The Big Idea
We all know that feeling of becoming overwhelmed because our ‘to do’ list has too much on it and we don’t know where to start. In fact sometimes, managing the ‘to-do’ list, feels like a job on it’s own! The problem is that as soon as we start to worry about how much we have to get done and asking ourselves where on earth we are going to find the time, we automatically become less able to tackle the tasks.
Worrying and asking yourself those questions is an activity that your pre-frontal cortex (PFC) wants to attend to them all but it gets pulled in different directions in trying to do so. We have discussed before that our brains have a finite amount of fuel in a day, and that once that fuel tank gets low, our thinking power is vastly reduced until we rest and reset our heads’ energy levels again though sleep. This is true even when we tell ourselves that we can just “power on”. However, all too often we can spend time worrying without pausing to realise that we are literally using up all our brain fuel on the worrying – and leaving even less to get the jobs actually done!
As always on The 52 Project, we have a plan! We want to share a tip with you that you can do instead of the worrying, which will actually enable you to use that same brain fuel to get the ‘to do’ list down. To help us with this weeks tip, we engaged the services of Caroline Laycock from Get More Done At Work. This business definitely does what it says on the tin! We have put a link to her top tips page below. It’s amazing!
Dr Iain and I met Caroline through a fantastic global coaching and training business called People Untapped where we are all associates. You will hear more about our friends at People Untapped in a future blog as they are also experts in diagnostic tools and there are helping us to create one for The52Project! We are developing an online tool where you or your friends who are new to the project, can do a questionnaire that suggests ‘best fit’ combinations of tips to grow new habits. These will be based on how you are feeling at any one time. So we will be powering up @The52Tips!
Caroline shared a simple model with us that she swears by. Having tried it, we are now swearing by it too! Caroline recommends a simple 3 step process to get more done – Energise. Prioritise. Focus. And by golly it works!
Caroline helped us to understand that we can sometimes confuse activity with productivity – and if we are not careful, we can expend a lot of energy and actually not achieve very much at all. Instead Caroline recommends sustainable productivity – getting into a good headspace so that you can spend a little time thinking about the one thing that will make the biggest difference and then focusing like an fanatic on that single task.
You will recognise that there are many tips that we have covered already that help you to Energise – and to get your head into the right space to get more done (e.g. #Tips 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 10) are great places to start. We have also covered some #Tips that can help you to Focus: try stacking a couple from this selection (e.g. #Tips 12, 14, 15 & 17) to help with Carolines’s “focus like a fanatic” mantra!
In this #Tip27 Instagram live we also focused on some ways to help you to Prioritise – deciding what you spend your precious time and energy on. Caroline recommends that you “start with the end in mind” (Dr Stephen Covey) – she uses a phrase “tomorrow starts today”. Her first tip is that you ask yourself to think about the most important things that you want to happen in your future – and then do something about that today. Even a small task that you “focus like a fanatic” on for just five minutes, will make you feel fabulous if it gets you a little bit closer to something that you know you what for yourself in the long term.
Next she talked about getting organised. We have all been in that space where we have a problem but we are not really clear on what the options are. Caroline suggests brainstorming those before diving into the first option you can think of – and being active rather than productive. Ever heard of the phrase or the song lyric “an inch is better than a mile in the right direction”? Maybe put this song on your Playlist for Life!
Caroline then recommended that you have a system that works for you to take away the worry that you might forget something. Remember that worry is using up your day’s limited brain fuel that you could be putting to better use to get more done. Some people have a big list. Some people have a big visual white board with stickers and post-its. Dulcie is a big fan of ‘The 4 Ds’ model for Do-Defer-Delegate-Delete (this is also called the Eisenhower’s Matrix). Either way, make sure you have a system where you have everything in one place and you can look at things objectively – when you can see everything you have to do, you can then look at them more objectively. Which one will take priority? Which one will best put you an inch in the right direction and contribute to the future that you want for yourself? What choices do you want to make? Be really (brutally) honest with yourself. What will make the most difference? Even if it is not a task you will particularly enjoy, but will make the biggest difference to your future, perhaps focus like a fanatic and get it out of the way. In other words eat that ‘frog’ first (Brian Tracey) and start eating the ‘elephant’ one mouthful at a time.
And we love her final quick win! When Caroline needs to really make up her mind she uses Derek Sivers’ mantra: if it’s not a “Hell yeah!” – then it’s a ”No”.
Finally the real question is what is the one thing that is going to make THE difference for you and make you say “Hell yeah!”?
Got it…What’s the Science
As we are sure you know getting to and then focusing on the ‘one thing’ can be incredibly tricky. Especially when we feel overwhelmed and stressed. This has some real brain biology behind it. Understanding this can help you get more of what you actually need, to make THE difference.
At The52Project we have often spoken about the region of the brain that is more developed in humans than any other creature that we know of: the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC helps you to attend to tasks. It is also the region of your brain that tasks tend to compete for attention that are promoted by information served up intermittently by your working memory, which includes the structure called the hippocampus. The problem is that these brain structures and circuits have a limited capacity (‘bandwidth’) as does the amount psychic energy (ATP) each brain has each day. So this sets up quiet a bottleneck where if we are not careful we waste so much mental energy just keeping the things we could do in mind. This then debilitates our ability to do work on the thing/s we really need to do.
Women are known anecdotally as being better multitaskers than men and in fact we know that biologically speaking there has been some controversial evidence for this. Research in the 1980s suggested that women proportionally have more neuronal connections between the hemispheres of the brain (known as the major ‘white matter’ bridge of the Corpus Callosum) that allows women to make more connections (have greater bandwidth) between the relative specialisms of the two hemispheres at once. One of our Dulcie’s favourite studies is by Glenn Wilson, a psychologist from King’s College, who showed that multitasking for men dropped their average IQ in the moment by 15 points compared to women’s 5 which would attest to this. fMRI research in the 1990s into the 2000s suggest the structural reasons for such sexual dimorphism is still in debate – hey that’s science for you! On a side note historical research also suggested that left-handed people also tend to have larger corpus callosums – but this also seems to currently be in dispute.
Either way the reality remains that having too many things on the mind at once is going to limit the capacity to really achieve success at a task, or tasks – at least until they can become more instinctual / automatic – like riding a bike or driving a car. While learning to do such new tasks requires more attention and more effort to start with and we tend tire more quickly. This is in part the effort of attention and in part having to make and strengthening new neuronal connections – which both requires energy (ATP). This is similar to when we have huge to do lists and trying to hold them in our mind.
In his famous paper published in 1956, George Miller suggested the magic number of things that we can hold in mind at any one time is 7 (plus / minus 2). Subsequent research suggests that actually this really depends on the complexity, salience (how relevant the information is personally to you) and modality (sensory type) of the information as well as how we can (or cannot) ‘chunk’ information. David Rock suggests that actually the most amount of any complex issues that we can really hold in our attention is actually far more likely to be 1. In his analogy, attention is a bit like having a theatrical stage, where we need to be the director of our own performances (brains) – being able to more effectively bring on the actors (players) onto the stage as they are needed – this can include from and to the backstage and / or audience in the front stage. The simple act of writing ‘to do lists’, as Caroline shared with us, helps us to do this with less mental effort by trying to hold it in mind. Alone though this is still might not be enough though – as your brain can find it difficult not to keep bringing actors onto the stage ‘just in case’. Remember bringing on to the stage, and taking off, actors costs your brain energy (ATP). You can change the spotlight of attention onto the stage but this still requires effort. Also having too many players on the stage can make it harder for the audience (and the director) to ‘see’ and portray a coherent storyline; one that makes sense and gets to the best kind of ending. So the best way to get a result is to reduce the number of actors on the stage at any one time and, when you have done that, to focus the spotlight on the most important players (stars) to most effectively get the result you are after. This is the going for “focus like a fanatic” that Caroline speaks of.
There is something then to externalising the list of to do by writing it down – so you can literally get it out of your head and see it more clearly. There are management tools and mind-mapping software that can allow you then to move ‘to dos’ into different categories – although in our experience of team project management, post-it motes on the window works really well too. Now using the 4Ds tool (Eisenhower Matrix) allows you to really have greater clarity on what the most relevant things are to be done – what essential actors are needed. It also helps us raise and keep a strategic alignment to a goal (the script storyline). This clarity though envisioning and connecting the dots can give us a powerful mood boost of serotonin, that helps us feel optimistic about the action we are taking, which in turn raises the likelihood of both starting and seeing the worth in doing that activity, which performance theory research suggests, we are then more likely to be successful in the subsequent endeavours because we believe in ourselves, hesitate less, seeing relevant solution possibilities more quickly / easily (seeing the gaps over the obstacles). This is part of how how elite athletes get into ‘flow’. Repeating this kind of thinking becomes a strategic habit in which we, and others by looking at us, really see direction, conviction and confidence that leads to meaningful action – i.e. purpose. Biologically this includes an increase for both men and women in the ‘confidence hormone’ testosterone – which also improves task and goal focus. This is a kind of combined (meta) mindset in itself that is an effective antidote to despair, anxiety, worry and overwhelm – which is where we can start when feeling we just have too much to do.
Lastly when we get the ‘wins’ we have been aiming for we get more of the dopamine hits that we have already spoken about. This is a key player in our brains’ enjoyment and reward mechanisms. Repeated dopamine hits in conjunction with such strategic thinking and action, as well as feeling good in itself, raises the likelihood that we are going to give more resources to this kind of thinking and doing in the future – because we enjoy it! This is part of a theory that Dr Dan Harrison uses, called ‘Enjoyment Performance Theory’. Focus and reward also mean that we enter a more Task Positive Network (TPN) states which also leads to achievement. This is quite possibly what the “Hell yeah!” comes in – as the acid test and, in a good way, self-fulling prophecy. The key remains: focus (doing the ONE thing) means less is more.
Watch our #Tip27 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With special guest and expert from Get More Done at Work – Caroline Laycock:
Task Enjoyment: A Mediator Between Achievement Motives and Performance (1999) research paper abstract.
Sex Differences in the Human Corpus Callosum: Myth or Reality? (1997) Research paper / comment.
We would love to think that anyone watching live, watching back or reading this could look at their overwhelming list of things to do and as themselves this powerful question:
“What is the ONE thing I could do right now that would make me feel good and would genuinely make a difference to my future?”
Then go Focus like an Fanatic – get it done! Then let us know how you get on.
And as a reminder, the tips from today are super-stackable with some of @The52Tips that you may already know and love. Here are some of our ideas to combine with Caroline Laycock‘s Energise – Prioritise – Focus model:
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