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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