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How to Prioritise When You're Overwhelmed with Work

Weve all been there. Youve got a big report due at the end of the week, three meetings scheduled before lunch, and your managers just asked you to pull together some complex statistics for a presentation tomorrow. Work overwhelm doesnt discriminate; unfortunately even the most diligent planners and time management experts can get caught out.

When everything comes at you at once, it can be hard to know what to do first. Heres how to overcome the overwhelm and get through the to-do list.

1. Download it all from your brain

The human brain is an amazing organ, but there are limits to our short term memory. Scientists differ as to how many things the short term memory can hold, but its somewhere between four and nine. Once we exceed that amount, the brain tries to hold onto it all by cycling through the items. Thats why, when were overloaded, we find ourselves going over and over our to-do list in our head.

Writing down the tasks acts like a file download. Once theyre on paper, your brain no longer needs to worry about forgetting them, which helps to clear the mind. The act of writing them down also helps to embed them more firmly for double security. Consider using a visual planner or colour coding system so that you can see what there is to do at a single glance.

2. Diligently rank it

Once youve got those tasks written down, take a few more minutes and rank them by importance and urgency.

Important tasks are those which directly contribute to your organisations objectives and your own role. Urgent tasks are those which have close deadlines and which, if not completed, may have a negative impact. Be careful that you dont always prioritise urgent tasks, which may not constitute core business, over important tasks that are.

The higher up the career ladder you are, the longer your time lines tend to be. An administrative assistant just starting out may only have that days tasks to worry about, whereas an executive should have an eye on the horizon even if its several years away. Try not to get bogged down in the instant jobs to the detriment of those longer timelines.

Sometimes it can feel like everything is both urgent and important, in which case look carefully at the consequences of missing a particular deadline. Does it have external impact or internal? Are there any legal or financial implications to any of the tasks? If youre not sure what should be the priority, its always better to ask your leader than to guess wrong. And if your leader is the primary cause of overwhelm, insist on sitting down with them to determine the priorities in their eyes and realistically inform them of what's possible in the given time frames.

3. Assess time commitments including lead times

When youre working out how long each task is likely to take you, remember to factor in any external factors that might delay you. For example, a task might require technical input from someone else, or a testing period. You cant control how long those things will take, so allow a margin for error and get your part done as early as possible.

4. Work backwards

Once youve worked out which tasks take priority and how long each one is likely to take, work backwards from the due date. Visual cues can be very helpful here: create a spreadsheet or use a large project calendar which shows you a month at a view. Mark your hard deadlines on the calendar, work backwards for each one, and youll be able to see which ones should have been started already and which ones can wait another few days.

5. Resist perfectionism

If youre regularly commended for the quality of your work, it can be seriously hard to forego your attention to detail when theres competing priorities and looming deadlines. While attention to detail is an admirable quality, there is also skill in knowing when something is finished and resisting the urge to fidget with additional details. Identify the priorities that require your strong detail-oriented approach, and for the remaining tasks, assign a finite time frame to complete them (less time than youd normally invest). If your teammates could possibly assist, ask them to do you a favour and pitch in. Resist trying to unload entire tasks on them though that rarely goes down well unless directed by a leader.

6. Put a temporary hold on any new requests

Whether you’re the manager or the newest intern, you’re only one person. It can be tempting to say yes to every extra piece of work that’s piled upon you. Ultimately, though, it’s an impossible thing to ask of anyone. While in the workplace there can be limitations to what you can and can’t say no to, and while it’s important to be a team player, it’s just as important to be realistic with your time. When you need to say no but aren’t comfortable doing so, consider reframing the request, offering an alternative or committing to only part of it. Know what you can and can’t achieve, and be clear about those limits.

Above all, when things get too much, dont forget to stop and breathe. Taking a couple of minutes out of your day to step outside and take deep lungfuls of air will calm you down, perk you up and revitalise you to tackle that to-do list.

This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Conversation, Liquid Planner and Inc.