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.
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.
It’s the start of another week in the midst of COVID-19. I suspect it will feel different, but that doesn’t mean it will be any easier.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but I’d like to ask you to start by doing something difficult.
I ‘d like you to reflect on one of the hardest events in your life (outside of the current situation), where the outcome wasn’t what you wanted.
Knowing what you know now, and accepting that you can’t change the outcome, what would have helped you better cope with that situation?
Now, write down how can you apply that wisdom today.
In 2016, my mother died from breast cancer. When her cancer came back, it rapidly spread throughout her body. I spent the first couple of weeks obsessively trying to figure out how long she would live.
I felt that if I had this answer, I could make the best decisions around her comfort and treatment, when to notify family and friends, how much time I would need to take off work etc.
I believed that I could handle everything, if I just knew when my mothers death was coming.
I’ll give you one guess what my learning was?
I can’t predict, control, or force the future to unfold as I would like, not matter how hard I try.
I needed to increase my uncertainty tolerance and move on not knowing.
I needed to learn to make decisions on incomplete information.
I had to accept some decisions were right and some were wrong.
I had to learn to trust that I was doing my very best, with the resources I had in my most difficult moment.
I did get there, but I was overwhelmed, heartbroken and mentally, emotionally and physically drained by the time I got there.
Today, with my entire business future uncertain, I have experienced the same emotions. The good news is, I went through that phase much more quickly this time. I am more comfortable sitting with uncertainty and trusting myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I want answers about when the pandemic will end, I want certainty in what the world will look like, and I’d love to know I am making the right decisions at the moment…but I feel like I’ve been training for this.
A few years back I decided to take my
husband away for a surprise vacation. This was partly motivated by the flight
reward points I had been accumulating with my business travel. My hope was that
when redeemed, it would save us a bundle on the travel costs. Excitedly I
called the rewards companies customer service to arrange our free flights. However,
after a somewhat confusing and frustrating conversation, my hopes for free
flights were quickly deflated.
Mini Disappointments = Mega Opportunities. In the realm of disappointments, this was a mini one. The often-toted advice in this type of situation would be “shake it off” and “don’t give it another thought.” As common as this advice may be, its not very helpful. Ignoring the emotions of disappointment doesn’t make you better at handling them, nor does it strengthen your resilience for future ones.
Small disappointments are great opportunities to practice being disappointed. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, consider how often you feel frustrated or let down by misunderstandings. It would be unrealistic to expect to go through life without experiencing disappointment. How you handle these small disappointments can make a stark difference over time in how you react to the big ones. To build these skills it helps to understand the neurochemistry of disappointment.
Dopamine and Your Expectation Circuitry. Disappointment is directly connected to the neural transmitter, dopamine. Most know dopamine as a “reward” chemical. This is only partly correct. When it comes to disappointment Cambridge University Researcher, Dr. Wolfram Schutz studies suggest its role is less around achieving the reward but instead, more around the anticipated correctness of the reward.
Overlaying this science on my experience, it can be assumed that my brain anticipated getting a reward in the form of a free flight, causing my dopamine levels to surge. Once on the phone and it became apparent my reward was not going to be met, my dopamine levels fell, and the familiar pang of disappointment was experienced.
Here are three strategies to help
manage the neurological anticipation and handle the disappointment in a more
Take a moment to feel the disappointment. Don’t try just to ignore the feeling or simply “brush them off.” Suppressed or ignored feelings do tend to build up over time making them harder to manage in the long run. Whether a big or small disappointment, acknowledge it. Research from Matt Lieberman out of UCLA used fMRI’s to show activity in the emotional system of the brain is lessened by recognizing and identifying the negative emotions being perceived. By admitting to yourself you feel disappointed, you dilute the intensity of the feeling. Interestingly, it is within the same emotional brain system that the nucleus accumbens is located which is responsible for the dopamine circuitry in the first place, which helps you manage your reactions at a neurochemical level.
Keep disappointment in perspective with the ‘Rule of 10’. Your emotional brain is notorious for blowing
things out of proportion. One way to offset this response is to mentally put
parameters around your disappointment to keep it in perspective. Ask yourself,
will this have an impact in 10 minutes from now? 10 hours from now? 10 days, weeks,
months or years? The big ones need a lot
more of our mental and emotional resources, so keep the small disappointments within
Don’t lose focus on what is good. You tend to experience loss more strongly than reward, even at a neural level (check out this great review in Scientific America). Without intentional action, you are prone to lose sight of the good or minimize the positive possibilities for the future. At the least, there is often an opportunity to learn something from disappointment, even if it means increasing our disappointment tolerance and strengthening your resilience with the strategies shared.
disappointment takes up a lot of mental real estate, energy, and enthusiasm
that is better spent in other ways. Resilience isn’t about not feeling emotion,
its about strengthening your ability to recover and learn from disappointment
and setbacks in a way that makes you stronger in the face of future challenges.
me, this was a small disappointment but a great opportunity to practice for the
next time without losing sight of the fact that we were very lucky to be going on