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Finding Space to Breathe: Managing Overwhelming End-of-Project Tasks

Feb 26, 2010 • general

I'm nearing the release of a project that I've been working on for about a year. All those deadlines that seemed to be many months in the distance are suddenly weeks away. As the project manager was reviewing the rollout schedule with me, he paused to admit that he was a little overwhelmed with everything going on. There's simply a lot to do with a product rollout -- user acceptance testing, quality assurance regression testing, change management release dates and coordination, bug triage decisions, user training, announcement emails, migration and mapping decisions, post-release support, hot fixes, and other communications.

I honestly don't know how I'll finish everything either. At some point, it will probably get done.

House Project Management

Being buried in tasks reminds me of advice I once heard: If you're overwhelmed/discouraged/depressed, completing specific tasks can help you feel better. Having a list with items you can cross off helps you feel like you're making progress.

Lately I decided to apply a bit of project triage to all the broken things around my house. I started taking notes on everything that needed to be fixed, from broken headphones to ink pen on walls to trim missing from cabinets, and so on. I have about 50 items on my list, and I've arranged them in P1, P2, and P3 style in a Google spreadsheet.

When I complete a task, rather than deleting it, I change its status to X and strike the font. I like to see how many tasks I've actually completed because seeing the list of accomplishments brightens the room a smidge.

Tonight I was working on a task--changing a burned out headlight bulb in Jane's van--when I managed to hit my head into the corner of the hood. As the blood started to drip down my forehead, my daughter shouted for Mommy to come quickly.

It turns out it was only a little cut. Despite the blood, my spirits were high because I actually completed the task. My point here is that having a list of items that you can push through feels good. Knocking an item off the list indicates progress.

Surveying Advice

Advice on getting a handle on life's heavy cartload is not scant. Every self-help, time management, and productivity book has something to say on the topic.

Alyssa Gregory explains that cleaning your desk can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. She says "clutter is distracting and can derail your attention." And "it's hard to decipher what is important when everything is a mess."

Catherine Pratt says to examine whether you really have to do everything that comes at you:

You feel like tasks are things that you “have to” do. You're now committed and you may feel like you don't have any choice in the matter. You must do these all these things that you're now reacting to. Very quickly you can begin to feel overwhelmed because there just seems to be so much coming at you.

Pratt's advice is interesting in light of a technical writer's responsibility. Do we sometimes feel compelled to document too much, describing every single scenario, every function, every little widget and drop-down box? Do we really need the videos and online help and printed manuals and quick reference guide and release notes and context-sensitive help and live training?

eHow's biggest advice on reducing the sense of overwhelm is to prioritize your tasks:

Learn how to prioritize. Recognize that all tasks are not created equal; meaning, there are some tasks that are WAY more important to accomplish than other tasks. Learn to recognize which tasks are of high value versus low value tasks.

I do often postpone those help topics that are cryptic and confusing. But coming back to my earlier point about lists, sometimes crossing off the easy tasks gives you momentum to tackle the harder ones.

Another self-help writer says that "breaking down a big task into smaller tasks that you are able to complete is how you get the big task done."

The chunking method focuses on completing little tasks consistently over time to produce the larger result.

The advice for reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed is endless: Delegate tasks. Learn to say no. Focus on one thing at a time. Simplify your life. Reduce your obligations.  Meditate. Clear your inbox. Do what matters to you. Outsource. Hire a virtual assistant. The advice goes on and on and on.

Jaded on Time Management Techniques

I'm a little jaded on time management techniques, to be honest. I'm not saying they don't work; they just seem like bandaids on a larger problem. I've been through the workshops, bought the time management software, and for a short time felt jazzed on some new tip or trick to manage everything. But after two weeks, all the advice runs together into the same note. And then fades.

In looking over my life, I do see patterns of achievement: I finish what compels me from the inside. If I believe in something, I do it. I find a way to get it done. I wake up early, stay up late, turn off the TV, ignore people around me, or do whatever it takes, because I believe in doing it.

For example, writing personal essays is something I believe in. I'm persuaded about the value of the activity. Sometimes people ask me how I have the time to write. It's not about the time -- it's about the desire. Similarly, getting out from a ton of overwhelming tasks, whether at work, home, or another environment isn't about learning to prioritize, meditate, or chunk tasks. It's about aligning with the right cause to feel that it's important enough to do.

Whether that's possible with all technical documentation, I'm not sure. But having a sense of investment and pride in what you're creating helps push you away from all distractions, from the invitations to play ping pong or to check your email. If you believe in what you're doing and are fully invested in it, you won't be chit-chatting all day with your colleagues, or getting lost on the web, or organizing the pens in your desk, or staring at the mountains out the window. If you believe in what you're doing, you'll put on headphones to block out the world around you and get lost in the work.

Now the problem returns to a theme I consistently seem to write about on my blog: it's hard to feel driven internally by the technical writing career. I wrote about this with Aligning Yourself with a Higher Cause, Unstoppability, and Is Technical Writing Boring?

The problem is that technical writing jobs are not inspiring enough on their own to turn people into believers of the cause in the degree necessary to finish all overwhelming tasks. When it's 5 p.m., I turn off the computer and go home. No one stays until 10 pm at night writing instructions because he or she is just so driven internally and fascinated by the technical writing  job that he or she wants/needs/has to stay despite all other commitments, requirements, and obligations. Technical writing isn't so engrossing that you find yourself up at 2 a.m. thinking about solutions and innovative new techniques and experiments you want to try.

Sure, that might happen sometimes. Sometimes I stay late, sometimes I wake up thinking about a technical writing problem, and sometimes I get engrossed in online help and wikis. But not to the degree that would be necessary to make me fly above all these tasks that never get finished. Not to the degree that I would rise at 5 a.m., go to the computer, and start organizing and editing my online help.

In the end, when I have a ton of tasks to do and no room to breathe, I do end up prioritizing those tasks I believe in more -- screencasts, quick reference guides, context-sensitive help. I put off that 150 page PDF manual until the last couple of weeks.

Given the inability to tap into a higher cause, the lower-level time management and efficiency tasks are a welcome gimmick. I have my lists with tasks I'm crossing off. I'm clearing off my desk. I'm evaluating whether I need every single help deliverable. I might even start using that old Franklin Covey software I uninstalled years ago.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.