In today’s world we’re often not in control of our own workload.  The expectations made of us both professionally and personally mount up and we hit that point of wondering what’s next. We also wonder why, if everyone else is so productive as the Internet would have us believe, are we stuck in this quagmire? Let me tell you a dirty little secret of the productivity community.

It happens to all of us at one time or another.

We look at our workload, our task list, our calendar and wonder how are we going to get it all done.  You check off one item and three more get added. It’s enough to drive someone to chocolate. Take heart intrepid adventurer, there are some steps you can take to get your workload under control and feel better about the tasks ahead.

Step 1 – Get the lay of the land: Know what’s coming from where

We can feel overwhelmed when we don’t have a good grasp of the amount of work ahead of us and the new work that is coming. Taking time to identify all the work you are facing is the first step to getting overload under control. Think about it like being in a car speeding down a hill towards a curve. You don’t know what’s around the curve so you don’t hit the gas, you hit the brake.  You try to slow down and see what’s coming up next so you know how to react. The same thing applies to managing an out of control workload.  You shouldn’t just plow into it, hoping you can get enough done before more comes your way that you’ll be ok. Taking some time to understand what work is coming from where will help you get a better sense of what you are truly facing.

Step 2 – Create a go / no-go gate

Not everything added to our workload has to be done. Yes, a fair amount of work is out of our control and we have to “just do it.” But just as often we’ve added things to our workload through impromptu commitments and acceptances. To be fair to ourselves and others we have to put a go / no-go gate in place.

This gate gives us an opportunity to evaluate our current workload to determine if we have the time and energy (technology geeks refer to this as bandwidth) available to tackle the requested task. When you receive a request to add something to your workload make sure you understand:

  • what is being asked

  • when it is needed

  • what resources it will require

  • what dependencies it has on others, both people and tasks

If you can answer all of those questions you will be able to say whether or not something will fit into your workload and if you are likely to be able to complete it successfully.

Step 3 -Purge unnecessary work

Often our evaluation of our workload can become skewed by “stale work”. These are requests or tasks that while they seemed important at the time have either become irrelevant, unimportant, or have been superseded by other work. If we keep this stale work as part of our workload we can’t get a true measure of what space we have available in our schedules.  You wouldn’t keep gallons of expired milk in your fridge would you?

But how do you know?  Tasks don’t have “sell-by” dates. What can you do to determine if a task is not longer work keeping as part of your workload.  Well, if it came from someone, ask them. Normally this happens by someone giving you work and then committing to give you some information or deliverable so you can complete the work, but then never providing the information. Back tracking to the requestor and asking if they still are planning to provide you the information you need. Time and time again I’ve found people will cancel the work request rather than having to go back to their own workload and deliver you the needed information.

Step 4 – Work in sprints

When my wife and I purchased our home the previous owners had spread small white landscaping rocks over all the flowerbeds as a decorative touch.  Not being her style, I received the work request to move all those little rocks out the of the beds so she could plant her plants. First, there were a lot of rocks.  I mean, a lot. Way more than I could do all in one effort and believe me I tried to figure out a way.  When my planning when down the path of renting a front end loader I put the brakes on. The amount of work added to my workload, after evaluating the three what’s and when, was way more than I could accomplish as a singular effort.  I felt overwhelmed. It was then I started to work in sprints on the project.

I broke each flowerbed down into sections and each section into smaller sections.  By the time I was done a section could be loaded and moved within 5 minutes.  Now came the sprints.  I shoveled a section into the wheelbarrow and if I had enough energy I kept right on going into the next section.  I kept sprinting through until I hit one of two limits: I ran out of energy or the wheelbarrow was full. In either case I would stop loading and move the wheelbarrow back to the dumping spot, drop the rocks, and go back to the flowerbed to start again.

By working in sprints I knew in the back of my mind if I felt overwhelmed I could stop, change task for a brief period, and then resume.  It was that working safety valve that made all the difference in tacking a project feeling more like a mountain than a molehill.

Step 5 – Act then track

There’s a phrase that describes planning so much you never get started: “analysis paralysis.” It is possible to dedicate so many mental cycles to planning your work you create your own state of overwhelm. There’s a trick I use to reinforce I am getting things accomplished especially on larger projects.

When working on a larger project, for example creating a SharePoint site to manage work intake processes, often I’ll be deep into building a page and realize I need to add a column for data or change a graphic for a header.  These weren’t part of my original planning but I caught them, did them, and kept right on going. What is important is to acknowledge them as work that was done.

Every time I do something not on my lists, I make a note of it. After I’m done for the day I backtrack through my task list, add each unplanned item, and mark it as done.  Not only does this help me recognize the real work accomplished but it also gives me a much more accurate measure when I self-report on my workload.

Remember it happens to everyone

No matter how organized and proficient you are, at some point you’ll feel overwhelmed by what you face in your workload. The key is to pump the brakes, figure out what still has to be done, break it down, and keep track of what you do. No matter how overwhelming your workload feels, there are ways to get you through the stress, and if nothing else give you the information necessary if you are going to ask for help.  Which is a smart thing to do contrary to popular productivity bravado.