We’ve all been there before—musing over the endless laundry list of untouched tasks and work seems daunting to many. And the pressure only builds as deadlines creep in and unfinished projects mount up.
This nightmare scenario is becoming increasingly common in the modern workforce, and especially in the academic setting. As a high school student running a national nonprofit, I face this struggle daily.
But if Thomas Edison can promise “a minor invention every 10 days, a major one every six months,” I know we can all push ourselves more to reach our goals.
Here are a few tricks I picked up to maximize my time when pressed with too many activities:
1. GIVE YOURSELF PSEUDO-DEADLINES TO CREATE URGENCY
Start thinking about each activity you have to do before you actually get started. Estimate how long you predict it will take and how much effort might be required. Then set deadlines.
For instance, plan to finish exercising promptly at 10 a.m., the quarterly financial report by 2 p.m., and the letter of intent by 3:30 p.m. Setting strict deadlines creates a sense of urgency in your mind that will give you the needed motivation to finish each task on time.
After a while you will eventually have a better handle on how long activities take, and will be able to more quickly and efficiently plan out your day.
Delegate the most work time to activities that are the most urgent. Susan Bernstein, a career empowerment and leadership coach, suggests charting out the work that will get you the most results first before anything else.
2. TAKE BREAKS, BUT NOT THE KIND YOU’RE THINKING OF
We all need some recuperation during hard work, but try to avoid activities that will keep you hooked—television, surfing on Facebook, watching YouTube—because once you’re caught up in these, it’s hard to stop. Even once you muster up the will to go back to work, you will immediately get a sense in your mind that “Hey, I just really don’t want to do this.”
Jordan Bates, a productivity writer for Refine the Mind, says that technology use not related to work can be “one of the biggest drains” on productivity. This makes sense, since the brain struggles to transfer from a fun activity to one that requires extreme focus.
Instead, take breaks that center around activities you aren’t extremely interested in like exercise, eating, or cleaning up the office. This still allows for your brain to recharge, but it also doesn’t initiate mental resistance to returning back to the task at hand.
3. FOCUS ON A FEW SMALL TASKS FIRST, THEN MOVE TO THE MOST IMPORTANT
Early in the morning, you might be feeling a little lethargic and unmotivated to do any work. You can combat this by accomplishing some easy activities quickly and early in your day. Whether that may be answering a couple important emails or working on a minor report, the sense of finishing a task gives you confidence and helps set you up for success throughout the day.
4. RECOGNIZE WHEN TO HIT IT OUT OF THE PARK AND WHEN NOT TO
Every activity has a different priority for you. Sometimes when you are pressed for time, you simply cannot spend adequate time on each task. It’s important to say “no” sometimes to less vital tasks.
You may have two very important projects that are both going to be reviewed by major potential vendors. If you can’t spend enough time on each, realize that and then prioritize. Is it better to have two average projects or one robust one? The answer depends on your situation, but you need to adapt differently each time you are faced with this dilemma. If possible, delegate your work to others in the office.
5. TAKE NOTES
In the academic setting, planners called “agendas” are often given to students to write down homework in each class. In the work environment as well, handwritten daily planners have been proven to increase productivity and efficiency. Instead of trying to recall every minor and major issue that needs attention, you can simply spend a minute or so writing it down each morning and then focus on one task at a time.
Make sure your planner is separated by days; recording obligations each day allows for better organization and less confusion. After you complete a task, cross it out; this helps give your brain a confidence boost that you are making progress in your day.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in Fast Company.