How To Juggle All Your Priorities Without Losing Your Damn Mind
Have you ever been so overwhelmed, so completely torn between a thousand different and important tasks that you basically shut down and go to bed instead? I have.
These days it’s not unusual to be forced to juggle several different jobs, not to mention all the tasks and responsibilities that come along with being a human person. For the last two years, I’ve been writing a novel, as well as working 9 to 5, dealing with a chronic health problem and raising two clinically anxious dogs. Somewhere in between all this I also had a friend or two and for one dark weekend, a hobby.
At various times it’s all gone well, and I have been productive and happy. At other times, it’s felt like trying to put out multiple fires with a bucket of angry sharks. Science has also confirmed that multitasking is bad for your health, and is basically a way of efficiently doing a lot of tasks badly.
But there has to be a way of doing it all effectively, and without losing your mind. We’ve asked several experts who are all old hands at juggling multiple projects for the best tips and strategies.
#1 Organise your entire life
This seems obvious, but the more organised you are, the less likely that your tasks will surprise or overwhelm you. And the way to organise is to commit to a system. There are a thousand systems out there, but it’s about finding the right one for you. Just because Google Calendar is user friendly, doesn’t mean it will help keep you organised if you don’t reference it enough.
I personally use a giant, old-fashioned date book, despite working almost exclusively online. For some reason, seeing my schedule off the computer helps me process and take a bigger-picture view of it all. I also use the Bullet Journal system, which is a fantastic analogue way of organising and prioritising your calendar.
Author, freelancer and writer of SBS’s The Family Law, Benjamin Law agrees about being organised, and says
“All I can say is that if my colour-coded iCal system ever broke down, my life would be ruined. And I actually have to schedule things in like “eating” and “exercise”, otherwise it just wouldn’t happen.”
Scheduling your entire day like this is something I would love to do, because it’s the ultimate in professional scheduling. Ben also admits to generally being over-committed, so it’s probably something he needs to do in order to function.
Other, less nuclear options include breaking your day into different sections, which you can readily slot different tasks into, often broken down by priority. For example, I always leave admin like invoicing for the afternoon, when I become naturally sleepy and stupid. I always do my pitches in the morning, when I’m highly caffeinated and excited about life.
#2 Get into a routine
While trying to bash out all your work in one day so you can spend the rest of the week surfing might sound appealing, it’s not a great long-term solution. If you are trying to multi-task a host of unstructured work, like freelancing or contract work – basically anything that’s not 9 to 5 – it’s important to set yourself up with a routine.
Psychologically, the expectation of having to work means that you’re much more likely to actually sit down and do it. TV comedian, teacher at an improv school and one half of The Bear Pack, Steen Raskopoulos explains how his routine helped create a useful work ethic:
“For me to maintain a solid work ethic, I need to get into a routine. It’s easy to keep putting off projects to the last possible second and go to the beach – especially in Sydney – on a sunny day, simply because you can. Different things motivate different people. It took something tragic for me six years ago to change my attitude and work ethic. I used to have this idea that Mr Destiny was going to hand me my dreams on a delicious charcuterie board. However, it took me time to realise that it’s much more rewarding when you get it yourself through hours of work and perseverance.”
For me, finding the time to write a novel around a busy full time job meant that I had to start the routine of getting up two hours earlier each morning and writing very small amounts each day, which eventually turned into a book.
#3 Slack off with style
It’s difficult to schedule the feeling you get when you just can’t deal with something, such as emailing a difficult client or doing your tax or having that awkward yearly phone call with that racist granddad you have. However, Sophia Frentz, who is currently a PhD student in Genetics has an excellent solution:
‘Productive procrastination. Don’t want to write that article? Send emails for another project. Minutes getting you down? Do research for that thing you’ve been avoiding.’
When you’ve got your task priorities sorted, and you know which things are due or more important, it means that you can be more generous with your long term projects, and instead of watching TV or reading a book, you can still slack off and feel productive. It’s a win/win scenario!
#4 Do one job well
When you’re wearing lots of different metaphorical hats, it’s difficult to learn how to focus on one long enough to do the job well. Switching back and forth between your priorities can diffuse your concentration.
Anna Spargo-Ryan, digital strategist and author of The Paper House is no stranger to the difficulties of multiple hats. “The best advice anyone’s ever given me for balancing multiple priorities is to be fully present for them one at a time. While I’m working, I’m Anna The Worker. While I’m parenting, I’m Anna The Parent. As soon as I try to be Anna The Parent And Worker, every part of what I’m attempting suffers. Being singularly focused helps me to be more efficient, and to give the discrete priorities the level of attention they demand.”
#5 Have a break
It might seem impossible, but when you’re massively busy, when you’re overwhelmed with projects, when the deadline is around the corner, you still need to take a break.
Model, freelance writer, DJ and founder and director of House of Riot and On The Floor, Ollie Henderson explains why this is so important: “Don’t feel guilty about taking time off. Being busy is addictive, but burning out can destroy your projects. Schedule time for yourself where you don’t read emails, go to the beach and leave you phone at home. I know the prospect of this will scare the hell out of any person trying to juggle a million things but most things can wait a couple of hours.”
The reason behind all this is burnout. Whether it’s just because you are physically exhausted and unable to work anymore, or because you’ve worked yourself up into an anxious mess, neither are going to help you actually get your project done. Usually it will also impact on the quality of your work.
A lot of people believe the best way to do this is to physically move from your place of work, especially if it’s your home, so you can literally distance yourself form the source of your stress. It often helps you refocus and relax.
#6 Prioritise your energy
A lot of these tips focus on the hypothetical super-person who is working at 100% of their ability all the time. However, for lots of people, working at full capacity comes with a variety of disadvantages – people who are sick, have mental health concerns or disabilities. For them, there are added concerns, and remaining healthy or maintaining self-care is often the first priority, despite things like deadlines often clamouring for attention.
Kaitlyn Plyley, comedian and podcaster at Just A Spoonful, a podcast about living with chronic illness/disability, gives this advice: “Focus on energy output rather than just time spent on a job; assign each task (including writing, admin, self-care) an energy cost and then spread out the high-energy tasks. For instance, I can’t take a shower *and* do an hour’s work on the same day, so I have to prioritise (and luckily for everyone, I work from home).”
Apart from the fact that you should never punish yourself, you’re not doing anyone any favours in the long term by pushing yourself so hard that you end up in hospital.
Patrick Lenton is a writer and digital marketer. He runs Town Crier, a social media and marketing consultancy for authors.