10 Things You Can Start Doing TODAY to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Best practices gleaned from Getting Things DoneThe Power of Full Engagement, 7 HabitsThe Fire Starter Sessions, and my brilliant clients. 1.  Identify & make space for your top priorities first. Identify your major priorities and make time for them in your schedule first. Then, make your lower priorities fit in around the big stuff. If you fill up your time with the little things, it becomes impossible to fit in the big things later.

2. Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system. As David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Get every nagging thought about something you have to do out of your head and onto a list or calendar.

3. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Don’t put off a small task for later if you could get it done now in 2 minutes or less.

4. Keep a list of next actions & start every next action with a verb. Keep a list of the very next things you need to do. Each item should be as specific as possible and start with a verb. You are more likely to take action when you see “ask David about timeline for final report,” on your list than when you see something like “final report.”

5. Have a daily meeting with yourself. Once a day (preferably at the start of your day), take 15 – 20 minutes to check in with your top priorities next actions list and calendar. Identify the 3-5 things you must do today to make the day a success.

6. Review everything on your plate weekly. Take 60 - 90 minutes a week to review all of your commitments, assess the past week, and look ahead to the coming weeks. You will catch things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

7. Use your “power hours” for your most brain-intensive work. Figure out what time of day you are most alert, sharp and energetic. Do your hardest work then & save the mindless tasks for when you’re spent.

8. Charge your electronic devices outside of the bedroom. Get your inbox out of your bed! Purchase an alarm clock if you’ve been using your phone & put your devices in the other room when you turn in for the night.

9. Create intentional time and space away from technology. This can look like: blocking your internet access when you are writing, unplugging from all technology for 24 hours once a month, not looking at your phone between work and when the kids go to sleep, or sitting and focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.

10. Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll gain the trust, respect, and admiration of others – and yourself.

Third Annual National Day of Unplugging

It's that time of year again - the annual National Day of Unplugging.  Rooted in the Jewish practice of Shabbat, the National Day of Unplugging asks us to intentionally disconnect from technology and reconnect to the things that matter most to us. Here's the challenge, which lasts for 24 hours from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday:


[box] Shut down your computer.Turn off your cell phone. Stop the constant emailing, texting, Tweeting and Facebooking to take time to notice the world around you. Connect with loved ones. Nurture your health. Get outside. Find silence. Avoid commerce. Give back. Eat Together. [/box]

The day can jumpstart a more regular practice of unplugging, something I've written more about here, here, and here.

Want to give it a try?  Learn more and take the pledge here.


Drawing Digital Boundaries in an Always-On World

If you’re like most people, you’ve responded to work email while on the grocery check-out line, on vacation, and in bed. Increasingly we are always at work unless we make a conscious decision not to be. As a workflow coach to busy professionals, I get to see both the benefits and challenges of our ever-shrinking, instantly-syncing and always-buzzing technology.  The plus is that we can work from anywhere, anytime; the drawback comes when we are working everywhere, all the time.

The truth is that your inbox will still be accepting emails when you die. Will you choose to live in your inbox 24/7, or will you step away from time to time and be present in the messy, physical, relational world?

We have to get really good at choosing when we’re working and when we’re not. The radical act of unplugging – of intentionally turning off our devices for a few hours, days or even weeks – can have profound effects:

  • Coworkers will see that you place boundaries on your time and adjust accordingly.  By not responding to work emails after a certain time of night, on the weekends, or on vacation, you signal that you respect your own time and that of your colleagues.
  • Loved ones will appreciate your undivided attention. A dinner without text messaging and a day outside without email will not go unnoticed.
  • You will grow to enjoy the alertness, calm, and productivity that comes from focusing on the present moment without attending to a blinking device.

If turning off your devices for even an hour seems like an impossible feat, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What parts of your life could you experience more fully if you were to unplug?  What are the consequences if you don’t unplug?
  • What one technology habit, if you changed it, would make the biggest positive impact on your life?
  • Where in your day, week, or year, is it most important to you to you carve out time to disconnect from technology?

No one else will draw these boundaries for you.  The only person who can stop you from answering email 24/7 is you.  So, where will you draw the line?

3 Super Online Tools for Writing and Reflection

One of my personal goals for this fall is to take more time for regular writing and reflection.  To get back in the groove, I've turned to some of my favorite free online writing tools.  Each of them make getting the words out fun, simple, and relatively painless. Write long:  750 On the face of it, this site is simple: log in daily, start writing, and don't stop until the auto word-counter tells you you've hit 750 words (approximately 3 pages longhand).  Once you've accumulate several days worth of input, the site's algorithms kick in and you can take advantage some very cool bells and whistles.  Based on your writing, the site offers you data on everything from your typing speed to your mood and mindset; you can even earn badges for consecutive days of writing.

Write quick: Ohlife is founded on the simple premise that keeping a journal doesn't have to be a time-consuming endeavor.  Once you sign up on the site, you will receive an email each day that asks you simply, "How'd your day go?"  Reply to that email with whatever you want to write about your day, and the site will archive your responses (which you can access on the site at any time).  Collectively, your answers to this one question constitute a record of your days.

Write deep: 10Q is an annual online reflection event that takes place during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- but you don't have to be Jewish to participate or to benefit.  Sign up and starting on September 28th, you will be sent one question a day to answer about your life, looking back and looking ahead.  (Sample question: "Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?") Your answers are "sealed in the vault" at the end of the 10 days and - here's where it really gets cool - only become available to you one year later (time capsule-style).  I'm going into my 3rd year of doing 10Q and can't wait to look back on my answers from 2010 and 2009.

BONUS - Write old school: (Non-virtual) Journal Online tools are great, but sometimes I just want to put pen to paper.  My go-to sources for journals are Moleskine (when I'm feeling spendy) and Muji (where my favorite journal costs $1.50).  Nothing beats a good old-fashioned blank page.

What are your favorite tools or prompts for writing and reflection?

Unplugging All Year Round

This Friday night marks the beginning of the second annual National Day of Unplugging, but you needn't wait for the annual event to disconnect from your devices.  Here are some ways to unplug on the regular: every month, every week, or even several times a day.  (For more on the why of unplugging, see my piece on the subject from last year.) Several times a day: Many of us engage with technology during the mindless, routine activities of daily life.  For a break from this, define contexts in which you will consciously disconnect from your devices.  For example, commit to not being on your phone when you are walking to the subway or driving in your car. Or to not texting while eating.  Instead, notice your surroundings, the road in front of you, or the taste of what you are eating in a more mindful way.

Daily: There are several ways to do this.  Start your day unplugged by giving yourself a buffer of 20, 30, or 60 minutes before checking in with technology -- greeting the day before you greet your iPhone.  During the day, block out a no-technology hour or two -- perhaps the first couple of hours after you get home from work, to mark that transition into home-mode.  Or, give yourself a daily technology cut-off time, and put yourself to bed with a book rather than Twitter.

Weekly: Try a regular technology break on the weekends.  Try a six hour chunk without internet on a Saturday and see how clean your house gets, and how far your mind can wander away from your work.  The National Day of Unplugging is rooted in the Jewish tradition of Shabbat, which is another way frame a weekly unplugging -- 24 hours worth of disconnection from technology and reconnection with home, family, self and spririt.

Monthly: Can you go one day, or one weekend a month without technology?  I do this on occasion and think of it as a kind of technology cleanse.

Yearly, but in a big way: Give yourself a proper vacation from your devices if you can manage it.  A few days or a week away from technology, as this group of five neuroscientists and a reporter found when they turned off their phones and went into the Grand Canyon, will actually change your experience of the world around you.

How often do you consciously unplug?  Share your experiences in the comments.

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Four Stunning Tools for Visual Learning

Learning styles may be a myth, but I will make the unscientific assertion that I am a visual learner.  I need to see things for them to sink in.  In the past month, a handful of stunning visual learning tools have caught my attention. 1.  Take Notes in a New Way At a leadership retreat I attended last month, the two group facilitators were joined by a silent but powerful partner: Nora Herting, a graphic recorder from ImageThink.  As the retreat unfolded, Nora drew images and highlighted key phrases to capture the spirit and content of what was said.  Posted on the walls, the drawings became a map of our time together and conversation pieces in and of themselves.  Here's a video of Nora and her colleague at work:


2.  Zoom Past Powerpoint A friend introduced me to Prezi, a zooming, nonlinear presentation tool which offers a welcome alternative to Powerpoint.  In Prezi, instead of making sequential slides, you create your presentation on a big blank (electronic) canvas using font size, images and framing of text to create variety and emphasis.  Come presentation time you literally zoom around your canvas, following a path that you set ahead of time or changing course as the mood strikes.  I've only played around with Prezi online and have not yet used it for a presentation.  I'd be interested in hearing from folks who've tried it out.

Your Brain on Computers: A Do Your Best Work Roundup

This week the New York Times began a great series on computers and the brain, examining how our thoughts and behaviors (and frighteningly, our very ability to parent) have been altered by the multiple screens and data feeds that divide our attention.

Here at Do Your Best Work, we've spent the past 8 months exploring some of the same issues, only with fewer scientists and a smaller team of reporters (okay, it's just me).

If you've been captivated by the Times series, check out this roundup of Do Your Best Work pieces on related topics:

It's great to see some of these ideas taking hold in the mainstream media.  Have you read the Times series? What most surprised you?  Don't be shy, jump into the conversation by posting a comment below.

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Multitasking is a Myth

  As mobile technology has become more portable and more powerful, we are able to do many more things (phone calls, texting, watching movies) in more contexts (driving, walking down the street, waiting in line) than ever before.  Multitasking should be at an all-time high.

But as some recent books about the nature of attention have made clear, multitasking is largely a myth.  When we think we are multitasking, we are not so much doing two things at once as we are rapidly shifting our attention back and forth between those two things.  And all that shifting dramatically depletes our functioning, making it hard to do either thing efficiently or well.

Here's a quick experiment  to prove this point.  Write the phrase "MULTITASKING IS A MYTH" on a piece of paper, but intersperse the numbers 1 - 17 after each letter (M 1 U 2 L 3 T 4... etc.).  Now, write out the same phrase  as you normally would - no numbers in between - and when you finish that, write out the sequence of numbers 1 - 17.  See the difference? [Experiment adapted from this guy.]

While there are some "mindless" tasks that we can do while doing something else (folding laundry in front of the TV, for example) most everyday activities require much more focussed attention than you might think.

Ever turn down the music in your car while looking for parking?  Surf the internet while on a conference call and then realize you haven't been listening for the last 5 minutes?  These are examples of the natural limitations of our attention.  Better to give in to these limits and do one thing at a time, well.

Turn your screens off. Turn off your monitor, close your laptop and stop trying to read the headlines or catch up on email while you're on a conference call.  Be on the call.

Stop the dinging, pinging, flashing email alerts. For goodness sake, if you're trying to get focused work done, turn off your email alerts so you aren't getting pulled into whatever shows up in your inbox.  If you have to stay in the loop while you're getting other things done, schedule a 10 minute email break at the end of every hour, or better yet, every 90 minutes.

Remember that multitasking has consequences. Typos in work emails can make a bad impression, a distracted tone of voice can be read as standoffish, and of course texting while driving can lead to accidents.  There are very real costs to trying to push beyond the rather modest limits of our attention.

Next time you are tempted to split your attention between two or more tasks, ask yourself if the email, relationship, or your safety is important enough to you to get your full attention.

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Happy National Day of Unplugging!

When was the last time you turned off every beeping personal device  -- phone, email, laptop, iPod -- and were unreachable and untouched by media for a defined period of time?  Does the mere thought of doing this give you hives?

The Jewish nonprofit organization Reboot is suggesting we endure the hives this weekend, declaring a National Day of Unplugging for 24 hours starting at sundown tonight.  In accordance with the Jewish practice of shabbat, or sabbath, Reboot suggest that Jews and non-Jews alike experience what it is like to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the non-technological aspects of life.

Striking a similar chord, Peter Bregman's blog this week at Harvard Business Review focused on unplugging during vacation.   He relates what happened when he completely unplugged during a week-long camping trip in the Grand Canyon:

When I returned to civilization — and a phone — I had over 50 messages. But here's what I found most interesting: the first half of the messages all raised problems that needed to be resolved and the second half were the same people telling me not to worry about the first half because they had resolved the problems on their own.

In this way, unplugging can be an exercise in humility.  Yes, you are important -- but not so important that the world will stop turning if you unplug for a day or a week.

Besides a right-sized ego, what are some of the other benefits of unplugging?

Break the "always available" cycle. At my last job, I made myself available at all times to deal with potential work issues.  This was partly due to a culture (to which I contributed) of emailing among colleagues at all hours of the night and over the weekend. Some of these late-night missives were both important and urgent; most were not. By unplugging even for 24 hours, I was able to temporarily sidestep this dynamic and remind myself that it was okay to not be consumed by work 24/7.

Curb attention-splitting, and focus on the here-and-now. Until I practiced unplugging, I didn't fully realize how much I was splitting my attention between the present moment and a colorful, tiny screen.  Turns out a game of  Scrabble is more pleasurable when I am  not checking text messages during my opponent's turn.

Make smarter decisions. You might consider using your unplugged time to do deep thinking about pressing issues in your life.  Why?  Because being less distracted by technology may actually make you a smarter problem-solver. Check out the results of this UK study on the effects of technological distraction (via David Rock):

Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problem solving tasks, firstly in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed.  Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points - double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users... [further,] ...working amid a barrage of incoming information can reduce a person's ability to focus as much as losing a night's sleep.

Remove a major unconscious time-suck. I lose a lot of time to being online.  For others it may be getting sucked into TV or playing Tetris on their phones.  Often this happens unconsciously -- before we know it, it's been 2 hours in front of the screen.  When I unplug and remove the option of getting sucked into the internet, I feel freer to make more conscious choices about how I spend my time.

Rest and re-envision.  A pause in our normal routines can provide space for rest and reflection. As Mordechai Kaplan wrote,

An artist cannot be continuously wielding his brush.  He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas.  Living is also an art.

Good luck unplugging, and reconnecting with the art of living.

Have you unplugged recently?  How did it effect you?

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The Journey to Productivity Starts with 10,000 Steps

How many steps do you take a day?  Inspired by a recommendation by Dr. Oz, I bought a $23 pedometer and have started tracking my steps.  Dr. Oz recommends taking 10,000 steps a day as a good aim for a healthy, active lifestyle. Yesterday I just hit 10,000 by doing a day's worth of errands, laundry, and housecleaning.  I know not every day is so active for me -- many much less so.  My goal is to hit 10,000 steps a day, 4 days a week for the next month.

Tracking my steps is a fitness project and a mindfulness project, but it is also is a productivity project.

On days I work from home, I am much more productive if I start my morning with even a short walk outside the house.  Getting out of the house and taking a walk first-thing wakes me up and focuses my mind.  Mid-day, walking can take me from a dull, foggy work slump to a sharp and alert state of mind in five minutes.    It can also give my mood a significant boost.

Have you noticed that you are more productive when you shift your physical state?

What Matters Now

Seth Godin asked 70 "big thinkers" from business, social innovation, and technology to answer the question, "What Matters Now?"  Their answers - one page essays on topics like fear, generosity, gumption, sleep, and willpower - are available in a free e-book. You can get the free e-book here.

How Many Minutes of Freedom Do You Want?

I haven't been blogging much because I have been in midterm-mode, writing paper after paper.  One thing has greatly assisted my productivity during this stressful time:  Freedom. Not "freedom," the enduring concept, but Freedom, an application for Mac that blocks your computer's access to the internet for up to eight hours at a time. You may have read about it recently (as I did) in the New York Times Magazine. Once you open Freedom, a window asks you "how many minutes of freedom do you want?"  and when you enter your desired time, Freedom blocks your internet access for that long.  You can't get desperate and quit the program; the only way to override Freedom is to restart your computer.  I'm not going to say I've never cracked and done the restart, but it is certainly a deterrent.

The amazing result:  free from email, Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, and Googling every person, place or thing that pops in my head, I can actually concentrate and write.

Using Freedom has made me more mindful of just how much my  mind craves distraction, even when I am supposedly "focused" on a task.   I still find myself reflexively clicking on my browser whenever the sentence I am trying to write escapes me.  My mind thinks, "I can't figure out how to word this idea... hmm... let me go check my email/10 websites and come back to this..."  Only with Freedom running, my browser gives me an error message and prevents the bad habit.  It is like a subtle kick in the pants that says, "Not so fast, stick with it, get back to work."

Mac users, try out Freedom at  It's free!

Taming the Stress of Our Plugged-In Lives

As much as the web and portable technology have made our lives easier, they have also brought new stresses.   We can sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by the emails, friend requests, blog feeds, Twitter feeds, and action alerts that seem to be demanding an increasing amount of our time.  The answer is not to opt out of these technologies, but to find ways to maximize their benefits while minimizing the stresses they bring.

Here are a couple of strategies for taming the stress of our plugged-in lives. Re-calibrate your sense of urgency and importance.

It's been fifteen years since Steven Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca A. Merrill first warned us about the dangers of "urgency addiction" in their bestseller, First Things First.  They argue that the compulsive drive to treat every call, email, or interruption in life as an urgent matter distracts us from focusing on what is actually important. Just think about it: they wrote about this before we all carried our email inboxes in our pockets.

In truth, many of the important things in life and work don't get the benefit our attention because they aren't that urgent. Consider how hard it can be to convince leaders within your organization to devote time and resources to staff development or long-term goal-setting, and you start to get the point. 

Take the time to check in with yourself about what is truly urgent and what is truly important. How does this differ from where you are currently placing your attention and your energy?  How is your relationship to technology -- particularly email -- contributing to this dissonance?  

Regular mindfulness about these questions can help nudge you toward using technology in ways that are more meaningful and less draining.

Take a 48-hour information holiday.

You don't need to know everything, all the time.  

Whether it's a celebrity gossip habit or an every-political-blog-under-the-sun habit, many of us are prone to going a little overboard with our media consumption.   It can feel like if we aren't on top of it all, we will fall behind, and... then what?  For most of us, the stakes actually aren't that high.  Like anything, information consumption is good in moderation, but too much of it can affect sleep, relationships, work, and our ability to relax.

Twice a year (or more!) try taking a 48-hour information holiday.  Reduce your "inputs" to a bare minimum, and see how it feels to be relieved of the pressure to always know what is going on everywhere.  This looks different for everyone, but could include putting your laptop in a drawer for the weekend, using your phone only for phone calls, and setting an auto-reply on your email as if you were on vacation.  

The idea is to eliminate the inputs that you feel tied to -- the sources of information and interaction you feel you cannot live without.  Do this, and you'll learn that you can.