Email. Phone calls. DMs. Letters. Notifications.
It seems that every year we have more and more small stuff to handle, and it’s understandable if it starts to get a little overwhelming.
The question is – can you handle all the small stuff that modern life throws at you? And given just how much there is nowadays, can you do it without getting overwhelmed?
Fortunately, you can. Despite the fact that there seems to be a never-ending pile of things to do, it is very possible to handle everything both systematically, using technology and tools to your advantage, and strategically, in a way that’s good for your long-term state of mind and psychology.
Let’s find out how.
Finding Out What Small Stuff You Need To Handle
The first step is to figure out what you need to handle.
I’m not talking about your priorities or big goals here – I’m talking about the little things that pile up if left unchecked. The quick email replies, the checklist items, the 2-minute tasks. The little things that have to be done, but that you really should not have to sweat about.
Here’s a quick list of some of them:
- Random ideas you’ve written down.
- Post-it notes.
- Papers/documents that need scanning or filing.
- Audio notes.
- Phone calls to return.
- Appointments to schedule.
- App notifications to clear.
- People to get back to or follow up on.
- Everyday things you just have to do, like pick up milk on the way home.
Basically, anything that requires more than a moment of your attention but isn’t directly conducive to your goals.
Why We Need To Handle The Small Stuff
The second step is realising that you actually do need to pay some attention to the little things.
I sometimes get asked: “Aaron, is in absolutely necessary to handle the little things in life? I mean, can’t I just let some of it, you know, slip by?”
Well, yes you can. Sort of.
I don’t believe that you need to have absolutely everything handled 100% to succeed in life. The reason for this is that the human drive/potential is so high, that simply knowing what you want and taking massive action and course correcting is often enough to get you where you want to go, little things be damned.
That being said, having the small stuff handled and organised does confer certain advantages.
The obvious advantage is psychological. Having all the little things handled makes it easier to tackle the big things – you’ll have less friction starting on your priorities and big projects if there aren’t dozens of unfinished little things cluttering up your thoughts.
You’ll be less stressed over things piling up, and as a result you will have higher lows and lower highs – more emotional stability and evenness from which to operate. In turn, this makes it easier to figure out exactly what the next thing you need to handle is, and how to get started on it.
Which leads us to the practical advantages. Having all your small stuff systematically handled means you won’t be constantly putting out fires – they’ll have been extinguished at the tinder stage. This means fewer things will slip through the cracks. It also means you’ll be systemised and organised.
In the long-term, you will gain both psychological and practical advantages. Whatever your goals are, if there aren’t thousands of tiny things pulling you in different directions, you’ll get there faster. You’ll have more confidence and a better mindset.
And once you get to your destination, you’ll be able to look back and see the dots and journey that you took – and be able to show others how to do the same.
How To Handle the Small Stuff
Now that we know what we need to handle and why we need to handle it, let’s look at how to handle the small stuff.
This can be thought about in terms of timeframes:
- Short-Medium Term.
1. Emergency: Use Prioritisation Systems
I wish I could skip over this section on “emergency handling” of all the small stuff you have to do, because handling things via a short-medium term or long-term system is much more generative.1And once you practice those, you’ll never have a need to do an emergency session again.
But just in case you’re overwhelmed right now, here’s how you go about untangling things so that you can get to a more systemised way of doing things.
What you want to do is to put all your items into a master list. One singular list, so you know what the count is.
Then you want to pick a prioritisation tool or framework and apply it. There are many you can read about online, and some popular ones include:
- Eisenhower Quadrants.
- ABC method.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter which one you pick because the action you need to take is the same. Take the method. Prioritise your list. And then clear it.
All of the methods will have some form of cutting out things that you think you need to do but actually don’t, and then prioritising the remaining things and letting you work through them.
You may not be able to clear everything in one sitting, but over a few days it will get done. And once this initial emergency need has passed, you can get to the fun stuff – systematically handling things on a regular basis, and making sure that this never happens again.
2. Short-Medium Term: Input, Process, Output
In the short-to-medium term you want to have a system that gets things in, processes them, and then outputs the necessary parts.
You basically want to have a Standard Operating Procedure for handling the small stuff.
Let’s break this down.
Input – Getting Things In
You need a way to get things into your small stuff processing system.
There are a plethora of ways to do this:
- Post-it notes.
- Carry a notebook around with you.
- An app on your phone, which is my preferred method.2Most task management apps will have an “inbox” function for this very purpose.
Productive people call this concept quick capture or inbox capture and take it for granted, but if you’ve never done it before, it will revolutionise your life.
Every time you have an idea or someone ask you to do something – quick capture it into your system.
Processing – Getting Things Done
Now that you have a way to get the small stuff into your inbox system, the question becomes how and when do you handle it?
Because if you don’t, what will happen is you will end up with hundreds of items in your new inbox, and end up back at an “emergency” situation, which is what we really don’t want.
Thankfully, the processing part has been thoroughly researched and battle-tested by millions of people worldwide – it’s a little system called Getting Things Done (GTD).
Getting Things Done is a book by management consultant David Allen and is considered the “go to” for workflow management in business and productivity circles.
The system itself is pretty simple and the book itself is worth a read. Here’s how I recommend people use it:
What you want to do is about once or twice a week, pull up this diagram and your inbox, and follow the system.
You’ll want to have an existing system in place for your tasks and references, which could be:
- Or anything else really – one place to store tasks, one place to store notes.
You can see that all items will first split into one of two categories:
- Things you can handle now.
- Things you can’t handle now.
For things that you can handle now:
- If it’s actionable in under 2 minutes, do it now.
- If it’s something you can do now but will take longer than two minutes, defer it by putting it into your project systems and structures.
- If it’s something you need to delegate, delegate it now by sending an email or DM.
For things you can’t handle now:
- If you actually don’t need to do it, discard it.
- If it belongs in a project, add it to that project.
- If it is something you want to do someday, add it to a “someday” list.
- If it is a piece of information for future reference, add it to your reference system or wiki.
Outputting and Delegation
The last part of this is output and delegation.
This could be as simple as a quick email or DM to someone, or assigning a task in a collaboration system. And thanks to always-on mobile Internet, you can pretty much do this anytime, anywhere nowadays.3Use your discretion though – there are some things/discussions which should be handled in person.
3. Long-Term: Systems and Assets
Now you know how to handle all your incoming small stuff in the short-medium term.
But what about the long-term? What is the endgame of all this, given that life seems to throw more and more little things at us every year?
I believe that the long-term goal here should be to reduce the number of things you need to attend to.
There are a number of ways to do this.
The buzzword as I write this is “automate”. This is where you go out and create or buy “time assets”,4Hat tip to Patrick McKenzie (Kalzumeus) at: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/03/20/running-a-software-business-on-5-hours-a-week/ which means code, software or outsourcing. For example, you can hire a cleaning company to come around monthly. Or write some code to help you set up spaced repetition for learning something.
You can also look at your existing habits and routines, and find a way to incorporate one of the “little things” into those routines. A simple example of this would be to load your dishes into the dishwasher after eating, so that “do dishes” doesn’t become one of the little things in your inbox. Another example would be writing tomorrow’s to-do list as the last thing you do before you leave the office for the day.
You can (and should) use technology to your advantage. I strongly suggest pulling up the notifications settings on your phone and turning off all the ones that aren’t important, especially for games or apps that you already check on a regular basis.
If you run a business or manage a team, you can delegate better and give more autonomy to your team members – let them make some of the non-critical decisions.
One of the things that we touched on in the why section is that clearing the small stuff is advantageous both psychologically and practically. What you will find is over time, you just become more fluid at handling things. This is the result of simple motor and cognitive memory – the more you do something, the better you get at it.
What To Do Next
You’re likely reading this article because you have plenty on your plate at the moment. So that’s the first step – clear your existing list of small stuff using what’s outlined in the Emergency section.
Once that’s out of the way, set up your inbox and start processing things using GTD or a similar method. And then think about how to reduce the number of incoming things in the long term.
This article covered a lot of different systems and concepts. If you would like to hear more about any of them in detail, send me a message and let me know.
- And once you practice those, you’ll never have a need to do an emergency session again.
- Most task management apps will have an “inbox” function for this very purpose.
- Use your discretion though – there are some things/discussions which should be handled in person.
- Hat tip to Patrick McKenzie (Kalzumeus) at: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/03/20/running-a-software-business-on-5-hours-a-week/
Photo by Bonnie Kittle.