“It’s the end of the day and I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.”
“My to-do list is constantly growing and I feel overwhelmed.”
“I want to feel more productive and accomplished at work.”
“I’m spread so thin that I’m not successful at anything.”
Sound familiar? You’re not the only one. Over the past two years since beginning my coaching practice, I’ve worked with nearly 100 creatives. Many of my clients come to me feeling overwhelmed, distracted, and unable to find time in the day to do their most important work. One of the first places we start is to take a comprehensive look at how they are spending their days. More specifically, we examine the drains and incompletions that often leave them with little to no energy to complete the work that is their actual priority.
We have a finite amount of attention to devote to daily tasks. Research shows that, on average, in an 8-hour day, employees are only productive for 3 hours. According to the study referenced, the other five hours are littered with unproductive activities, like reading news websites, checking social media, discussing non-work-related things with co-workers, searching for new jobs, texting, smoke breaks, making coffee, and so on.
Defining Drains and Incompletions
What about the tasks, which may be categorized as productive, that drain the time and energy we want to spend on priority work? These drains actually include things we may have to do: commuting, personal admin, email correspondence, meetings, calls. It might not be an option to remove these items from our to-do list, but perhaps we can rethink how we do them.
If drains take away our time and energy from important tasks, then incompletions take a toll on our mental bandwidth. How many to-do items are rolling around in your head at any given minute? I forgot to call so-and-so. I need to reply to that email from my boss. I promised my co-worker I’d get that report to them last week. And the list goes on.
Incompletions are any items on our to-do lists that we have yet to complete. They can be related to work, but they can also be personal. Regardless, they take up room in our minds. Incompletions can be negligible, like responding to a simple email, or they can be acute, like dreams we have put off, conversations to be had, projects we need to wrap up, or promises we’ve yet to deliver on.
Identify What is Stealing Your Time, Energy, and Attention
Addressing both drains and incompletions can help you free up bandwidth and be more present and productive in your day-to-day. In his book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport reminds us that, “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” If you are spending your time, energy, and attention on tasks that don’t support your overall mission or key priorities for your work, it’s time to re-evaluate where your energy is going. Here’s how you can start:
Step 1: Identify your drains and incompletions
Set aside 15-20 minutes on your calendar and minimize distractions for this check-in with yourself. Spend five minutes listing down all of your drains and incompletions. There’s no need to categorize them. Write every last item you can think of, from the light bulb that needs to be replaced in your bathroom to that conversation you need to have with your colleague, until you there is nothing left swirling around in your mind.
Step 2: Understand what you can and cannot control
Before you begin to decide how to address the items on your list, there’s a critical step. You must determine what you can control and what you cannot. How much time do you spend worrying, problem-solving, and fixating on what you cannot control? This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and disempowered.
Even when it feels like you have no control, you can still choose how you engage, respond, or proceed. It’s more fruitful to spend your time, energy, and attention on what you can do something about.
Take a look at the drains and incompletions you listed. Now, cross off all of the items you have no control over. It’s time to stop giving away your precious resources to these things. Commit to redirecting your energy to addressing the things you can actually do something about.
Step 3: Make a plan of action that works for you
Take a look at the drains and incompletions items left on your list. Confirm they are all items you can directly address, meaning you have some level of control over them. Now, spend ten minutes going through your list and deciding how you will tackle each item.
A few ways you could address incompletions include:
- delegating or outsourcing
- stop procrastinating and do it
- identifying if you’re missing a resource to complete the item and, if so, how you’ll find the resource(s)
- let it go altogether
- putting an end to perfectionism that causes you to wait until the “perfect” time or until you can do the task “perfectly”
- automating the task on your calendar if it’s something that needs to be done on a regular basis so you don’t forget
To address drains, you could consider:
- setting clear boundaries around what you are available for and when (i.e. scheduling time on your calendar to work without distraction)
- shifting the way you use your time (i.e. finding a way to make your commute more enjoyable or using it as an opportunity to decompress)
- limiting time spent on drains that can consume your day (i.e. only checking email at certain times throughout the day)
Motivation for Change
The biggest hurdle in beginning to address drains and incompletions is that it’s a process that will require your time, energy, and attention. It may feel like an overwhelming request at first, especially if you already feel depleted of energy. However, the short-term investment will create long-term rewards as you take action and see results. Addressing drains and incompletions may seem like a small, simple idea, but it can dramatically improve your workflow and increase your energy and feelings of productivity.
When you think of your ideal day, it likely doesn’t include back-to-back meetings, endless calls, being stuck in email land, or completing urgent, but unimportant tasks that don’t support your main work. What if you could feel more productive, less distracted, and have an increased ability to give your most important — and finite — resources to the work that truly matters? Not only is a more productive, focused, fulfilling day within your reach, but you’re the only one who can make it happen for yourself. No one else will value your time, energy, and attention as much as you do. It’s time to rethink the way you spend your days, one drain and one incompletion at a time.