Whether you’re trying to impress your new boss or gunning for a promotion, it can be hard to say no to more work. After all, you want everyone to see your hard-working, challenge-accepting, up-for-anything attitude. Unfortunately, every new project you agree to take on comes with a looming deadline—and before you know it, you can barely keep your head above water.
When you feel like projects are starting to slip through the cracks or you just can’t give your best because you’re spread too thin, take some time to address the situation before your to-do list gets the best of you. Here are a few ways to tackle an overwhelming workload and get back on track.
1. Create a Schedule
Keep a master schedule of all of your final deadlines by setting up a calendar on iCal or Google Calendar or using a nice planner (I love the set-up of Moleskine’s weekly notebooks). Seeing everything in one place can help you prioritize your time because you’ll know exactly what’s coming up, days and weeks in advance.
But don’t stop there—the trick to organizing your time is to break your projects up into mini-goals that will be easier to achieve. Small, attainable goals will help you bust through tough projects and stay on track.
For example, planning a large work event requires you to coordinate a number of groups, both inside and outside the office. Instead of setting one big deadline on the date of the event, schedule it out into smaller tasks during the weeks leading up to the event, like making sure your caterer has your menu, finalizing the correct headcount of attendees, and proofing and printing handouts. Meeting these mini-goals along the way will make sure that nothing is left to the last minute.
2. Stay Alert
Setting up your master schedule is only half the battle—the other half is actually using it. If you’re not in the habit of checking your calendar daily, you might need a little push in the right direction, so after you’ve set deadlines for yourself, also set some alerts. A pop-up on your computer or phone can be a quick reminder of what’s coming up (check out apps like 2Do, Wunderlist, and Todoist), or, if you use a paper planner, set up visual alerts with Post-Its reminding you of what’s happening during the week ahead.
These alerts could include checkpoints for big deadlines (e.g., at the halfway point to your project’s due date, you could set an alarm to make sure you ask your supervisor to review a draft of your report) or just general day-to-day reminders (for example, setting alerts for Mondays and Wednesdays, so you can make sure you’re on track before you run out of time at the end of the work week).
3. Organize It
When you’re working on several projects at the same time, your inbox can quickly explode into an overwhelming mess of information. And while you can’t stop the flow of emails coming in, you can at least keep your assignments organized and separated.
Try adding folders and color-coding to your inbox to help you find important information when you need it. For example, create a separate folder for each specific assignment you’re working on, which will let you easily scan for conversations or files that you need.
To go a step further, you can even set up a rule in Outlook to send email from certain addresses or with certain phrases in the subject line to the specified folders you’ve created. Gmail does the same thing if you set up a filter. Either method allows you to pre-sort your inbox, so you don’t have to spend valuable time sifting through the mess!
4. Get Little Stuff Out of the Way
Are you in charge of repetitive reports or spreadsheets that have to go out weekly or monthly? To save yourself time and energy (and free up valuable space on your already-crowded to-do list), create a template for each report, instead of starting from scratch each time.
Do you constantly receive emails asking similar questions? Create canned responses in Gmail or keep a Word doc on your desktop with answers for common issues (e.g., how to use your FTP site, who to contact for customer service, or the dates for upcoming trade shows). Having something you can easily cut and paste from will make answering routine email less time-consuming.
Doing the small stuff early and making it as streamlined as possible gives you more space to work on complex projects.
5. Keep Up to Date
Set aside a few minutes before you leave in the evening to look back at your schedule and update it with your daily progress (even just doing this weekly is a big help!). Didn’t quite finish a task? Move it to the next day or the next block of time you have scheduled for that particular project. It also helps to have some free time scheduled into each day (or even just once a week), which will allow you to be more flexible if you don’t meet a mini-goal and need to rearrange your schedule.
Keeping an eye on what you’re getting done each day can not only help you from feeling overwhelmed, it can also help you gauge how much time you really need for a given project or task. And knowing that, you’ll identify exactly how much you can take on in the future!
6. Talk About Sharing
If you start to realize that some of your mini-goals aren’t getting done because there isn’t enough time, because other projects are taking priority, or because new responsibilities keep landing on your desk, it may be time to talk to your supervisor about redistributing some of your work.
This is another reason having a detailed schedule of your projects planned out by day and week is crucial: If you have a clear idea of what needs to be done and in what timeframe, your boss can easily see what’s on your plate. Then, together, you can determine what’s most important to stay on your immediate to-do list and what can be pushed back or delegated to someone else.
Yes, it can be hard to let go, but it’s always more important to share the workload with the rest of your team and make your deadlines than try to prove that you can handle it all and not quite get there.
Finally, when you start to feel like you're losing it, take a big breath. Remember, control is all about keeping yourself organized and being honest about what you can handle.