Do you know where the word logjam comes from? Back when folks in the lumber industry would use rivers to float logs to sawmills, sometimes a log would get caught in part of the river and block the others from floating downstream. The blocked logs would block others, and eventually the flow would stop. A literal jamming of logs.
One of the banes of the consultant’s life is that sometimes we have too much time on our hands while at other times we’re too busy. Striking a balance between idleness and overcommitment is tough. Nobody sets out to overcommit. Sometimes we agree to take on a project, and the starting date gets pushed back so it coincides with another commitment. Sometimes we can lose track of a commitment, and agree to something else that conflicts with it. But often, we simply underestimate how long things will take.
Overcommitment can cause a type of cognitive logjam. You suddenly become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. You find yourself paralyzed, unable to make much progress with any of the tasks that need doing. Commitments start piling up, and before you know it you’re in a jam.
So how do you clear the jam so you can get things flowing again? These are some things that work for me:
- Make a list of all the commitments. Prioritize them. Which are more urgent? Which more important?
- Re-negotiate some of the lower-urgency items on the list. Often I find the pressure I’m feeling is self-imposed; asking kindly for more time can work.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Set aside cognitive space without distractions or reminders of the other things you have pending. (I’ll often switch to working with pen and paper for this.)
- Use a to-do list management app that lets you filter tasks by project, context, etc. (I like OmniFocus, which is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology.)
- Get organized: keep reference materials for each project separate but easily accessible. (I use a combination of OneNote and folders on my computer for this.)
- Change the context you’re working in. Get out of the office and go work in a coffee shop. I will often do a little tour of places: I’ll answer my email in the coffee shop, work on the book in the library, go back to my home office to prepare for class, etc.
- Look for things to delegate. You may be burdening yourself with things that could be more easily/better accomplished by somebody else.
And here are some things I advise against when facing a logjam:
- Don’t go back on your commitments. (Try re-negotiating instead, as per above.)
- Don’t leave people hanging too long. (I could do better at this.)
- Don’t fret about procrastination. I interpret procrastination as my mind’s natural reaction to being overwhelmed. Falling into a procrastination/guilt cycle only makes things worse. Instead of procrastinating, I try to make progress with minor/easy commitments, just to get a sense things are flowing again.
- Avoid taking on more commitments until you feel you can be in more control over your schedule.
Above all, learn from the situation. Take note of what works and what doesn’t. In particular, be mindful of your busy/idle cycles. How did you get into this situation? What concrete steps can you take to avoid being in such a situation in the future?
Being mindful allows you to manage your time better. It also allows you to enjoy yourself guilt-free in times when you’re less busy, with the knowledge that it won’t be long before you’ve got more to do than time to do it. Then you’ll be jammin’ again.