I liken my relationship to quote on quote “hustle” to that of coffee; I’ll go through long periods feeling nothing but energized by my morning brew, impervious to the downsides of too much caffeine. Then, after slowly adding a cup or two to my morning routine over several months, I’ll wake up one morning lodged up against a proverbial wall. My anxiety is through the roof, my brain is simultaneously scattered and foggy, and I realize that to regain my sanity, the only solution is to dial it back to one cup of coffee again.
In millennial culture, going full steam ahead is something to be celebrated—but what happens when you run out of steam? We often view a lack of productivity as a sign of laziness, but in my experience, it’s typically born out of quite the opposite—when I’ve taken on too much for too long.
My most recent high water mark for stress occurred when, even after taking a two-week break for the holidays, I felt as drained, sleep-deprived, and behind on my to-do list as ever. I didn’t need a degree in psychology to connect the dots between my pervasive feelings of burnout and my general inability to focus on anything more advanced than folding my laundry (though browsing some research quickly confirmed my hypothesis). It was time for that reset; the productivity equivalent of scaling back to one cup of coffee. That meant Kondo-ing my life and enlisting some basic organizational tools—both tried-and-true, and new. And above all else, it meant getting very comfortable with one word in particular.
The Pomodoro Technique
Think of it like HIIT training for your brain: You set a timer for 25 minutes, focus on one single task for that duration, and then take a five-minute break (or a little bit longer after you’ve cycled through a few times). This strategy has been around since the late ‘80s—and in my experience, it’s a fail-safe way to reset an overworked mind.
For me, the toughest part can be stepping away after those 25 minutes are up, especially if you’ve gotten into a good flow—but it’s also key to preventing task burnout an hour or two later. I like to make myself physically leave my screen, whether it’s to refill my coffee or even step outside for a few minutes. If I’m at home, I’ll blitz through a chore like emptying the dishwasher or changing my laundry—engaging in a mindless task is a great way to double my productivity without having to actually switch gears in my brain.
Some people prefer to physically write notes and checklists throughout the day. I am not one of those people, and I have a half-dozen half-used notebooks scattered throughout every orifice of my life to prove it. So I switched to my computer—and once I cycled through both my notes app and a horrific mess of virtual sticky notes (more on that in a minute), I knew it was time to call in some heavy-hitters.
After some research and polling of some of highly organized individuals in my life, I settled on two apps in particular: Trello and Evernote. Both are highly capable (and free) desktop programs with slightly different functionalities, and as such, I’ve found them useful in different areas of my life.
- Evernote functions mainly as a virtual note database. My issue with physical notebooks has always been that I prefer to keep my notes very compartmentalized—I need one notebook for work tasks, another for my grocery list and at-home to-do’s, yet another for financial planning, and one more for journaling. Evernote was built with precisely this conundrum in mind: You can build different notebooks under different categories, but it’s easy to toggle through all of them on one handy sidebar. There’s also a fair amount of handholding, should you need it: I found the app’s template for financial planning, for example, to be extremely handy in setting my goals for the year ahead. For my purposes, I find Evernote to be a great solution for staying on top of all my at-home tasks. I can log a meal plan, budget for groceries, and make a list all in one place. Or, I might mood board some home decor inspo by way of the app’s Pinterest integration, and build a budget or a list of to-do’s inspired by my favorite images.
- Trello, on the other hand, functions more like a project organizer. The app can format your tasks either as a calendar, or a virtual bulletin board of to-do’s—you can nest a checklist, log notes, and assign task dates all under a single task. I find it most useful for work-related tasks, since it helps me organize my thoughts and timelines around different projects.
I cannot begin to express how utterly satisfying it was to delete every one of the stickies populating my computer screen—the remnants of everything from last year’s Christmas lists to the VIN number of my car. Next up: I took a couple of hours to reorganize every file cluttering my desktop, my downloads folder, and beyond. It’s incredible how much a cluttered hard drive can translate to a cluttered brain—and how easy it is to pretend that just because it’s all hiding on a single screen, it’s not the same thing as being surrounded by physical clutter. We stare at these things all day!
The Magic Word
Say it with me: “NO. N-O. No.” As a lifelong people-pleaser, learning to stop saying “yes” to everything has probably been the most challenging—and ultimately, rewarding—element of this lifestyle overhaul.
In fact, it was only after toying around with all of these other productivity strategies that I realized it’s exceedingly difficult to out-maneuver an overpacked schedule. Even after organizing my to-do list in half a dozen ways, the sheer volume of everything on my plate was still enough to re-scramble it all in my brain—doing little to mitigate my stress. It was organized chaos, but chaos nonetheless.
I started by clearing at least one weekend day of any obligations. No work, no errands… just some time to maybe go on a hike, take my dog to the park, or just veg on the couch without any agenda whatsoever. From there, I’m taking steps elsewhere: whether it’s being more honest about the projects I have time to take on at work, or feeling less guilty about saying no to a friend on a weeknight, because I know that I need a few hours to myself after a crazy day.
A therapist once told me that once I got past the initial discomfort of setting boundaries, I’d be shocked by how quickly different aspects of my life fell into line: my relationships, my career, my general self-worth. Even if we’ve been talking within the context of getting reorganized in the very literal sense, consider this a gentle reminder that decluttering your life of unwanted energy is one of the most productive things you can do. That means taking regular breathers from our computer screens and surrounding ourselves with the friends who help us feel most grounded. It’s drawing a line when it comes to an overbooked agenda and the flaky people who impose half-baked plans. Ultimately, it’s getting really comfortable with the idea of having less to do, and having more energy and focus to do it really well. It’s not any less of a hustle—it’s just way more efficient.