For the next four weeks I’ll be sharing my multi-faceted approach to one of my clients’ most frequently-asked questions: What should I do when there’s too much to do? At some point, most leaders feel overwhelmed. This series will explore three steps to take when you are consistently overworked.

Dear Dr. Graham:
I love my job. I’ve always worked hard and put in long hours whenever necessary. But in the past few years our company has had one cut after another, resulting in an unreasonable workload. I’m continually required to do more with less. Since my department is barely meeting deadlines, I’m neglecting parts of my job that are important to me, like developing my people. There’s no time for creative problem solving.

I’ve tried everything. What do you do when there’s too much to do?
— Overwhelmed manager

Dear Overwhelmed,

You’re not alone. In fact, this client question is so common that I have developed a three-step process to address it:

  1. Organize
  2. Communicate.
  3. Choose your Sacrifice.

For brevity’s sake, we’ll cover one step each week for the next three weeks. Then we’ll wrap it up the fourth week. This week we’ll focus on Step 1: Organize, which involves planning and prioritizing. One reason you might feel overwhelmed is that the human brain is designed to process information, not to store information. When we try to keep track of all the things in our heads that we need to do, we create an emotional burden that keeps us from being productive, creative, and fully present. That’s why you need to free space in your brain through a consistent and “self-managing” organization system. It doesn’t matter whether you use high-tech apps or old-school files. You just need to develop a priority-based system that triggers you to do what you need to do – without having to keep track of deadlines in your head. Here’s how:

  1. Each time a new task emerges, immediately enter it into your organization system for processing.
  2. At a designated time each day, classify each task by priority: high, medium, or “someday.”
  3. Assign deadlines to tasks that demand them.
  4. And then – here’s the key – make sure your system is designed to notify you when it’s time to pay attention to each task. I am an Evernote and Trello devotee, but I have clients who are dedicated to their FranklinCovey paper-based system.

You should be able to glance at your system and immediately know what to work on next. Anyone familiar with David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) approach to time management will recognize my advice as a very condensed version of his philosophy. I highly recommend GTD!

Once you’ve classified each task, it’s time to take a second pass through the list. While you shouldn’t cut your efforts where it will make you so crazy that you’re not productive, effective organizers recognize that not everything on their list deserves their full effort. We can often free up time for the tasks that deserve 100 percent of our efforts when we recognize where 80 percent is okay. What’s on your high-priority list that’s worth your full effort, and what can you do less well? It may be that you don’t need detailed agendas for every meeting; perhaps an outline works just fine. It may be that a weekly report only requires four revisions, rather than ten. It’s likely that not every high-priority task requires your 100 percent effort, or the 100 percent effort of your team.

Take a stab at implementing these tips. I will look forward to hearing how it went when we talk again next week. Meanwhile, if you or your team would like to learn more, you are welcome to join my Facebook group, Lead At A Higher Level, where Dr. Julie McDonald and I introduced “Step 1: Organize” via a June 13 video.

Next week we’ll address Step 2 in managing an overwhelming workload. That’s when we’ll cover how to communicate appropriately with others about your commitments.

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