An entire industry has been built around the concept of personal management and productivity. The best known of these experts is probably David Allen and his Getting Things Done system. David's books and system have been very helpful in my own life and I always try to recommend his work to anyone who seems to be drowning in their own commitments and responsibilities. There are countless other gurus out there who do the same thing as David Allen-- helping people organize and manage their work and daily lives in the most effective way possible. These individuals are doing beneficial work and I applaud them, but, I think that sometimes the whole process is over-complicated.
At the very core, a personal management system is supposed to help you decide what to do and when to do it. In Getting Things Done the workflow is centered around project lists that each have discrete next action steps that keep them moving toward completion. Each next action has a context assigned to it that should help you decide what to work on based upon where you are located. For example, you can look at your @office list while you are at work and not be distracted by those things you can only do at home or at the grocery store. Additionally, there are weekly reviews and a whole GTD workflow that must be memorized and executed. While extremely effective if done correctly, it can also be very complicated. Some, such as Leo Babauta, have tried to simplify the entire process. Leo took the GTD system and created his own take on it called Zen to Done. I highly recommend this ebook as I think it does a great job taking the core principles out of GTD and stripping away all the ancillary fluff.
However, I think all task management systems can be broken down into one sentence. Are you ready?
Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time.
That's it. We all know at some level what is causing us the most psychological discomfort in terms of our work. Whatever that is nagging at the back of your mind when you are sitting in front of your computer or walk into your office is quite often the thing that you need to get done most urgently. For me, writing these articles is what is usually gnawing at my subconscious. It's the very core activity to keeping this blog going and when I have finished a writing session I feel a burden lifted off my shoulders. It's not because this is a particularly onerous task-- in fact, I quite like writing these articles. It's not even that these are the most urgent in terms of deadline. I'm scheduled several weeks in advance so my blog will not shutdown if I don't write this article today. It's just that I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is what drives my blog forward and this is what drives my own intellectual curiosity and sense of accomplishment forward. The more I write the better I feel.
If you aren't sure what you need to do and are drowning in your work, take a second to be still. Close your eyes and decide what would feel the best to have completed. When you've decided what that project is, make the next thing you work on be something to make that your reality. You might not finish it, but even taking small steps toward it's completion can lift that mental weight a little bit. Chances are the reason an activity is causing you stress is because you know that it's important and that you have to get it done.
Just remember, at the end of the day after you've made all your to-do lists and project lists and mind maps and brainstorms and outlines and meetings and conference calls you still need to actually DO something.
Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time. It doesn't get much simpler than that.