My to-do lists become full of maintenance items like sorting physical papers, dealing with non-urgent mail, various marketing and publishing tasks that are important but don’t have a definite date attached. On their own, it doesn’t really matter if I do any one of these maintenance items, but over time, the sheer quantity of them unfinished start to nag away at my brain and overwhelm me. More importantly, subsequently when I want to add a similar item to my to-do list, I do so with a slight sinking feeling - like what’s the point, this will fall into the black hole along with all the other ones.
Time management books are full of advice like “spend your time on the 20% of tasks that get you the 80% of results”. I read enough of these books that I now feel that any amount of time working on something that isn’t tied to a specific project is a complete waste of time. While I do agree that it is easy to get sucked into working aimlessly on things that don’t get you anywhere, every so often, you do need to complete a myriad number of unrewarding but important to do tasks.
So how do you deal with them?
I recommend scheduling a regular Process Day. Some companies actually give their employees one day to catch up on paperwork and sort through all the stuff that invariably piles up. If you don’t have a secretary or admin help, or you’re overwhelmed with the amount of unfinished projects in your personal life, this might be a strategy that really helps you to get from under that crushing pile of “Stuff”.
Today I had a process day, although it was unscheduled. In the sense that I had planned to do something else, but ended up spending the day getting through a bunch of things that had been piling up. I guess I had some pent-up energy or was wanting to procrastinate on something else, but the upside was that I got through some items on my list and started on others that had been pending for several months.
Process days are a great idea if you don’t want to be constantly interrupting your project work with taking care of little things. You could instead set aside a day every two weeks or once a month to batch process all those things that pile up. In my case I realized from my process day that I need to do this a bit more often if I want to clear out my backlog.
I would suggest making a list of the things you want to get done, in priority, so that even if you can’t do everything, you do all the important things. While you make the list you should even question every item on the list - should you even be spending time doing it? Can you delegate it? Or simply not do it? Maybe you have many things on your to-do list that you put off, because in reality they simply don’t need to be done. Make a decision and strike it off. But do it in such a way that you “close the loop” on that task and it doesn’t take up any more brain power or space. It’s a bit like closing an application you’re done working on, it no longer takes up any space on the CPU.
You might not have the time to dedicate an entire day to this - in which case consider a half-day, perhaps Friday afternoon. You probably won’t be incredibly productive in that time anyway, why not tackle some process stuff and leave with a clear head for the weekend.
I have read many versions of this approach, and you can decide to dedicate a few hours every few days, 30 minutes a day or a whole day every so often. In either case, I think batch-processing a lot of items and getting those small things off your plate and off your mind is vital to be able to work clear-headed on important projects, the ones that bring results and make you look good to your clients and/or bosses.
As a writer, I often find that any time spent on something that is not directly-related to one of my writing projects is something I tend to resent, mostly because I am evaluated on how much work I get done, not on how many papers I file or emails I sort. But I have started to see the benefits of getting those niggling things done and off my mental to-do list, as a way to go back to my projects with more peace of mind and greater clarity on what I need to do. The more I let things pile up, I feel like I am holding the rest of the world at bay while I try to work with their demands clamoring in my ear.
In fact, I am feeling so energized by tackling a large chunk of my process work, that I am now itching to get back to my work-in-progress.