This decision isn’t driven by logic, it is driven by emotional pleasure because our brain doesn’t distinguish the source of pleasure.
Providing the option to watch shows and movies more rapidly
does not increase enjoyment, it exploits our brain’s addictive tendency for
more, faster, newer, sooner.
Research suggests that the more addicted we become to the dopamine fix, the less enjoyable it becomes. Logically, you would think that if something is less desirable then we’d stop. Instead, we are motivated to consume more in attempts to feel better.
This may help explain why people make the seemingly
irrationally decision to trade-in a social hangout with friends for a solo
binge-watch of the latest release.
Multiple studies have highlighted that those most susceptible
to a technology addiction are teens and people already
experiencing feelings of isolation from their peers. This is the real
reason for concern. Technology addiction has been linked to higher levels of stress,
anxiety, and depression which could mean that the most vulnerable groups are also
the ones most likely to use this feature.
Point #1: There is no need to add a feature that could negatively impact the digital well-being of Netflix’s platform users.
From this point you may be thinking “Listen, lady, mind your
own business.” Fair enough. My intention
is not to tell people what they should enjoy and how to watch Netflix. It is to
challenge people to consider the consequences of their actions and decisions.
One of the primary motivators behind this express-watch feature
is because Netflix reported users being bored with shows that felt too long. In
other words, our attention spans, which are defined as the
length of time a person is able to concentrate or remain interested in a task
or an activity, are shrinking, even for entertainment. A study from Microsoft
found that our attention span has decreased to eight seconds – equal to that of a
Much of this diminishing ability to focus has been attributed
to the overstimulating world we live in today. Consider the volume of
information available at our finger times, the buzzing, dinging and blinking of
constant notifications, and the endless scroll holes social media offers.
It’s not a big leap to believe that how our brains process information is
changing, and not for the better.
This is my second reason why I don’t believe Netflix should
offer the option as it could add to the ever-expanding attention deficit being
Some may wonder if it really matters how distractible we are
– it does! Shrinking attention spans negatively impact our ability to achieve
goals, process new information and learn new skills. It makes it difficult to
stay present and connected with the people around us. It makes it harder to slow
down our overactive brain, negatively impacting the quality and quantity of
sleep we get each night. Each is needed
to promote positive mental, emotional and physical health.
Point #2: With attention being reported of one of our scarcest resources, I don’t believe Netflix needs to offer a feature that could further diminish it.
Perhaps the argument can be made that by providing an option
that would allow people to watch a movie in less time would motivate people, who
would otherwise skip a leisure activity altogether, to add it to their
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, this is the basis of
my third concern.
In my own research, I have seen again and again that our
pervasive emphasis on productivity and efficiency is distorting our perception
of relaxation and self-care. Instead of viewing it as something to enjoy, we
approach it as just another task that should be condensed down and checked-off
our to-do list. I leisured today, next!
It sometimes feels like we’ve transformed life into a hot dog eating contest. How much can we get through in a designated amount of time?
Even before Arianna Huffington started THRIVE Global, back
in 2013 a new and novel column was launched in the Huffington Post named “Less
Stress, More Living.” Still, things seem
to be getting harder with perceived stress levels raising
I worry that we are rationalizing unhelpful and unhealthy
choices in self-deceiving ways. For example in one conversation with a friend they
pushed back on my concerns arguing that decreasing the time we spend watching
each episode of the latest series sensation could provide more time for people
to spend with their kids, to exercise, to talk to their partners, to enjoy
nature and to do more meaningful things.
I don’t buy it. If you only have 30 mins, watch 30 min of a show – BUT ENJOY IT! Be present, let your senses be titillated, integrate yourself into the story, love or hate the characters, allow the music to create an emotion that is coded into your brain. And yes, I realize that I am giving far too much cinematography credit to many shows on Netflix, but perhaps we need to fully enjoy fewer things instead of just rushing through lots of things.
Besides, what are we rushing towards? I think most people
would agree, we are often missing the moment just to add more busyness and more
things to our already overwhelming schedules.
Point #3: We need to practice slowing down, not pressuring ourselves to speed up and be more efficient at watching Netflix.
A final reality check-in: who doesn’t eat more candy when there are leftovers from Halloween? We all know that when our phone buzzes it’s hard not to check. Give me a super-sized fry from McDonald’s and I’ll eat them all. I’m not saying that humans aren’t responsible for themselves – we are. But given the choice Netflix, please resist adding to our very human and often negative, tendencies. Instead, keep adding amazing content – that is all you need to keep us coming back!