Are you returning from holiday to an endless to-do list? Did you know that the way we typically put these lists together is counterproductive to the way your brain works causing something called ‘task-freeze’? When we start coaching overwhelmed managers the first thing we do is to help them feel more in control and proactive. So we ask to see how they organise their priorities. 9 times out of 10 it’s a long list of unsorted tasks that they need to do.
According to Cal Newport, it’s a common condition for your brain to freeze up when you see an extensive to-do list you have to tackle and become distracted. It’s not that any task on its own is difficult, it just feels daunting as you look at your inbox and task list.
Before you beat yourself up, riven with guilt there is a neurological reason why your brain has a ‘task freeze’. When we tackle a non-simple physical task the brain needs to access the hippocampus. There it searches for memories of executing similar tasks in the past. This then connects to the ventral striatum which helps stimulate the motivation to do the task.
If our lists require us to tackle a whole range of tasks that require us to toggle between different skills our brains simply run
out of bandwidth. So, if we’re moving from emailing a supplier, to preparing a presentation, to giving feedback to a direct report our brain simply freezes. This is due to switching cognitive contexts so frequently.
Fortunately, there is a brain hack to boost your productivity. Once you’ve made your task list, sort the items into groups
according to the similar behaviours required to complete them. For example, if you have to deal with a lot of trivial email requests from different stakeholders group them together. The same goes for more complex tasks, so put your problem-solving tasks together and so on. As you complete each group of tasks successfully, take a break then come back and tackle the next group. This
gives your brain the opportunity to reset.
By supporting your brain’s natural way of functioning, you become much more efficient at context switching and give yourself the best chance of being productive. And you can also coach your team to do the same!
What tips do you have for organising your tasks?