What is your first reaction when you have a full day or tasks, meetings, or projects? Do you get stuck in and look up until everything is done, or do you freeze on the spot unable to decide what to do first.
Feeling overwhelmed is completely natural, other common responses are, procrastinating and panicking about the lack of time you have. When you come face to face with a nightmare day, or a big project you don’t know how to handle the key is to take things slow to begin with, then build upon little achievements so you always feel active.
Studies have shown in college students and full time workers, the information overload and time constraint that comes with daunting projects can literally cause you to have a mental breakdown, meaning you are freezing in the face of a possible opportunity.
Uncertainty and fear leave you in the company of unfriendly feelings of doubt, hesitation and self pity. You might even feel like giving up and pressing the emergency ‘ignore’ button in your brain. But in this article I will show you how this should never be an option, postponing work only makes you feel worse.
If you find yourself postponing work more often than not you have two culprits to blame. The unclear destination that this huge project will take you, and the fear of not knowing what is around the corner.
There are three easy ways to cut down the forest in your mind and release the motivation that lies deep down. These productivity hacks will allow you to go from “OH NO” to “HELL YES”. The Swiss Cheese, the Salami Slice, and the Action methods are the three we will focus on today.
This is not a joke… That is actually what they are called, and they will help you tackle the next project that comes across your desk.
If you want to learn how to Pomodoro yourself to success look here!
Poke The Panic Bubble With A Little Bit Of Swiss Cheese
The rightly named Swiss Cheese method involves taking small chunks of tasks to poke holes in the bigger project.
Imagine little caterpillars feasting on a big leaf. They all start at random parts biting off little segments making little holes, they get to a point where there are too many holes and the leaf is almost gone. The leaf just needs a little breeze to knock it off the tree. Those caterpillars worked hard on their own little part of the leaf, and now by biting off little amounts here and there, their project is done.
When you “Swiss Cheese” an overwhelming project, you start by taking random bites out of your to-do list. Think of these as little wins that keep you going through the entire task. Because you just sit down and do little tasks that accumulate to a larger goal, you will feel more productive and have an organised structure of where you stand.
By taking on little nibbles, you are taking small steps to moving your to-do list to the complete list. These steps are a sure sign of progress which can be documented and celebrated. Knowing that something has been completed makes you want to come back tomorrow and go again.
The never ending progress also gives you a spike of motivation. All of these motivation spikes from Swiss Cheesing your project helps you complete the overwhelming tasks in a small but impactful way.
Keep in mind, this idea is just to get you started. You don’t need to dedicate hours of your day to complete one particular task. Just set yourself a goal to begin working, then see where it takes you. In other words, you don’t need to start with an appetiser, then move onto a main and finish with desert. You can start with a slice of cake, then take a bit of your salad, have a bit of steak sided with ice cream, or even just drink a coffee. As long as these things are going towards your bigger goal, start wherever you want.
So, you can drill a random hole anywhere in your project with the Swiss Cheese method. Then you can continue poking holes wherever you want or you can organise the holes you make later on when you build momentum in your work, and your panic has taken a backseat.
Just a little example of the Swiss Cheese method
Say you want to start a new blog site and you start to feel overwhelmed about everything that needs to be done. Domain registration, website design, writing content, uploading calendars, and every other task that is down the road.
Instead of getting bogged down in the ‘too much to do, so little time’ mentality, take 10 minutes before you have lunch one day and register a domain name you want to use. Then take another 10 minutes after lunch to set up your hosting and WordPress site. Think of it this way, if you take 20 minutes per day to complete your project, that is 2 hours per week, 8 hours per month, and 104 hours per year. Imagine what you could accomplish in 104 hours.
The main thing is to keep digging holes in your project, until there is no project left to dig. Here are 5 tools I use that will make your business more efficient!
Fight Your Fear With The Salami Slice Tactic
Another way to combat projects is to salami slice them. The Salami Slice tactic comes with different names and is used in multiple industries, I will show you why it is so popular in this section.
First things first, this tactic is a political strategy to take down an opponent, you take them slice by slice until they realize it’s too late, they are virtually gone and out of the race. It is also a negotiation tactic used in business to leverage for more than they are offering.
However, for the big project that is sitting on your desk, this method involves working on the project one slice at a time instead of attempting to consume the entire thing at once.
This method is more suited to the analytical person, someone that likes to work in chronological order.
Think in terms of eating cake, unless you have an insane sweet tooth, it is pretty difficult to eat an entire cake in one go. The smart thing to do is take it slice by slice. This method is basically the same thing, take small slices one at a time, let it digest, then dive in for another one.
In an interview, Author Joseph Lunievicz told us that he finished his first book, Open Wounds, using this very tactic. He put aside blocks of 20-60 minutes to write pages for his book, and he did one of these blocks 3-5 per week. Take the advice of Lunievicz. Here is what you’re doing when you slice a project:
- You find your overwhelming project (your salami), you can’t bite into it using the Swiss Cheese method because it’s too complicated. Any attempts to get started leave you frozen with panic and procrastination.
- Slice your work into manageable items. Prepare a list of tasks you need to complete for a segment of your project, and work through it.
- You complete your first slice and you go in for a second. Once all of these small tasks are complete, your project will be finished.
Once you slice your project into doable tasks you can focus on them one by one, and avoid getting nervous looking at a bigger picture of unattainable deadlines.
As I mentioned you need to be logical and organised to be able to do this method. People who work well under this can take their project by the neck, and slice through it. The idea is to consciously pick the tasks to slice from the main project so you are working on parts of your project in an organised fashion, instead of doing things randomly and losing track of what you are trying to complete.
Take Small Steps To Build Momentum
In fact, these two methods are also well suited to those who just can’t handle all the panic from their nightmare project. Both of these productivity tactics share one major similarity… They work for the same reason.
Plus, the small wins you keep accruing help fuel your motivation tank, so you keep moving forward slowly but surely until your project is complete and your panic level is zero. Educator Mehrnaz Bassiri summarises the role of making small steps in her TED Talk:
“Small wins have a transformational power. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion to favor another small win and another small win until the combination of these small wins lead to larger and greater accomplishments”
The Action Method
If you are a problem solver or someone who works in a creative niche, this is the method for you. The Action method revolves around you turning a brainstorming session into an actionable to-do list. It is a great way to tidy the messier aspects of creative work.
The Action method was developed in 2006 by Behance as a way of simplifying creative meetings. The problem with brainstorming and most creative work is that it often needs to be messy to be truly innovative. Thinking outside the box requires you to get down and dirty, but actually getting things done requires a more orderly system.
This method helps you move from the idea phase of a project to the actionable steps with priorities, due dates, and assignments. It involves breaking down ideas into three key categories:
- Action Items: The steps you take to get the project done
- Back-burner Items: The interesting ideas that don’t directly fit into your plan for this project
- Reference Items: Resources and information you will need to complete your project
Once you have filled these categories, you can focus on the tasks that impact the project directly rather than getting distracted by distant material. The Action method allows you to welcome and integrate off-beat ideas while still coming away with a concrete plan.
With all of our productivity methods outlined above let’s dive into the science behind why they work.
Breakdown Of What Your Future Projects Should look Like
Here is how your next project should go:
- Start by taking small tasks that are easy to do.
- Continue demolishing small tasks one at a time throughout your day.
- You have completed so many tasks that you have reached the final hurdle, your project is done.
If you want to test all of these productivity methods to find out which works best for you, check out our article on how productivity experiments could help you!
The Method Behind The Madness
The methods outlined above have two main reasons to thank for their effectiveness:
- The power of small steps
- The forward momentum or sense of progress they welcome
Put in a better way, they get you to slowly chop into a project until there is nothing left. Small wins are important factors for boosting your emotion towards a task, motivation to keep going, and perception of the end product.
In a study of 238 knowledge workers, Dr Amabile and her team asked participants to log their emotions and perceptions in a daily diary. This went on for four months and the results showed that meaningful work no matter how small, ranked higher for enhancing motivation.
The research notes stated:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress even a small win can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
You can find the rest of the case study here!
Stop Feeling Overwhelmed And Start Getting Stuff Done!
Now that you know the secrets of organising tasks and structuring projects there is no reason why you should go and do it. All of the ingredients to complete a project are right in front of you, you just need to sort them out. The micro-steps will make those tasks easily manageable.
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