Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, in the second installment of a two-part series (you can read the first part here), Joshua Stein gives some practical advice on how manage your workflow.
When your work feels overwhelming, you can take some specific steps to help break through the panic and get it all finished. The first installment of this article offered about a half dozen techniques. This installment completes the list.
A. Start. If you feel like you have too much on your plate – spilling over onto the table and the floor — sometimes you respond by freezing, not knowing where to start. Or you do know where to start, but you aren’t quite ready. You think about problems that might arise. You keep postponing the pain. But your best strategy will often consist of just starting the job. Even if you’re not quite ready and even if it’s not all lined up nicely, just dig into it. Start anywhere. Of all the suggestions in this two-part article, this one seems the most obvious. But the obvious suggestions are also the ones most likely to get forgotten when you get overwhelmed.
B. The Blank Screen. If you will produce written work, then you don’t need to start writing at the very beginning. That’s often intimidating. Instead, start with your second or third paragraph or a list of the bullet points you intend to cover. Fill out your memo, report, or other project and then go back to the beginning….
C. Delegation. Maybe you’re wrong when you assume you need to do all your pending projects yourself. Can someone else help you? If so, it’s all the more important to schedule your project to allow time for that other person to do their work and then give yourself time to review it. If you don’t plan ahead and give that other person a reasonable time to do their work, you will end up doing it yourself as a last-minute emergency. Looking ahead, one of your first career strategies should consist of becoming a delegator rather than a delegatee as soon as you can. Life is more pleasant that way, and you will feel less overwhelmed by your work.
D. Do You Really Need to Do It All? Keep in mind the possibility that some of the projects on your platter shouldn’t be there at all. Yes, you never want to shirk work, particularly when you are the most junior person on the team, but if you just aren’t the right person to do something, or to take responsibility for getting it done, consider whether you can gracefully transition the work to someone who more appropriately ought to do it. If you plan to do that, do it in a discreet and tasteful way, long before any deadline, and with an eye toward protecting your flank from accusations of laziness. Your first candidates for this treatment should probably consist of whatever projects you most dislike, as those will often be the same projects on which you will do the worst job.
E. Revision and Editing. I often find myself distracted by the temptation to revise and edit whatever I’m writing before I’ve finished the first draft. I find editing easier than writing. But that’s not an efficient way to revise and edit, because you won’t really know how to revise and edit your work until you’ve finished that first draft. Then you can approach the project of revision and editing as a single whole, which may change your overall approach.
F. Multi-Tasking. If you keep interrupting one project to work on another, you will delay completion of all your tasks and lose a lot of time mobilizing, demobilizing, and remobilizing (picking up where you left off) for each project again and again. Usually you’ll get more done in less time if you work on one project and finish it; then turn to the next one. That approach runs totally counter to the modern workplace, in which every incoming email message invites an interruption of an interruption of an interruption, until you end up chasing your tail all day and getting nothing done. Resist the natural temptation to do that. Unfortunately, that temptation is also all too often an imperative. You can’t do much about it except get good at it, or go hide somewhere.
G. Taking a Break. When you do take a break, leave your work in a condition so that you can easily restart it later. For example, you may pick up the writing process much more easily if you stopped work in the middle of a sentence or after you’ve fully fleshed out several bullet points and jotted down brief reminders of the next two. The best breaks often don’t involve food or drink. A walk around the block, or somewhere else outdoors, can totally alter your views and refresh you.
Most of the techniques offered in this two-part article are tried and true, or perhaps trite and true, but they work. One tends to forget them under the pressure of the moment. So the final suggestion is simply this: Apply what you already know about how to manage what’s on your plate, including the suggestions in these articles. You probably know what you need to do; the challenge lies in doing it.