Dear Crucial Skills,
My sister is stressed, overwhelmed, at her breaking point, and needs help. She runs two companies, has two small children, and was recently diagnosed with ADHD on top of the thousands of unread email messages in her inbox and hundreds of tasks she has on her to-do list. I’ve taken the Getting Things Done (GTD) course and see plenty of tools that I know could help her reduce stress and take control of her chaotic life. What are some things she can do to get started on her GTD journey, and is there anything I can do to help her?
It’s great to hear that you have found value in GTD and, like so many GTD practitioners, you want to share what you have found to help others. People who love GTD want to spread the love with everyone they love. Which is great. And also not so great. Sometimes enthusiasm for GTD crosses the line into unwelcome evangelism. So remember that you can share some ideas and you can support your sister in taking some steps, but ultimately you can’t make someone else use GTD (even if you know they should!).
The first thing to do when offering to help someone is check to see whether they want that help. Be gentle with your sister. Her stress is already off the charts. Giving her one more thing to do, even if that thing is GTD, could feel overwhelming because it’s “just one more thing to do.”
Start by sharing your good intent—you can tell she is stressed and want to help. Then, share a bit of your own experience—you’ve learned something recently about GTD that is helping you. Make it clear that you aren’t criticizing her or any of the choices she has made. You simply have a couple of ideas that you think could help.
If she is interested, great. If not, step back but let her know that if she ever changes her mind, you’d be happy to share. You can offer; you can’t compel, and you should not pressure.
Assuming she is looking for something that can help and wants to start this journey, here are three tips anyone can use to get started with GTD.
Shrink It Down
When facing a big project or list of projects, it is common to feel overwhelmed. The natural reaction is to avoid the project. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, explains how a big project or list of projects triggers our flight-fight-freeze response. “Our bodies react to threat the same way, whether the threat is external, like the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, or the threat is internal. With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down. It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don’t know where to start or how to do things.”
The way to get started, then, is to make the project or the to-do list less threatening. In GTD we do that by shrinking the project down to its very next action—the next physical, visible thing you need to do. For me, I like thinking about it this way: how can I make the next action so small that it is almost effortless? If I am dreading writing my next newsletter article, the next action might be “open a word document and name it.” If I am avoiding planning my next team event, the next action might be “email four colleagues and ask them for their favorite team-building activities.” The smaller you can make the next action, the less threatening it becomes and the more likely you are to do it.
Look at Your To-Do List before Email
Most people I know start their day by looking at their email. The moment they do is the moment they let others define their day. When we immediately jump into email, we are scanning and looking at what other people need us to do. This puts us in reactive mode for the rest of the day.
Instead, start the day by looking at your to-do list and your calendar. These two items represent what you had already decided was important to do that day. Review them and ask yourself, “Are these still important for me to do today?” and “What’s the most important thing I need to do today?” When you start the day by defining your priorities for yourself, you now have a rule by which to measure everything else that comes at you. Is this email request from your manager more important than what you had previously decided was your most important priority for the day? If so, shift to that. If not, let your manager know what you are working on today and when you will get back to their email.
Make the Backlog Its Own Project
Busy people can often end up with a huge backlog of unread emails or to-dos that have been lingering on their lists for weeks, months, or even years. It can feel impossible to start being productive today when you have that burdensome backlog.
If you have a backlog that feels overwhelming, the best thing you can do is to make it its own project. Move all those unread, unprocessed emails into a folder, title it “backlog,” and then put “process backlog emails” on your to-do list. Take all those lingering would-, should-, could-do items that have been taking up space on your to-do list and move them to a “someday/maybe” list.
The benefit of clearing those items off your list and out of your inbox is immense! It will free you to get started with what is on front of you right now. You still have the security of knowing all that stuff is still there, waiting for when you have the bandwidth to address it. Surprisingly, many people I work with find that, after a few months, they haven’t returned to their backlog. After a few more months of added perspective, they often decide they don’t need to address that backlog at all.
One Final Note
You shared that your sister has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD have unique challenges with focus and productivity that I am not qualified to address. For a resource specifically on adult ADHD, you might consider Abigail Levrini’s book Succeeding with Adult ADHD, published by the American Psychological Association.
All the best,