When You Feel Overwhelmed by Your Workload

I often write and speak on workload management. But even I occasionally get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of requests and assignments. I’m in such a state right now.

Man Buried in Paperwork - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/VallarieE, Image #9744255

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/VallarieE

In the last week I’ve attended board meetings for three different companies. Two were out of town. In addition, I have spoken publicly five times and am right in the middle of reviewing the copy-edited manuscript for my new book.

That doesn’t even count the 669 e-mails I have received in the last week. (Yes, that’s the exact count as of 10 minutes ago. It only represents the ones that have come through to my private account.) No wonder I feel overwhelmed!

But I’ll bet your life is no different. The reality is all of us have more work than we can possibly do. When you add to this the demands of regular exercise, family, church, civic duties, and some semblance of a social life, it becomes impossible.

Here are six things you can do to cope. Trust me, I am preaching to myself!

  1. Acknowledge you can’t do it all. The idea that you will eventually get caught up is a myth. It’s impossible. You have more work than you can reasonably expect to get done. And unfortunately, your workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this post, your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.
  2. Accept the fact some things won’t get done at all. This flows from the first item. You have to make peace with the fact that you must leave some things undone—for the sake of your own sanity.
  3. Practice workload triage. On the battlefield, medics have to decide where to apply their limited resources. They can’t help everyone. According to Dictionary.com, triage is

    the process of sorting victims, as of a battle or disaster, to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.”

    Some patients will survive without medical care. Some won’t survive even if they have medical care. Triage means ignoring these two groups and focusing on those that will only survive with medical care.

    You must know which things you can safely ignore and which things demand your intervention.

  4. Categorize your tasks by priority. In my view, this is the one thing missing from David Allen’s system. It assumes all tasks are equal. Or to say it another way, you can only decide a task’s relative priority in the moment.This doesn’t work for me. I end up with scores of tasks I must review every day. My eyes glaze over, and I fall prey to what Charles Ummel calls the Tyranny of the Urgent.

    Instead, I like the Franklin-Covey method of assigning a priority tag to each task:

    A—urgent and important
    B—important but not urgent
    C—urgent but not important
    D—not urgent or important

    I personally categorize each task with one of these tags. At the beginning of each day, I focus on my A’s first. If I get those done, I move to the B’s, then the C’s.

  5. Practice intentional neglect.Many people practice the opposite—unintentional neglect. They forget to do something or they are late in meeting their deadlines. They don’t like this behavior and neither do those who are counting on them.But this inevitably happens if you don’t practice intentional neglect. You must decide in advance you will not do category D tasks. They are neither urgent nor important. They are simply not worthy of your time or attention.

    “But,” you may ask, “what about tasks I don’t think are important but someone else does?” Great question. Let me give you an example.

    When I was a CEO, my Board sometimes asked me to do something I thought was a waste of time. I didn’t regard it as important. But, because I served at their pleasure—and wanted to keep my job!—I re-categorized it in my mind as important. Sometimes, it is a simple matter of re-framing the task.

    On the other hand, I recently received a lunch request from a man who is an acquaintance. He is looking for a job and wanted to discuss career possibilities in the publishing industry. This is no doubt important to him and possibly urgent. For me it is neither, so I declined.

    The bottom line is you must learn to say “no” to the unimportant tasks, so you can say “yes” to the important tasks and actually get them done.

  6. Do the next most important thing next. Multi-tasking is a myth. You really can’t do more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention. So get your list of priorities, do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

For today, I have six things I’d like to accomplish: one of them is an A, four are Bs, and one is a C. I’m starting at the top and working down the list.

Question: How about you? How do you cope with feeling overwhelmed? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://www.revivallifestyle.com/ Daniel Vogler

    That’s a great list and was totally what I needed. Thanks for putting this together!

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  • http://twitter.com/DanneHotchkiss D’Anne Hotchkiss

    Thank you for the Covey-system reminder. I cross the D’s right off the list, which is great way of feeling like you’ve accomplished a great deal before you ever start! And when I start to slow down and am feeling overwhelmed and under-productive, I switch to one or two quickly accomplished items labeled C to give me another boost.

  • http://twitter.com/jballard54 Jason Ballard

    I was so needing to read this….thanks for the great post!   I plan on sharing this with all of my co-workers.

  • Rachyaimee

    This was refreshing…thank you!

  • Earlie Pasion

    Thanks for the tips. Sometimes I found myself multi-tasking or maybe multi-thinking. But for me, if I do not multi-task, I won’t accomplish anything at the end of the day. I work from home so I have to do things simulteanously sometimes, like cooking while working on an article… But you’re right, the prioritizing categories work; and post-its help me a lot!

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    When I feel overwhelmed, I try as much as possible to separate myself from the chaos for a bit. Going for a walk or sitting in a library for a while helps me gain perspective of the whole situation. Usually it’s only a short season for me.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Great ideas. Both of those usually help me as well, Daren.

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  • http://twitter.com/MusicPowerStrat MusicPoweredStrategy

    Great ideas Michael.

    One other suggestion I would add is to “turn off” social media, auto notices on e-mail, etc.  for a period of time so you can focus on the task at hand.

     I’ve found I lose time when I take “short” breaks to respond, read a new note or update, etc.


    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I totally agree with this advice. I use a program called Anti-Social that helps a great deal.

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  • Carla Reilly

    This is something that many of us struggle with.  This was a very popular share for me. Thanks so much for the great content. 

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  • http://twitter.com/BrentTrickett BrentTrickett

    Intentional Neglect- For 1 yr I made my default answer to any requests that were not directly part of my job a “no”. If I really wanted to do it I would ask for 3 days to decide, ask my wife, pray about it and then decide. By doing that I realized I had many more requests than I had capacity or desire to be a part of.
    I started using lazymeter as well to keep track of daily tasks and I don’t feel bad if things get done today. I just put them on a different day.

  • Steve Currey

    I like the ABCD triage list…  good stuff.  one thing i’ve been doing lately, instead of engaging long and drawn out email strings is to simply call for a conference call (usually with Skype) with all included parties.  Usually, i can delete the entire email string as a result.  And, we are better overall for having related at a deeper (voice to voice) level.  bottom line, while email is safe (i.e. you stay in charge of your time) nothing replaces relating with one another.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Steve, you bring up a good point. We must be conscious of our ability managing the tension between productivity and relationships.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    I really like this approach. While I hope my inbox never reaches 650+ there are times when it gets a little out of control and I have trouble prioritizing.

    The challenge I face is that every single email that comes into my work inbox MUST be at least responded to within 2 hours regardless of priority level as part of my groups customer service policy. It’s a good idea in theory, but when you’re the sole individual responsible for a global function it gets a little daunting.

  • Amelia Cabealotu

    Very true indeed!Prioritising will surely help kick start your plans for the day.

  • Anonymous

    When I was going through a health crisis some years ago, my mind was racing about all the possibilities and questions and tests. I kept asking my doctor, “What if…” Her reply has stuck with me to this day and I use it in every area of my life – “We don’t have to decide that now”. When I feel myself drifting into overwhelm, I look at each question that comes up and ask, Do I have to decide now? If the answer is no – which it most often is – I move on to the next most pressing issue.

    This helps me triage the stuff I don’t have to think about and deal with the important issues in the moment.

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  • Chic Hottie

    I have to agree with you because it has already happen to me. Thank you for this advise it will help me alot.

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  • Richard Head

    Eliminate the obligations to ‘church’ and free up a bit of time and a bit of mind while you’re at it… 

  • Donna Jones

    Michael – your tips for how you accomplish an impossible workload will be applied today.  I have a run-away freight train kind of workload that will mow me over if I don’t get some kind of control.  It seems like your method may be a workable solution.  Since I have a tremendous workload of time-sensitive items – I have to find a solution.  Also I need to find a way to communicate the unfinished items so that my supervisor can have an understanding of the backlog.  At some point – getting help may be the right solution.

  • Diana G

    I feel totally overwhelmed to the extent that I cannot focus on A, B, C or D. And then I start to panic because I ignore everything that is important and attend to the things that require less of my intelligence,

  • Brad Marsh000

    I been working for the same company for 8yrs. I’ve always done more that has been expected of me. I’m always on time ,don’t miss work my place of employment has grew substancially since I have started there in 2005. My position there is a position that requires to be self motivated and mutitasking is a must !!!! The company decided to run a 750,000 sq feet warehouse with two yard jockeys instead of 3. And have us work 4-10 hr days. Well let me tell u. I’m busy from the time I get to work until the time I leave. I cant stop to take my breaks after the set time of being there I don’t break until 5-7 hours of constantly suppling for the warehouse. And I’m getting tired. My boss doesn’t think I shld be complaining. He says and I quote. ” it is what it is” boss of the year. And becuz of bringing issues up Im on thin ice and its not rite . I just recently got written up for my job functions and it really hurt cuz I’m doing the best that I can do there and I do care about my job otherwise I wldnt be writting this.

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  • http://www.chicktech.com/ Chick Tech

    Great post. No matter how smart you are, how great you are at your job, getting overwhelmed is inevitable. I’m a huge GTD fan, but I find myself running into the same issue.

    Sharing this right now! A must read whether you work for yourself or someone else.

  • Frannie Berkowitz

    oh bless you! I have the same problem with David Allen’s GTD methodology. I agree with a little of David and a little of Stephen make like doable. Thank you so much for this. Best to you, Feeling A Little Better

  • Jo Frosch

    I’m not going to sugarcoat it, I cry a lot at work. Maybe 10 – 15 outbreaks per day. As a 47 year old man, I know this can be uncomfortable for my colleagues. But, when I get stressed, I get emotional. After 20 years in my position (air traffic control) I’ve come to realize that stress enters the body emotionally, but it CAN leave the body physically! That’s why I employ a technique called Stoop N Poop. When I feel that heavy load on my shoulders, I simply release that heavy load out my butt. BANG! Stress is released. Doesn’t matter where I am, Stoop N Poop IMMEDIATELY; worry about cleanup afterwards.