Too much on your plate? Too many competing priorities? Here’s how you deal with it…

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Having too much work on your plate can be overwhelming.  

There’s a story about a donkey that is placed equidistant between a stack of hay and a pail of water.  The donkey, unable to chose which to consume first, dies of hunger.  In psychology literature this tale is referred to as Buridan’s Ass.

As an entrepreneur I find myself in this situation frequently.  Most days there’s more than one equally important or urgent task to do.  Deciding which to tackle first can be immobilising, eventually leading to procrastination. 

You can’t decide what to work on so you end up in the undecided zone which leads to anxiety and poor productivity.    

To avoid getting into this zone you need frameworks to help you prioritise and systems to help you schedule time to work on these priorities.   

But sometimes there’s just too much – and you just need to get it all done. 

The way I handle too much on my plate is to write it all down, categorise everything and then schedule when to do what.  This process can take 1-2 hours, but it moves me from the anxiety-inducing ‘undecided zone‘ to the calmer ‘decided zone‘, even before I’ve started actually working.   

Here’s the step-by-step breakdown: 

First step – get a blank piece of paper and do a brain dump here.  List down everything that’s on your mind.   Everything that’s urgent and important and needs to get done fairly soon.  Everything that’s causing anxiety.  Write it all down. 

Next, assign categories to each item.  For e.g. study, side business, job, project abc, project xyz, personal admin, personal finance, family, kids etc etc. 

Now step away from this list and look at the big picture – which parts of your life do you want to focus your energy and time over the next week. 

I’m a freelance consultant with 2-3 active clients or projects at any time. For me the split could look like:

  • Project # 1 – 25% 
  • Client # 1 – 15% 
  • Project # 2 – 10% 
  • Client # 2 – 10% 
  • Networking/ business development – 15% 
  • Personal admin/ finance/ family stuff – 15% 
  • Business admin/ replying to emails etc – 10% 

Depending on your nature of work, this split could be across marketing, finance, customer support, HR, business development, product, technology etc.  This split is not static.  It should change from month-to-month or even week-to-week as priorities evolve. 

I try and aim for about 20 focussed hours of work across these major areas of work over the week using the Pomodoro technique.  (Think of a pomodoro as a 25 to 35 min focused block of time).   Another term commonly used for this is ‘time blocking‘.  

20 focused hours of work across a 5 day week is about 4 focused hours or 8 pomodoro sessions per day.    These 20 hours are proactive high quality ‘deep work‘ time for working on my priorities.

Here’s what a typical week could look like: 

Weekly time allocation planner

As long as you get enough focused pre-scheduled hours on your priorities, the remaining 15-30 hours of your week can be reactive i.e. filled up with meetings, calls, emails, slack, errands etc.

Here’s how I could split this work across my week: 

weekly time allocation

Every weekday has a dominant theme:

  • Monday for Project #1 and a bit of networking,
  • Tuesday for Client # 1 and get some business admin out of the way
  • Wednesday for Client # 1 and Client #2,
  • Thursday is for Project #2 and Project # 1
  • Friday for personal and family stuff, and some spillover from the week’s client or project work

With this method, instead of trying to prioritise across so many areas of my life and work, (because it’s all important), I’ve allocated or budgeted my time. There’s a finite amount of time to be given to each area, and within that block of time, I can focus on the most important tasks for that area of work. 

We’ve also scheduled our priorities by designating the days of the week we’ll focus on that area of work.  Additionally, there’s enough flexibility in this form of scheduling to adapt to changing priorities on a daily basis.  

Now depending on the area of focus for today, you can get started on the tasks in that category.  Calm and confident in the knowledge that you’ll be attacking each important area of your work and life over the course of the next few days.  

This approach also takes advantage of the concept of batching. Which is doing similar things at the same time to improve both quality and speed of work.

And this is how I deal with too much on my plate.

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