Under Pressure, Overwhelmed, and Without a Plan: Making an Endless To-Do List Work for You.

I’ve been thinking recently about the colloquial phrase, “Putting things on the back burner,” a line commonly used when people are trying to prioritize and make sense of the seemingly endless list of tasks that lies in front of them. But it got me thinking, even on the biggest, heavy-duty, industrial stove there are only so many back burners. And even in the hypothetical case in which there are, in fact, an infinite number of burners, logic follows that too many pots on the stovetop will burn the kitchen right down.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “OK, really? Pots and stoves? What the hell is this guy talking about?” But bear with me for a second.

What I’m really talking about is being able to keep a cool head even when you’re completely overwhelmed by the million commitments and obligations weighing on you.

And though it may seem like I’m going off on another tangent, let me set up another analogy: any packed schedule is like a busy emergency room. In both cases the key is triage. From the French “triere” meaning to separate, sift, or select, the term refers to the process of prioritizing the issues at hand (in the case of the ER, literally prioritizing the patients) by certain criteria to ensure that the most pressing matters are taken care of first. So big deal, right? This doesn’t sound all that different from everything you’ve been told about time management before. But if you take it to the next level, it really does make some sense.

In the ER you triage based on urgency, i.e. which patients have the least time before they take a turn for the worst or whose treatment is time sensitive, letting everything else kinda hang out in the waiting room for a while, knowing that they can be assessed AFTER there’s been some stabilization of the acute matters. Treat your obligations the same way.

Make a list and ask yourself, “What are the deadlines that absolutely MUST be met?” and, “What can I (to come full circle) put on the back burner while I get the pressing issues dealt with?” You’ll be surprised how well his first step of delineation sets the stage for clearing out your to-do list. This is because an honest assessment of the various commitments you’ve made (regardless of whether they’re personal, work-related or otherwise) accomplishes two separate tasks simultaneously: it is both an accounting of all that you have to accomplish, and an assessment of what’s most important to you and at least some assessment of the reasons why.

Once this list is made the next step is to make some plausible estimates as to how long each of the most urgent tasks will take, and (if they exist) what points are safe to stop at. Think of it as the point when you’ve finally stabilized the patient who’s been bleeding all over the place and can step away for a few minutes to take care of other business. Splitting seemingly insurmountable tasks up into bite-size portions like this not only makes it easier to stomach, but also allows for more flexibility in fitting everything in. If you’re sure you’ve stopped in a good place AND have a set time slated for when you’ll get back to working on the project, there’s no reason to fear, or feel guilty about, stepping away from a big task. In fact, often times just starting a big project and making some headway alleviates a good deal of the initial anxiety and may help with that overwhelmed feeling.

And guess what, once you’ve done all this and the groundwork is laid, much of the heavy lifting is done. Admittedly, you have to leave some room for flexibility. But with a plan of action which is well-thought-out and straight-forward with regards to the amount of time and effort it is going to require, your chances for success are much greater. Even better, by getting the pressing stuff out of the way first, your workload only gets better as you go, until before you know it, your rough period is done, and you can relax a little bit. Like the ER doc who’s faced with a waiting-room-full of patients, by facing your overwhelming schedule head-on you’ll get through it and live to breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief when it’s all done.

Picutre of author

About Justin Fiala, MD Candidate

Justin is currently in his third year of medical school at UIC's College of Medicine, and is hoping to pursue a career in internal medicine. He has a strong interest in addressing the health needs urban communities and is part of the College of Medicine's Urban Medicine program. Aside from academics, Justin enjoys cooking, listening to public radio, and perusing the New York Times website. He is also a trained pianist and self-professed lover of all kinds of music.

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