What to do when there’s too much to work on

As creative people, we get to experience the grand fortune of having a lot of ideas. I say that only somewhat seriously, as having a lot of ideas can be both a blessing and a curse.

For example, I remember meeting a local artist for lunch one weekend not too long ago to talk about all of the things she was working on. Before we even had drinks on our table she explained the seemingly endless list of projects that she had going on in her life.

Apart from a continuing series of commissioned paintings she had been working on, she also had an idea for a book that she was flushing out with a few partners. She was also working on a set of cards she wanted to illustrate, had an idea for an app, a number of crochet projects she had started weeks ago but never finished, and, to top it all off, she had to prepare a number of written articles to post on her blog for the upcoming week.

Somewhat taken aback by the list, I asked her how she handled working on so much at once. She replied: “I don’t handle it. So much needs to be done that I get overwhelmed and end up not doing much of anything at all.”

So after awhile of having these ideas for projects and starting some, the debilitating effect of having too many things to work on leads her to what research experts have called: paralysis by analysis; also known as decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is a psychological death trap, where creative ideas and dreams go to die.

When faced with too many decisions, we feel paralyzed and helpless. We can’t make a decision. What if we make the wrong decision? What if there are better alternatives?

We experience this often in our lives, particularly if you live in a first-world country where you have to decide between what shoes to buy, where and what to eat for dinner, how to spend your time, and so on.

As creatives with a lot of ideas and projects going on at once, there’s a certain point where we become paralyzed too.

Rather than trying to work on anything in her queue, the artist I mentioned before ends up feeling stuck and unable to work on anything at all. Which means she never starts anything new and the old ideas get pushed back, further and further. Eventually her list of “things to work on” is so big that it starts to fall apart.

In his best-selling 2012 book The Paradox of Choice psychologist Barry Schwartz explains that the paralysis isn’t the worst of having so many choices in front of us.

Even if we’re able to overcome the paralysis, even if we’re to say “I’m going to just work on this thing I’ve had sitting here for a few days now,” research shows most people will be less satisfied and interested in that work. The reason? Opportunity cost.

While we’re able to complete something and make a decision, there is often the looming question of: did I make the right one?

Some of us will lose sleep at night over that question. We may have finished one project, but was it the right one to be working on? What if we missed a valuable opportunity to do something else because we were too occupied doing the thing we decided to do?

Schwartz says:

You really want to get the decision right…it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

In the end it looks like decisions are downright dangerous. All of these ideas we end up having and all the projects we end up starting or daydreaming about, they’re great to have, particularly if we have good ones, but they can lead to paralysis, regret, and stress.

So, what should we do?

The answer is straight-forward and not completely pleasing or reassuring. I’ll just tell you that now so you can be ready. The solution is this: just make a decision and get behind it 100%.

For some of us it comes down to prioritizing our queue by making a to do list (I personally use the Clear app on my iPhone). For others it’s simply pulling a random strip of paper out of a hat.

Whatever it takes, make a decision and then get behind it.

The reason this works is explored in a research study done on baseball pitchers.

One particular pitcher in the study was found to constantly be thinking too much about decisions that are, I’m assuming, critical to baseball pitchers.

As a result, his performance suffered. He would strategize immensely well before a game, but during the game he would lose focus, jump back and forth on decisions about what to do, and perform poorly during games.

The solution to his problem? Simply having confidence in his decisions, and then follow-through.

It’s the same for us as creatives, with our stockpiles of ideas and projects that we consistently say “I’ll get to later.” We need to be more decisive in what we work on, trusting our decisions and having the confidence to follow-through with full dedication.

After-all, what matters isn’t whether or not we’ve made the right decision, it’s whether we’ve done anything at all. As I once wrote:

“When you look at the work of any known painter, you’ll encounter layer upon layer of paint, a visible example of their attempt to get the lines or shades exactly right. The painting couldn’t be completed if the artist had, instead, fumbled around in his studio, waiting for the decisions on where to place a stroke or which colors to use or which direction to tilt the brush, be made clear for him.”

To do list photo by Courtney Dirks.