Do Two Things Well
I’ve been thinking about workloads and to-do lists recently, and struggling with feelings of overwhelm as a result of telling myself I have too much to do, and am trying to learn the lesson of a new rule I’ve imposed on myself recently. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m currently in the middle of moving house, and am also trying to firm up details of an R&D to develop a new show, prepare and promote a work-in-progress preview of that show at the Pleasance next week, and redraft the scripts of the radio series I’m writing. Each one of those breaks down into at least five or six smaller tasks that need completing (book moving van; notify council; set up new internet provider; confirm rehearsal space; confirm collaborators; record audio tracks for preview; plug show on social media; get notes on scripts from Steve; redraft Episode One Scene Two, and on and on and on).
Not only am I prone to spiralling in my head with the ways big projects break down into a myriad of overwhelming small tasks, I also have a really self-sabotaging tendency to put just as much effort into lining up future work as I do into getting my current work done. I’ll look at the jobs I currently have to do and think “Yeah, but what am I gonna do when these projects are finished? What if people like my radio show and ask me what I want to do next, and I haven’t bothered to line up any new projects, so I just end up twiddling my thumbs for months?” So alongside actually trying to complete projects, I’m often putting energy into coming up with new ideas or approaching other collaborators to talk about things we could work on in a few months’ time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this – it means I very rarely find myself wondering what to work on next, because I’ve usually lined it up in advance – but it is bad for anxiety and stress, and I increasingly think, bad for the projects themselves because my focus and attention are all over the place.
More recently I’ve started adopting a mindset that I’ve been finding really helpful, which I’m trying to impose on myself as a rule of thumb:
I am only ever doing two things, and I’m going to do them well before I consider moving onto a third.
I’ve taken this approach to daily to-do lists for quite a while now. At the start of a week, my to-do list tends to have between ten and fifteen things on it, depending on whether those things are big jobs or small. So that I don’t just find myself stressed-out and feeling like I’m playing catch-up with myself all week, I assign two or, at most, three of those tasks to each day of the week. Today I’m writing this newsletter, giving some notes on a film edit and firming up details for the R&D. Tomorrow I’ll rewrite a couple of scenes and book a moving van and parking permit, and so on. So on any given day, if I get that day’s tasks done ahead of time, I can either make an early start on one of the next day’s tasks, or just chill out if I’m happy with what I’ve got done. Miranda recently showed me a Youtube video about how easy it is for us to overestimate how much it’s possible to get done in one day, and that if we’re kind to ourselves with our to-do lists then we’ll be really surprised by how much we can get done in a year. I can’t remember who the Youtube video was by, so good luck finding it, but it really struck a chord with how I’ve been trying to structure my workload recently.
I’d like to thank Google for this beautiful picture of a To Do List, which I think illustrates my themes this week really nicely, and does a good job of breaking up the text.
Always Two, There Are
But I’ve only recently realised that applying that same logic to your life in general really delivers results in terms of mental wellbeing and focus and productivity. Only higher up in this newsletter I deliberately broke my own new rule by talking about “what I had to do” at the moment, and listing four things. My new rule is based largely on what people would want to hear about in a social situation – when somebody asks you what you’ve been up to lately, nobody ever wants to hear about more than two things. “I’m moving house, and I’m figuring out an R&D, and getting ready for a preview next week, and writing some scripts” is an insane answer. Whoever asked you would assume you were really under a lot of pressure and not sleeping very well and doing a bad job of reading social cues, and probably try to move on quite quickly. “I’m moving house and working on some scripts” is a perfectly decent answer. So from now on I’m going to try and treat myself with the same sense of boundaries as I would treat someone else in a polite conversation.
Until two weeks ago, the two things I was working on were trying to find somewhere to live and developing the new show for a preview. That was all I needed to work on. Those two big tasks got broken down into smaller tasks over the week, as I’ve said, and I didn’t allow myself to think about a third thing until one of those two was done. I’ve now found somewhere to live, and have got notes on the scripts, and have an approaching deadline for the R&D; so this week I’m working on rewriting the scripts and confirming the R&D. Once one of those two is done, I can consider myself to be “currently working” on a third thing, whatever that may be. This way I don’t distract myself by trying to work out what I’m going to do in two months’ time rather than giving my focus to jobs I should be working hard on now. Once I’ve done everything it’s currently possible to do on one particular task, then I can shift my focus to a third thing and make that one of my current two, but by only ever letting myself think about two things at a time, it means I’m always capable of doing those two things well before allowing myself to move on, and not letting my commitment to those things falter because I’m too busy thinking of a dozen other things I need to do.
Do you guys have similar approaches to organising your workloads? Do you often suffer from the same degree of overwhelm, and have your own systems for managing it? Let me know if you have any thoughts on all of this, I’d love to hear it!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Sorry, I’m going to use this to plug a show of mine again, which I try to do rarely, but I’ve had to do a couple of times recently as my previews have all come at once. Next week I’m doing a work-in-progress at the Pleasance and I’d love you to come!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I watched an episode of CBBC’s Class Dismissed this week, because Roisin & Chiara and Kat Bond are in it and all three of them are legends. There’s a bit where Kat drinks slime through a sock that I think is genuinely brilliant. It’s honestly better than a lot of comedy shows made for adults.
Book Of The Week – Still on East Of Eden. Nearly done, though. Feel like I need to apologise for taking a while over it. Why? It’s a long book, and nobody cares. Sorry, anyway. Great book btw.
Film Of The Week – I went to see Encanto, the new Disney movie about a magic Colombian house. Surprisingly good. Was expecting fluff, but it’s got some good stuff about generational trauma in there, and a couple of really catchy songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Album Of The Week – 30 by Adele. I can’t make my mind up about this. It’s basically Adele making one of those “I’m not just doing pop bangers any more, I’m making artistic statements” albums, like Lemonade by Beyonce. It’s nowhere near as good as Lemonade, and feels a bit try-hard in places – there’s a song where she includes a voice-note of herself crying and talking about how lonely she feels, which feels a bit on-the-nose. But then some of the songs on it are breathtakingly good (“To Be Loved” gives me goosebumps). It’s definitely very good, but I’m struggling to fully embrace it.
That’s all for this week! Thanks for reading, and as ever, if you enjoy the Therapy Tapes and would like to share them with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, it would be hugely appreciated! Take care of yourselves until next week, and all the best,
PS Here’s the view from Primrose Hill this morning