When work piles up, it’s all too easy to fall behind on projects and deadlines. Coupled with the omnipresent stress of living through Covid, that pile of work can start to feel like an insurmountable mountain.
Here are some of the the best tips productivity experts shared on what they do when they fall behind on work and how they avoid feeling overwhelmed. Their answers were lightly edited for clarity and length.
1. Ask for help
When I’m overwhelmed or I’ve suddenly picked up a bunch of responsibilities on top of everything I have, I first sit down and try to organise everything by importance.
This is actually the hard part – not because of the organising, that’s easy – [but] stopping to try to take in the full scope of my work. Sometimes it feels like it’s silly to stop working in order to start working again, especially when you might be behind or overwhelmed. But it’s important to stop, take a break, get a little mental clarity. Take a walk, drink a big glass of water, make sure you’ve eaten today.
Once you’re refreshed, come back and try to arrange your tasks and to-dos by priority, importance (two different things!) and delegation.
And when I say “delegation,” I don’t just mean stuff you can ask other people do to. I mean stuff you can negotiate more time for, or ask your manager to take off your plate because you’re overwhelmed, or get a friend or colleague to lend a hand with.
And that’s important, too: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! So many of us get into the headspace that we have to be masters of all of our duties and do everything on our own or else it’ll reflect poorly on us, and that’s not fair to us or the people we work with. Whether you have the psychological safety to ask for help is a whole different question, obviously, but if you do, ask for it! I can’t tell you how many managers I’ve had who saw me running myself ragged and told me, “Next time, talk to me sooner, I can help you!” and actually meant it. — Alan Henry, service editor at Wired magazine and author of the upcoming book Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized
2. Get everything out of your head and onto paper
What I like to do is get everything out of my head and onto paper.
I actually did it today. Grab a blank sheet of white paper and draw a vertical line down the centre and a horizontal line across the centre, so you’ve got four quadrants on your page. In the top lefthand corner, I write, “Must do.” Top right, I write “Should do.” Bottom left, I write “Could do,” and bottom right, I write “Want to.” And I just start writing things out of my head into those four categories.
When you have to decide where everything goes, it’s almost like taking a colander that strains things in the section that it belongs, and it really helps you clarify, “OK, there are a lot of things bouncing around in my head, but not everything is a must-do.” What are the deadlines that are most urgent?
Once I feel complete with the mind sweep, I look at what’s on the must-do list, and then I’ll prioritise or rank, and I’ll literally write a 1 or a 2 or a 3 next to everything in order of importance. At that point, I feel settled down enough to know what I need to start on. –– Anna Dearmon Kornick, time management coach and host of the It’s About Time podcast
3. Shrink the project load
When I fall behind on work, I spend a bit more time planning and make a list of all of the current projects I have on my plate. I then see if I can delegate any of those projects to someone else or drop any because they’re significantly less important or meaningful than the others.
With the projects that remain, I look at their deadlines to see if I can reasonably get them all done, considering how much time, attention and energy I’ll have.
If I won’t have the bandwidth, I’ll try to beat back a few of the deadlines somehow, like by letting people know I’ll be late ahead of time but need extra time to do a good job, or by just telling them that I’ll be late, hopefully well in advance.
Ninety percent of the time I find it’s possible to shrink my overall workload with these tactics. When it isn’t, and I figure that the work will be worth the extra time, I’ll just work the extra hours to get it done while still shrinking the project load to experience less overall stress. — Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project
4. Acknowledge ‘I am overwhelmed and I need help!’
While I’m task-oriented, there are times when I get behind or get overwhelmed with distractions. My best practices include:
1. Acknowledge where I am: “I am overwhelmed and I need help!”
2. Prioritise my task list: Are my tasks immediate, close of business or later?
3. Limit my distractions: Check social media less or set a specific time for Q&As with students.
4. Get by myself, behind closed doors, for a set amount of time and go full-out on completing tasks. — Pamela A. Reed, time management coach and author of Unfinished Business: How to Finish What You Start ... Faster!
5. Communicate quickly if your task involves others
The first thing that I do is to take a step back and just stop, because dealing with so many things happening at one time is just information overload.
I find doing a pause means not looking at emails, not checking the phone and just taking it all in: “This is what’s happening, let me collect my thoughts and get myself in a place where I can think through the next steps,” as opposed to, “Let me just pick something and finish it just to finish it.”
Acknowledge it is what it is. It’s a moment in time.
And then look at projects and deadlines. The work that you have to do: Is it just your own work or does it involve others? If it does, then communication to them has to be the first thing. That distinction, I think, is important. If someone is expecting something from you, communicate right away: “This is the new timeline,” “Can I get this to you by this time?” or make them aware of what’s happening. — Rashelle Isip, productivity consultant
6. Ask yourself this one clarifying question
Defining clear priorities, I think, is the key to getting out of feeling overwhelmed. If you are in a job where you have a leadership team or a boss, sometimes it’s an issue of asking for clarification from them and saying, “These are the things I have on my plate. What should be the priority?”
But if you are the person who has to decide what’s most important, I like to use a clarifying question from a book called The One Thing by Gary Keller. And the clarifying question is: Of all these things that are on my plate, what is the one thing that if it was resolved or it went away, all of these other things would become easier or irrelevant? What is that one domino that if that domino fell, it would make everything else better? — Katie Wussow, business coach for creatives and host of The Game Changer podcast
7. Get your mind calm
Often people look for a one-click solution to this. But in my experience this requires skills that you must practice regularly to master: stress management and resiliency, prioritisation and time- and task-management.
But when I do fall behind with work, here’s how I would put the three skills into practice. First, I’d deal with [feeling overwhelmed] using meditation or another mindfulness practice. You know you’ve achieved it when your heartbeat is at a relaxed rate. Your muscles, jaws and eyebrows become unclenched. And your breathing gets back to normal.
Then, I’d write down all the tasks I needed to do. A better place to store tasks is not the brain but a to-do list. Similarly, a problem is easier to solve when you can see it.
The next step is to prioritise using the Eisenhower Matrix. Do what’s important and urgent. Schedule what’s important but not so urgent. Delegate tasks that are urgent but not in my area of expertise, and eliminate the rest.
Sometimes it’d turn out that the pile of tasks is manageable if I can get focused. If not, I’d negotiate deadlines. Often I am surprised by how understanding people are when you explain your situation.
I trust the system. It all begins with a calm mind. — Samphy Y, productivity coach