I have a recurring nightmare. It goes like this: I’m 16 years old again, back on my old newspaper route. But there’s a major problem: I’m late. I’ve overslept. Now it’s 6:43, and I have 150 newspapers to deliver by 7:00 a.m. If I don’t, I start getting complaints. It’s an impossible task. A wave of immense anxiety immediately follows. Followed by a feeling of pressure, all over my body.

At this point, I usually wake up in a cold sweat–thankful that all of this was simply a dream, until … I realize the dream is related to a real-life situation. The true source of the anxiety, and a real-life feeling of “overwhelm-ed-ness.” After facing this situation over and over, I’ve discovered a rule that helps me to push through those negative feelings, move forward, and do what I need to do.

I like to call it “first things first.”

First things first

When I find myself in an “impossible paper route situation,” I tell myself:

Focus on first things first.

In other words, I narrow my view so as to focus on the first few things I need to do. This allows me to avoid getting overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the situation, or the huge mountain of tasks before me.

Instead, I make a new list of only two or three things that I need to get done that day.

Then, I look only at the first one, and start chipping away.

First things first has many benefits, but here are four of them:

1. It keeps you moving.

When you have more work than you can handle, the temptation is to not do anything.

But by creating a new list of just two or three tasks, things look manageable again. You regain control of your emotions, allowing you to once more be productive.

2. It builds momentum.

Think about that feeling you experience once you finish a task. Then another. And another.

Next thing you know, you’re hooked. You see results, so you keep going–because at this point it’s easier to keep going than it is to stop. This is what famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow”–that highly focused mental state conducive to productivity.

Once you start building momentum …

3. You see more clearly.

In my nightmare, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, there is no tunnel. Just an unscalable mountain.

But once you start building momentum, you build the tunnel. Once you make enough progress, you can clearly see the path forward.

And once you see the path, it really starts to get good. Because now …

4. You believe.

Things are no longer dark.

The impossible task is no longer impossible.

Seeing the path forward turns into hope, and hope turns into reality.

Following the rule of first things first is how:

Entrepreneurs turn complex problems into simple solutions–and then build companies out of them.

Championship sports teams claw their way back from huge deficits.

Singers turn melodies into albums.

Authors turn words into books.

Artists turn sketches into masterpieces.

And paperboys finish their routes–even when they get very late starts.