Sometimes we simply have too much to deal with.
We are already doing what we perceive as our very best and still we barely finish things on time. Just as we have finished something, we realize that something else is almost late as well, so we just push on to finish that next task too.
The deadlines which we know are approaching are hovering in the back of our minds, but we will not have time to address them until we have completed what we are doing right now – which seems to be taking much too long to finish.
Later, later, later
We know that we probably could do something about our situation, make a change or improvement of some kind by altering our structure, but we just do not have the energy since we are simply swamped at the moment. We receive an email on Monday morning containing another tip on structure we do not have time to implement and try out, and we have been thinking to ourselves that we really should unsubscribe from that newsletter more than once lately … But, maybe things will get easier and we suddenly have some space, time and energy for making changes, so we keep the subscription for now.
Moving faster in old tracks
When we have such an overwhelming amount of things we need to deal with immediately, it might seem as if there is no way we could get an overview of our situation and refine at least something. But studies (for instance this one done at Rutgers University by Porcelli and Delgado in 2009) indicate that we are actually not particularly open to trying new methods and habits when we are under this kind of pressure.
If this all sounds familiar, you are right to first ease your workload somehow, which might sound easier said than done, before taking steps to refine your working methods and structure. I suggest you use either a more systematic and more thorough approach to having less on your plate, or a shortcut that is more of an emergency solution, but which will at least get you above the surface long enough to take another breath.
Let’s have a look at both:
You are doing what you do for a purpose, and in order to see if that purpose is fulfilled, I am guessing that you (either on your own or together with others) have set goals that you intend on reaching. Let the goals be the measuring stick that you compare tasks with when determining which ones you should continue doing, and which you ought to get rid of – and you will eventually have lessened your burden.
Look through your one and only to-do-list and ask yourself which of all the tasks it contains that do not contribute to reaching the goals you are responsible for. Try at least finding one or a few that you do from time to time.
The task or tasks that definitely do not help you progress can be removed from the list immediately, you can hire someone outside the company to do them or delegate it to a colleague. If you do not have full control over your area of responsibility, make sure to check in with your boss before making any drastic changes.
If you want some help, download the refinement tool I have created, and use it as a tool when determining what to do and what not.
Taking the shortcut
If you really do not have the space, energy or time to sift and sort through your tasks, then at least take a minute or two to think about what you have done lately that struck you as pretty irrelevant or meaningless in terms of your work and areas of responsibility. It can be something you said you would help someone else with, or it can be something you have been doing out of habit for a long time, but which might no longer be part of your job description.
Decide to either stop doing these tasks, hire someone else to do them or delegate them to someone else within the company. Again, if you need to involve your boss before taking action, do so. Now you will at least have cleared your calendar of one or a few recurring tasks that have been eating your time.
If you are swamped at the moment, then choose one of the two ways mentioned above to get some relief.
If you choose to go with the more systematic approach, then set aside at least an hour in your calendar as soon as you have some free time, during which you close the door, turn off your phone and email notifications, and look through your to-do-list and project overview for tasks you could and should get rid of. Perhaps you will not suddenly find yourself with free time on your hands, so make sure to reserve this in the calendar as soon as possible (since surely you can both consider this urgent and important), and if you need to name the hour you book with yourself, call it ‘business planning’ or something that makes both yourself and others that might have access to your calendar respect the appointment.
If you need to check in with someone regarding the tasks you decide to get rid of, schedule a meeting with the person in question soon after.
If you decide to take the shortcut, take a few moments right now to think about what you have been doing recently. Not later, stop and think about it now … Yes, right now. Think of one, even if it really only is one, task that you will no longer do yourself. Check in with whoever might be in charge or need to be informed on this decision (which could be just yourself).
If you need to do something to stop doing this task, for instance teach someone else how to do it instead, define the first step to doing so and either make note of it on your to-do-list or do it straight away. You have taken a first step to decreasing your workload.
When you simply have too much to do, you need to get rid of at least one task that you do regularly. It can be something small that just takes a few minutes every time you do it, but it is still a few minutes you could be using to improve something about your structure. And it will be at least one, even if it is small, thing that is lifted off your shoulders.
If you take many small steps often towards refining your tasks and processes when your workdays are overwhelming, you will gradually regain balance and a manageable workload – without cutting corners or leaving heaps of unfinished work behind. You will have more time to develop your work methods instead of spending all your time and energy putting out fires.
What’s your way?
What is your trick or way for easing the workload when it is simply too heavy? Write to me and tell me, because many people I meet struggle with this and need your advice. If you will let me, I will gladly spread your best ideas and experiences to others. You will reach me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and I am curious to hear of your strategy.
About the author
David Stiernholm is a trainer who teaches thousands of people every year in companies, government authorities, organizations and universities how to become more structured and attain a higher degree of personal efficiency.
He is also the author of Super Structured.
“Information overload”, “too much going on”, “full email inbox”, “too much on your plate”, “heavy workload”, “ASAP”, “piles that keep growing”, it has to get better soon… Yes, there are many ways to describe the chaotic life many of us lead at work. But, if we create a better structure at work, we will have more time for what matters most to us and to our business. Super Structured is based on a highly successful training program and is for anyone who wants to create a workday that runs smoother and with greater ease. In short chapters with useful advice and tips.