Contending with Chaos - Pt. II

Keeping track and prioritising to let yourself achieve more
Aaron Cawte,
5 minute read

Part II: Funnel


In Part I: Reduce, we covered how to reduce the information you take in, and how that can help you process and manage what you're left with. Today, I want to dive into how to manage that remainder.

Not so long ago, my recurring fear when I felt overwhelmed was the fear of losing track of something important. The fear of forgetting something. This could be a simple chore like buying milk, or something in my professional life like promising a colleague to have that copy changed by the end of the day.

I mention the latter of those examples because it highlights that this fear isn't just about personal satisfaction, but the trust that others put in you to deliver something that's important to them. I've built up my value professionally by doing what I do in a consistent and reliable way. So, the more plates I had spinning at a time, the more this fear of forgetting would compound.

There's a way I try to resolve this completely: a consistent process to record every one of those potential sources of anxiety. You can achieve this with your choice of medium: a to-do list, sticky notes on your desk, whatever suits your lifestyle - but you must have a single point of entry into everything forgettable, and use it enough that you naturally refer to it at the right moment.

Behold as I mansplain a shopping list

I keep a perpetual shopping list. Not everything I buy makes it on - far from it. In fact, I might get ingredients for dinner on the way home and not need the list once. There is, however, a habit that makes it useful.

Every time I come across something I need to top up on - whether I'm squeezing the last bit from my toothpaste tube, or reluctantly drinking my tea black, the thing I need goes on the list. Every time. On the other end, I near-instinctively open the list when I walk into my local shop.

By committing to memory the need to check the list when I go to the shops, I no longer need to remember the items on that list. The list is for background items, which I realised the need for a few days ago, or perhaps I know I need soon but not immediately. I'll remember to get anything in the foreground - like what's for dinner tonight - and rely on the list for anything else. The point is about the time in-between. Ahead of my next jaunt to Tesco, there's one less thing on my mind. This, when compounded across different tasks, frees my mind to either focus or relax a little better, knowing that my notes have me (and my tea) covered.

Use your funnel for accountability

I use the same principle at work, and in fairness this is something I largely picked up from my manager Ashley. Every piece of work I do lives on a Kanban board which Ashley and I can both see.

Light bulb

A Kanban board is a way of organising tasks into columns, where tasks start in the leftmost column and move to the right as they progress (in progress, in review, done, etc.)

He can see what I'm working on and remark on priorities without needing to call me, and I can rest easy knowing that everything I have to do is on that board, sorted by urgency and ready to pick up.

Since I started writing this post, my team has grown to four, and that board has scaled with us. I've been asked only once in the past 3 months what people in my team are up to, and it took seconds to answer when they did. A new teammate even complimented the format, saying it eased the transition into the team, as it was so easy to learn what was going on.

Now, I maintain a separate personal board for private reminders. It's two lists, but both are on the same platform and open in pinned tabs, so it's easy to use these as a unified tool. For all this, we use Asana, but any productivity tool will do.

Controlling chaos on Asana

It's key that external factors don't conflict with your funnel. I like Asana for this reason, as its Forms feature lets me provide colleagues with a simple work request form which populates an entry on my board, notifying me when done. When colleagues contact me through other means, I point them towards the board (but I'll usually add the request on their behalf if its their first time asking).

As well as the essentials, request authors are invited to add sets of badges, which highlight the division of the business the request is related to, whether it is particularly time-sensitive, and which functions of our team are likely to be necessary for it. These are all optional so uncertain authors don't get stuck, but as the majority of them are filled in, it means much of our prioritisation is done for us before we even see it.

Supporting yourself at the limit

In any circumstance where you're at risk of running out of time, or taking too much on, I believe the most powerful thing your planning can do is to prepare yourself for the worst case scenario. The nature of my team at work means our incoming requests are unpredictable, and we sometimes need to lean on other teams when things can't wait.

This top-down view makes it incredibly easy to show our workload to my manager and other people we work with, which firstly speeds up the process of sharing work, but also (I believe) helps them to empathise with our situation.

Don't underestimate the power this has in a personal context too - if you know you don't have the time to do all your chores, it's far easier to pick one to kick into the next week if you have a list of them in front of you.

Priorities become especially important when “do everything” isn't an option, which is why it helps to get ahead of that moment of realisation by implementing good habits.

Up next

Now we've covered reducing noise in Part I: Reduce, and managing priorities here in Part II, we'll move on to working effectively and sustainably in Part III. Subscribe by email below to be the first to hear about it, or keep an eye on the same channel that brought you here. ‘Til next time! 👋

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Aaron Cawte

Aaron is a Senior Software Engineer at Octopus Energy Group. Let him know if you liked this post using @aaroncawte or by email on

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