13 methods to overcome overload and work smarter

If your to-do list and bursting-at-the-seams e-mail inbox loom large, here’s how to get a handle on both.

The vacation is over and now it’s back to the daily grind. While you’d love to feel energized and excited about jumping back in, you’re weighed down with dread. You know the second you step foot in your office you’ll be hit with 20-plus tasks to add to your to-do list and an inbox full of emails begging for an immediate response. Soon you may feel overwhelmed and incapable of getting everything done.

For too many of us, feeling anxious and overwhelmed has become the new normal. Most of your dread doesn’t come from the work itself — it comes from how you think about the work. The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less. You can’t change that reality … but you can make peace with it.

The first step to changing the way you get things done is to accept that you’re never going to get it all done. You’ll always be updating your to-do list by crossing off completed tasks and adding new ones … and that’s okay. When you improve the way you approach the things you need to get done, both on the job and off, you’ll stop wishing things were different and start really making new things possible.

Purge and unsubscribe. When I suggest reducing your psychological burden, in some cases that means reducing your literal burden. Start deleting and recycling.

Get rid of everything you can and reduce what might be coming in. Unsubscribe from email newsletters, magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, perhaps even the ad-hoc committees you’ve joined recently. Try the “unsubscription” for three months; at the end of those 12 weeks, you can re-up if you want to.

Block out your time and prioritize. Ask yourself this: How much time do I really spend each day clicking through emails and making my to-do list? The answer is probably a lot. When you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging “urgent” emails, you’ll never get any real work done. Instead look at your day and figure out where you have blocks of time to really focus and engage on what needs to be done.

Time blocking and prioritization are two important keys to daily productivity. Look at your to-do list, figure out where you have blocks of time to act on those items and then prioritize.

Change how you manage email. The moment you click on your inbox, your focus goes and your stress grows as you proceed to delete, respond, forward and file the messages you find there. You see names and subject lines and suddenly your mind starts racing; all you can think of are the latest projects, the “loudest” issues and the high-priority work that shows up. If you’re not careful, all you’ll do all day is manage your email.

Rather than simply flag emails that require action, use the subject lines to catalog and organize them. For example, you might put “Follow-up Call” in the subject line of an email about a meeting you just had with a client. Also, don’t look at your email unless you have a block of time to devote to prioritizing them and responding to them. When you are going through your email, use subject lines to catalog them and organize them so that you’ll easily be able to go back to less urgent e-mails later on.

Take technology shortcuts. Practically every kind of software you use daily has tricks and shortcuts that once implemented could save you a lot of time. Sit down with those who can teach you more about these systems. The more you fully understand the tools you use, the easier it will be to learn even more about their features and how to use them to your advantage.

Break inertia. Ever watch a freight train start to move? That first forward jolt takes the most energy; keeping the train rolling is much easier. Do some small things to get rolling on getting caught up. Then pace yourself. You’ll probably find it’s much easier to keep rolling along at a comfortable clip.

We build up such a sense of dread that what we have to do seems insurmountable. Once you get started with something small and manageable, you almost always realize “Hey, this isn’t so tough after all.” And soon you find that you’re making real progress — and it feels good.

Always be prepared for “bonus time.” This is a great strategy for increasing productivity throughout the year, but it will be especially helpful in the days following your vacation. Bring small chunks of work with you wherever you go. Then, while waiting for a meeting to start or for a delayed flight to depart — unexpected blocks of free “bonus time” — you’ll be able to reply to an email or make a phone call. In other instances, you might have enough time to review materials for another meeting or project you are working on. If you’re prepared, you can also confirm appointments, draft responses or map out a project outline.

Sometime during the next month, someone is going to arrive late for a meeting with you, cancel a meeting or otherwise keep you waiting. When that inevitably happens, you can look over your to-do list and pick something — anything — to work on.

Reduce meeting time lengths. If meetings at your organization are normally given a 60-minute time length, start giving them a 45-minute time length. You’ll find that what you get done in 60 minutes you can also achieve in 45 minutes. You’ll also gain 15 extra minutes for each meeting you have.

Usually, we fill the time we expect to fill. Give yourself less time, and you’ll get it done in less time. The shorter time frame really gets you focused. All that extra time will really add up and provide you with more time to work toward your goals.

Figure out what distracts you. It can be extremely helpful to discern exactly what it is that gets in the way of your focus. Identify what is blocking your ability to give all of your attention to what needs your attention. Is it the constant ding of emails popping up in your inbox? Is it employees or colleagues who need “just a minute” of your time? Once you have this inventory, you can begin to make subtle changes so that you wind up getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality.

Divide your projects into small, manageable pieces. Take one step at a time and don’t worry about reaching the ultimate goal. Make use of small chunks of time. Set milestones, decide actions and make progress faster.

Identify the VERBS that need attention. (And here’s a hint: Smaller is better.) Organize your to-do list by verbs in order to manage your productivity in terms of action, delegation and progress. Actions such Call, Draft, Review and Invite are things that you can do, generally in one sitting, that have the potential to move the project forward one step at a time.

If your to-do list has “big” verbs such as plan, discuss, create or implement, replace them with action steps to just get started.

That is, pick “smaller” verbs describing tasks that are easier to start and faster to finish. This will save you time and reduce the sense of overload you’re feeling.

Learn to delegate clearly (much, much more clearly). Come to terms with the fact that you can’t get it all done yourself. Identify exactly what needs to be done and by when. Over-communicate and (if you need to!) track what you have given to whom.

Check back weekly with your “Waiting on … ” inventory and follow up with people who you think may wind up falling behind. Be relentless. After all, if the people you delegate to aren’t productive, you won’t be productive either.

Implement a weekly debrief. Take time after every five-day period to stop, look around and assess where you are in relation to where you thought you would be. Look at three key areas: 1. What new ideas have emerged? 2. What decisions need to be made? 3. How do I track this information?

Not only does the weekly debrief help you hold yourself accountable, it allows you to course-correct if necessary. Things usually don’t go the way we expect them to, so these weekly debriefs give us the opportunity to ask ourselves, Does this still make sense? And if not, what does?

Forecast your future. Open your calendar to 180 days from today. There, write three to four paragraphs describing what you’ll have done, where you’ll have been and what will have happened to your personal/professional life by then. This kind of “forecasting” is good to do from time to time.

What we think about is what we do. Identifying what we’d like to experience is the first step in developing the habits and actions that move us closer to our goals.

Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA, provides practical methods to maximize tools, systems and processes to achieve quality work/life balance. He has worked with leaders and executives for more than 16 years in the business and education sectors. Author of  “Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More,” Womack shows that working longer hours doesn’t make up for a flawed approach to productivity and performance. Entrepreneurs need to clarify their habits, build mindset-based strategies and be proactive. For more information visit womackcompany.com.

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