Drowning in work

For one reason or another there are times when things get extra busy. My tasks pile up, my projects pile up, my inboxes overflow, and pretty soon I’m waking up at 3am staring at the ceiling thinking about work.

My first instinct when this happens is to leap astride my office chair and start closing tasks. I want to get something done – anything – and I want to do it right now. Its like a sort of slow moving low intensity panic. And the anxiety builds up over time. If it gets really bad it becomes paralyzing and even easy things become hard. Thoughts like these are repeating in my head:

  • “So many things to do!”
  • “If I check off these 20 little things that are nagging me, I’ll feel less stress”
  • “Maybe when I get enough of this small stuff done I’ll have breathing room to do the really important things.”
  • “No time to be strategic – maybe I will take some time next month”

In my rush to get things done, I don’t take the time to figure out what the most important thing is. This is equivalent to falling out of a boat and splashing around until I get tired and drown.


Learning to not drown

One day I decided to give myself permission to spend as much time as I wanted prioritizing my tasks. I was in the middle of a crisis. I felt guilty because I wasn’t making progress. It felt wrong. It also felt great — like a luxury I didn’t deserve. At first, I spent an hour or two a day prioritizing because things were a mess and I didn’t have a system. But within a few days I was down to 30 minutes. And after a week it took just a few minutes each day.

I found this quick daily act of creating clarity for myself around whats important and writing down a plan helped calm my mind and allowed me to get the right things done. It felt good and hopeful and cleared up my anxiety.

It turns out: A much better solution after falling out of a boat is to to look around calmly, find which shore is closest, and start swimming towards it. Which problems are the most important? What do I need to do to solve those problems? Is there someone who can help?


For me, prioritization doesn’t come naturally. My instincts are wrong. I thought I understood the value of prioritizing but never seemed to make time for it. I realized prioritizing is not an aspirational nice-to-have or a maybe-I’ll-do-it-during-org-days thing. Its foundational. Like sleep or vegetables. I have to prioritize prioritizing. And when I really get good at it someday it should flow daily and continuously into every decision. Perhaps nothing I do at work on any given day is more important. I could work 24/7 but its all wasted effort if I’m not swimming towards shore.