Better Living

How to Tackle a Mountain of Tasks

A climb can be a challenging journey full of wonder, joy, and self-realization
BY Leo Babauta TIMEJuly 21, 2022 PRINT

I recently came back to my work after taking a full month off—I am a firm believer in taking time off and finding time for rest and replenishment.

After a month off, it turns out I have a pile of tasks, emails, and messages to go through.

It’s daunting. It can be discouraging to face this overwhelming amount of things, and the tendency is to put it off. Find some distractions. Feel disempowered about it.

Long story short: I struggled a bit, but found a way to dive back in and feel incredible about it. I’m still working through the piles, but loving every moment. I feel alive with my work and what I’m creating each day.

I learned a lot in the past week about this kind of challenge—some of it was relearning things I’ve learned before, but some of it was new learnings. I’d like to share here for anyone who is facing a daunting, overwhelming, and discouraging mountain of tasks, messages, and emails.

Let’s dive in.

Why We Feel Daunted: It’s an Impossible Task

We feel overwhelmed and discouraged because we look at the mountain of tasks and emails and think we have to do all of it. But we can’t. There’s no way to tackle a mountain in one go.

All of it gets grouped together in an impossible undertaking, but in truth, it’s a series of undertakings. It isn’t one thing, but it seems like it is. It’s like looking at all the food we have left to eat in our lives, and thinking there’s no way we can eat all of that. But in reality, we eat it one delicious bite at a time.

Separated, each task isn’t that hard. We have to pick one thing off the pile and focus on that.

How to Start

You can’t tackle everything at once. You just have to get started. What I’ve learned is that once you get started, and start having fun with it, you’ll see some progress. This creates a snowball effect where you keep getting encouraged by your progress. So you just have to get the ball rolling.

Here’s what worked for me:

  • Start slowly. The first day back, I just dipped my toe in the water and tried to find a few things I could get done. I gave myself permission to not try to do everything that first day. If you aren’t returning from vacation but are just facing a huge pile of things to do, give yourself permission to only do a few things so you can start making progress.
  • Find small wins to start with. I looked for small tasks and messages I could reply to, in order to get some easy victories. These are encouraging and give you a sense of progress. So important!
  • Start to triage. Start looking through the piles of tasks and emails, and see if there’s anything that’s more pressing. Pull those out and put them on a separate list to focus on. You can get to the rest later.
  • Get one thing done. That was my mantra—focus on getting one thing done. It could be small, medium, or large, but focus on one thing. I would get an easy thing done, then focus on another. And another. One at a time.
  • Find more small wins. Once I started making progress, I really enjoyed finding the little things I could do to start making the pile smaller and to get more victories under my belt. So much fun!
  • Turn it into a game. As you can see, I turned this mountain of tasks and messages into play by enjoying the progress. Enjoying each individual task. Putting love into every message, taking care of my life—it became like playing a game. I’m still playing it as I write this!

Don’t worry about doing each of those ideas. You might find inspiration in one or two of the items above—give them a try.

How to Focus

It’s one thing to get started, but how do you find focus so that you aren’t thinking about the entire mountain of things to do?

I do three things.

First, I pick a handful of things to focus on today. Just three to five things. If it’s more than five things, they better be small things, but I don’t like having a long list because it’s harder to focus. So I pick a short list. If I finish the short list, I allow myself to go do some more tasks.

Second, I pick one thing from the short list and I focus only on that. I put it into full-screen mode so there isn’t any other thing to think about. I make it my whole universe.

Third, I think about why this thing in front of me is important to me. Why do I care about it? What makes me feel inspired by it, lit up by it? This helps me to fully pour myself into this thing.

How to Find Delight in Each Thing

Often, we relate to our tasks as things we “have to” do, as drudgery or chores or routine. No wonder we look at a mountain of tasks and feel overwhelmed and resistant.

What if we related to our tasks differently? Each email is a love note from a delightful person (yes, even spam!). Each task is a way to express ourselves, to express our love.

What if we brought play and wonder to every task?

If you can bring full appreciation to each moment of life, it becomes a moment of miracle. That’s what we can bring to our tasks—a feeling of wonder, devotion, and joy.

It takes practice, but see if you can do that for your next task.

Change the Way We Look at the Mountain of Tasks

Coming back to work, I looked at my mountain of tasks and felt some dread. How hard! So much dull work to do.

But of course, that wasn’t a helpful way to look at the mountain.

When I look at the mountains outside (you know, in the real world), I see incredible beauty and adventure. I feel a leap in my heart, a desire to explore, and a yearning for a journey.

What if the mountain of tasks and emails becomes this place of adventure, exploration, play, curiosity, learning, and joy?

That’s how I choose to relate to my mountain. How about you?

Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net
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