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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

7 Ways to Save Yourself When You're Drowning in Work

For whatever reason, you’re behind on your work. Your to-do list is out of control, you’re missing deadlines, and your inbox is full of emails from co-workers following up on things you promised them weeks ago.

When things are really dire, a quick fix or new to-do list app isn’t going to fix the situation. To take control again, it’s time to take a step back, assess the situation, and make some more strategic moves to clear your plate.

First, you need to make what I call a “kitchen sink list.” Block out time on your schedule for a meeting with yourself (I recommend an out-of-office breakfast). Then, at that meeting, write down absolutely everything you have going on right now. Start by identifying the major groupings of work (e.g., Client Communications, Internal Reporting, Hiring), making sure to add an “Other” bucket for all the miscellaneous items that inevitably pop up. Then, write out everything you need to get done on paper. No item is too small or too insignificant to make the list. It’s important to face the reality of exactly what you need to get done to determine the seriousness of the situation—and how extreme of a strategy you’re going to need to put in place.

Typically, after doing a kitchen sink list, you’ll find yourself in one of two camps. The first camp is if you look at everything and it feels like a lot, but with a bit of perspective, a few things reorganized, and a couple of weeks of beast mode, it can happen. It’ll just be a busy few weeks.

But, if you look at your kitchen sink list and know it’s impossible to get all that done, you’re in Camp Two. Somehow, you’ve bitten off way more than you can chew, and you are totally overwhelmed and desperately behind. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to face that reality and make some changes.

To make it easier on your frazzled self, here are seven strategies that can help get your work life back under control:

1. Prune the Tree

Look at the tasks on your kitchen sink list and decide which ones can be taken off entirely. I know, it sounds scary—even impossible. But I’m willing to bet that there are a few things that don’t really need to get done right now (at least not by you). Anything non-critical should get the ax.

2. Simplify the Output Using the 80/20 rule.

Are there any tasks or projects where 20% of the effort would yield 80% of the impact? For example, your boss wants a competitive analysis for a new product she’s thinking of launching. Before handing her a novel on the competitive landscape, would one page on each serious competitor be enough to help make that decision? Or, if the majority of the revenue you bring in as a sales rep comes from bigger deals, but you spend half your time on small deals that barely move the needle, could you shift your time and attention to the bigger deals instead? Yes? Go with those tasks or projects.

3. Automate or Outsource

Productivity expert Stever Robbins wrote a great piece on the 30/3 rule. It explains that something that takes you 30 minutes a day adds up to three weeks a year. Three whole weeks! Get that time back by seeing if there are any smaller tasks you can automate or outsource using third-party tools, such as, to speed up scheduling.

4. Ask for Help

Talk to your boss, colleagues, employees, even other departments to see if anyone can help take on some of the workload. Who knows—maybe your intern has been dying to get her feet wet in PowerPoint, or maybe Dan from Sales has an Excel model you could easily adapt to forecast your budget. Look to areas where there is some overlap with colleagues’ work for the most obvious hand-offs. (Check out these delegation tips if you need help starting that conversation.)

5. Start Sequencing

If everything left on your list needs to happen and you’re not going to get any help, then it will have to happen—just not all at once. Look at your deadlines to determine which items are truly urgent and which timetables can be pushed back. Your manager can and should help you with prioritization and sequencing.

6. Pass a Moratorium on Yes

This strategy doesn’t help deal with your existing problem, but it’s critical for keeping it in check. Until things are under control again, you need to be the king or queen of “No!” Don’t take on additional projects until you’ve gotten yourself out of this mess.

7. Suggest a Hire

If you’ve tried all of the above and still find yourself swimming in to-dos, it may be time to request adding someone to your team. Depending on your company’s culture and budget, consider part-time, intern, or temporary help as a lower-cost option.

And if all else fails, declare to-do list bankruptcy and move to Bali. Just kidding, you won’t fail. You’re just going to be under a little more stress than usual until you figure this all out—but I promise, you’ll get there.

Photo of frazzled woman courtesy of Shutterstock.