HOW TO MANAGE OVERWHELMING TASKS USING POSSI Tom G. Stevens PhD INDEX: P=Parts O=Objectives S=Steps for Writing Papers S=Scheduling I=Instant Tasks Practice Imagine that next week is the beginning of finals and you are behind and over your head in papers to write and finals to study for. Or picture yourself as the typical professional or executive who has some project or business he is trying to manage. I have personally found this to be very helpful when I felt overwhelmed In developing and coordinating the Career and Personal Explorations (CPE) class project I had to coordinate instructors, group-leader supervisors, group leaders, planning, getting and writing materials, budget, relations with administrators, and providing information to students on about 10 hours time per week. At first coordinating this project all seemed overwhelming to me. But with a little help from some others such as Frank Christ who had demonstrated that they successfully manage very complex projects, I discovered the elements of POSSI. What I mean by overwhelming is a situation that involves complex tasks and/or tasks that you’re not sure you’ll have enough time to complete by their deadlines. Tasks which are primarily unpleasant or aversive such as getting a tooth pulled, confronting a friend, or losing weight are primarily problems of motivation, though you may adapt these methods to help with them too. When you need help attacking an overwhelming situation, get a POSSI to help. Follow these five steps to get control of the overwhelming situation. P= Parts. Break the situation into manageable parts. O= Objectives. Set objectives for each part. What do you want to accomplish? By when? What is the priority of each objective and/or part? S= Steps. Work backward from your objectives and deadlines and break each part into steps needed to accomplish your objectives. Get help clarifying what the steps are if necessary from friends, experts, self-help or do-it-yourself books, classes, etc. Usually your own experience and common sense is enough. S= Scheduling. Schedule the steps on a time line or calendar. Arrange them so that you do have time. I f you are concerned about not having enough time to meet all your objectives, then prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. You must either reduce the tasks to do, lower your objectives, and accept the consequences or increase the amount of time and resources available to complete your objectives. I=Instant Tasks. Create lists of instant (5-minute or less) tasks. This is especially important if you have a problem with procrastination and avoidance or if you find the tasks unpleasant in themselves. Doing the instant tasks can get you going on the bigger tasks.
Now we will take each step, one at a time, to explain how to use the POSSI system effectively. It is easy to learn and use. Take your overwhelming situation and right now apply each POSSI step to get control of it. P = PARTS Break the overwhelming task into logical parts. Example 1: Coordinating CPE class project first I organized the project into the following areas: Planning Information to Students Class Reading, workbook, and other materials Relations with others (offices,etc) Budget Instructors (who teach class) Group leaders Research (on class) Miscellaneous Example 2: Len surviving finals week. Len, a student facing finals week might break his task into parts like this. Psychology 100: Complete term paper. Study for final exam English 150: Complete 3 papers. Study for Final exam History 153: Study for final Biology 201: Lecture: Study for final Lab: Complete 3 experiments, complete notebook study for final P.E. 191: Complete notebook. Study for finals Job: work 10 hours per week O = OBJECTIVES What are your objectives and the priorities related to each part of the task. What RESULTS OR OUTCOMES do you want? How good a job do you want to do? Which objectives or parts of the task are the most import ant and therefore deserve the HIGHEST PRIORITY in case you can't do everything Example 1: Objectives of the CPE project for each task area. Examples of some initial objectives under each major category for the CPE project included the following: NOTE: Priorities are A, (highest), B, (moderate) C, (least). Publicity/marketing CPE Class Objectives Priority Objective
A A etc
A minimum of 100 students will register for the class The course flyer will appeal to students and accurately describe the class etc
Learning Materials for CPE Class Objectives Priority A A etc Objective All materials will be completed by the time class begins All students receiving credit for the class will be able to apply the problem solving model to personal and career problems. etc
Example 2: Len's objectives for each task area. An example of objective with priorities for Len facing finals would be: Psych 200--objective is on A for semester, Al priority because it's my major Eng. 150-- objective is on A, A2 priority because of importance of writing skills. Also I think I have better chance of A than in biology Biol 201-- objective is an A, but will settle for B. A3 priority History 153--objective is B, Bl priority, don't like history. PE 191-- objective is an A, B2 priority, I enjoy it but it's not top priority. S = STEPS Make a separate list of steps that are necessary to complete each part of the task. 1. Write down all the things you can think of relevant to one part of the task that you need to do. 2. Put "to do" items in a logical order (into steps). Try to do higher priority tasks firsT^ 3. Clarity of Steps. Make sure that you understand how to do each step. If the task is still vague and you don't know what to do think it through yourself or get help in breaking it into actions that make it clear to you exactly what you need to do. (Usually the best person to get help from is someone who has successfully completed similar tasks in the past.) Example 1: Coordinating CPE Project--steps for one task area (research). Task: Completing Research Evaluation of Course Step 1: Hire research coordinator Substeps: 1. List qualifications desired 2. Publicize position 3. Choose applicants to interview and interview 4. Hire most qualified Step 2: Complete plan for evaluation
Substeps: 1. Design objectives-results research comparison 2. Design control group study 3. Design the student questionnaires 4. Hire independent professional evaluators 5. etc Step 3: Order and/or design evaluation instruments. etc. Example 2: Len's steps for one task area (writing a term paper). Note: You may also use the following steps as a guide on how to write term papers. Task: Writing term papers for Psychology 200 THE STEPS FOR WRITING A PAPER Step 1: Decide on a general topic area Step 2: Check related references Substeps: 1. Check library catalogue for books and periodicals 2. Go to section(s) in stacks where you find those books and periodicals; check those and other references in those sections that might be related to the topic. Try to find at least one good overall reference for the whole topic and some more specialized references for subparts of the topic. 3. Check out the best references and/or duplicate them. Step 3: Keep an IDEAS LIST to write down any ideas related to content or format of paper. Also write down source or reference of idea with page number. Step 4. Narrow and refine the topic: Substeps: 1. Skim the best references for ideas to narrow the topic and for content that you might want to include in your paper. 2. Narrow the topic definition depending on what you found in your references. 3. Repeat the trip to the library to get new references that relate better to your more specific topic if necessary. Step 5. Make an outline. Substeps: 1. Continue reading, taking notes, adding to ideas list. 2. Organize the material on your ideas list into logical categories. 3. Arrange the ideas general categories into the main sub-topics for your paper. 4. Put into a logical order and add any new categories or parts needed (Introduction, summary, etc.). 5. Go to each major sub-topic and repeat steps 2-4 to make subtopics within each general topic OR for smaller papers wait until you are actually writing the section in step 6 to create the subheadings after you get to the larger category/sub-topic.
Step 6. Begin writing using the outline as a basis. Step 7. Reread, correct, and rewrite. Check spelling, punctuation, grammar, interest value, content, etc. This is the stage that often separates the letter grades for students. To make something worthy of publication, this must be repeated over and over until it is just right. Step 8. Hand it in by deadline. WHY WRITE EVERYTHING (the objectives, steps, schedule, etc.)? You DON'T always need to write all this down! Of course you don't write down every step for something you already know perfectly well how to do and can do blindfolded! Len only needed to write down all these steps because he felt very anxious about writing term papers and really didn't know how to do it very well. Next time he may write down only the major steps without the substeps. Later he won't need to write down any of the steps, he can just write "write term paper" and his behavior will be almost automatic. (That's how you can master any new skill.) S = SCHEDULING By scheduling we mean: 1. Determining how long it takes versus how much tune you have to do it. 2. Given any time limitations, deciding what you will do and when you will do it. Problem: So what good does it do to know exactly what steps you need to take if you have a million things to do and am afraid you don't have time to do them all in? Solution: Compare TIME NEEDED with TIME AVAILABLE. Then resolve the difference (if any) Time Analysis: Don't panic yet, do a time analysis first: a. Calculate a conservative estimate of time needed (how much time it will take you to do all you to do all you have to do.) b. Calculate your estimated time available (hw much time you have to do it in. Make it a conservative estimate. c. Compare estimated time needed (a) with time available (b). d. If "b" is greater than "a," then you can relax (and go to step 3). If "a" is greater than "b," then you can panic! (Or else you can do what is suggested in step 2.). Example: Len's time problem about finals. Len is panicked that he might not have time to do all he needs to, so he did a time analysis. Step 1 of time analysis: Time Needed. He made a conservative estimate of the time it would take to do each step or task on his list. He wrote the estimate beside each task and then added them up. Psychology Class Read Chapter 8 Rd Ch-9 Hours to complete task (conservative estimate) 1 1
Rd Ch-12 Study for final exam Take final exam Write 8-10 page term paper TOTAL HOURS
1.5 8 2 20-25 33.5 to 38.5 hours
He did this for all of his classes, added up the hours to get the total hours to complete all tasks = 156. Step 2 of time analysis: Time Available. He then wrote a schedule of his next 2 weeks to conservatively estimate much time he would have to study. For example look at his schedule for Monday. Monday Schedule (make a similar schedule for each day, and calculate the number of available hours conservatively): Time 7am 8 9 10 11 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Activity get up, dress, eat commute to school, class study psych class study lunch study history class study study drive home/eat with family dinner study study study TV & get ready for bed 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 Study hours 1 hour
Go to bed STUDY HOURS 9
Step 3 of time analysis: Prioritize. If you don't have enough time, you have a choice. Either decrease the task time needed or increase the time available. The first thing to remember is that you must accept the fact that you are human. Forget about all the things that could have been done to avoid getting into this mess and accept the fact that you can't be perfect or do everything you want to do. No one can. Go back to your objectives. Re-examine your priorities and perhaps redefine or limit your objectives more. You must now decide what you are not going to do. Decide now to do the tasks that are the least important, or decide to do them more quickly in a less thorough manner. Since the tasks that you decide to not do are not the ones that are most important, then you have less reason to panic. Think how much better it is to decide to not do or quickly do certain less important things now than to go ahead in ignorant bliss and suddenly run out of time before a really important task is done. There are two kinds of things to not do. One is on the task side of the balance sheet. Len can decrease the study time needed by not completing certain assignments, doing some assignments hurriedly, dropping a class, taking an incomplete, etc. He can also increase his available study time by not doing some things that lie had planned to do instead of schoolwork before. He can cut out TV, lunch, cut less important classes, miss sleep, etc. to create more time available studying. Once he sets his priorities and decides what activities or tasks to eliminate, then he can recalculate his time needed and time available figures. He repeats this process until the two figures balance. Is Len just playing with figures and fooling himself? No, he is maintaining control over his own life by consciously deciding now what he will do and not do instead of haphazardly proceeding with the possible result of his not doing the things that are most important to him. Step 4 of time analysis: Schedule your activities--especially "on-task" time. If the time you have available is close to the time you need and you want to make sure you get everything done, then schedule what you will do. Make a calendar such as the one Len used on the preceding page and stick to it. Periodically recalculate your time available vs. time needed to see if you are keeping up with where you need to be. I = INSTANT TASKS Create a list of 5 minute items to do (that are related to your task). Do you ever find it hard to get started on a task? Do you sometimes just sit there and stare at it or do something else just to avoid actually doing it? Do you find that you sometimes waste time because you only have 5 minutes here, or 15 minutes there and you don't think you can accomplish anything in that time? Having a list of instant tasks can help you overcome these problems. You may feel immoveable when facing a large task like writing a paper, reading a book, painting a room, or overhauling an engine. You may feel like you are facing a mountain. But suppose you look at your list of instant tasks and see that all you need to do is think about a topic for 5 minutes, or read the preface, or get out the painting materials, or look at
a book on overhauling an engine. This seems simple enough, so you do it and you have accomplished part of the larger task. In addition something "magical" often happens. In thinking about a topic you may get turned on to going ahead with an outline. In reading the preface you may get hooked on reading the book, etc. Thus before you know it, you may have gotten yourself totally immersed in the larger task you have been avoiding. Practice: USING POSSI TO ATTACK OVERWHELMING TASKS 1. List at least 5 "overwhelming" (large and complex) tasks that you will be facing in the next few weeks or have faced sometime within the past year or so. 2. Do a complete POSSI procedure. a. Pick some "overwhelming" task that you think you would learn the most from doing a POSSI procedure on it. Pick a task that you are really concerned about. Pick one that POSSI can really help you accomplish more successfully and feel more relaxed about. However, if you can't think of a real overwhelming task facing you, use one from your past or make one up. b. Is the task real future__, real past__, or imagined__? (check one.) c. Do a complete POSSI procedure including P.O.S.S. and I steps and each substep within each of the major steps. For the scheduling step, briefly demonstrate your knowledge of how to make a time needed vs. time available comparison as if you really worried about having time to complete the task by a certain date.