You feel like you have too much to do and you are drowning at work. We’ve all been there at one time or another and it’s not fun. This post will cover what to do when you feel overwhelmed at work.
It’s Monday. You were dreading this moment so much that you set your alarm early, just so you could use a few rounds of the snooze button. When you finally do make it out of bed, you have no energy and you don’t want to talk to anyone. You make it through the week knowing that each day brings you closer to Friday. Sadly, it takes all of Saturday just to recover from the week, and Sunday is just depressing because it is that much closer to Monday.
Why is work so hard and why do you feel like you can’t keep up?
Feeling overwhelmed at work doesn’t just affect your workweek. It can affect all areas of your life. Thankfully, there is a way to put a stop to that overwhelm, and prevent it from creeping up again in the future.
Here are 15 steps to prioritize your tasks, be more productive, protect your time and stop feeling overwhelmed at work.
Contents and Quick Links
- 1 #1: Stop and schedule a time to review your work tasks and obligations
- 2 #2: Make a list of your tasks
- 3 #3: Use the ABCDE Method to label all tasks
- 4 #4: Prioritize your A and B level tasks
- 5 #5: Prioritize your C level tasks
- 6 #6: Delegate your D level tasks
- 7 #7: Start with your highest priority task and break it down into the actionable steps necessary to complete it.
- 8 #8: Schedule time into your day to complete each actionable step
- 9 #9: Once you complete your highest priority task, repeat the process with the next task.
- 10 #10: Begin each morning reviewing your top tasks for the day
- 11 #11: Learn to say no
- 12 #12: Schedule meetings close together
- 13 #13: Protect your time
- 14 #14: Allow for breaks between your scheduled time blocks
- 15 #15: Fuel your body
- 16 Recap
#1: Stop and schedule a time to review your work tasks and obligations
#1a: Organize your space
As a pre-step before even diving into things, take a little time to tidy up and organize your work space. An organized desk and office goes a long ways towards an organized mental space to be more productive.
Now that you have a cleaner space to work within, your next step to stop feeling overwhelmed at work is take a break and review the tasks you have on your plate. As soon as overwhelm sets in, it’s hard to maintain an objective perspective and it can feel like you have more tasks to worry about than you really do.
Give yourself a minimum of one hour, but you could need more depending the workload and responsibilities you need to review.
#2: Make a list of your tasks
Once you have your uninterrupted time block, begin writing down all the tasks and projects you need to work on. Don’t worry about listing them in any particular order. The goal here is to simply brain-dump everything you are trying to juggle and keep track of.
#3: Use the ABCDE Method to label all tasks
After you have written down all the tasks that have you feeling overwhelmed at work, begin by assigning a level of importance to each one.
A tasks are the most important. These are the tasks and projects that will cost you, your team, or the company time and money if not completed. They require immediate attention and you absolutely need to be involved in each one and dedicate time to completing it.
B tasks are important but can be completed after your A tasks. There are consequences to not completing these tasks, and you need to be involved in completing them, but the impact is smaller if they aren’t completed right away.
C tasks should be completed, but they can be delayed and don’t carry the same consequences as A and B tasks if they aren’t completed.
D tasks can be delegated to someone else. If you don’t have time, you can find someone else that can complete these tasks instead.
E tasks are not important and can actually be eliminated entirely. Doing so will not carry any negative consequences and will free up your time to work on the higher priority tasks.
What if you are so overwhelmed that even this is too much work?
If even this seems too time consuming, simply mark each item with whether it is high priority, mid-level priority or low priority.
I find it easiest to use three different colored highlighters for this. One color for each level of importance. Then you can easily sort your tasks for the next step.
What if you feel like everything is top priority?
Start by asking yourself if the task is urgent or important. Urgent tasks are those that cost the company or other team members time and money if they aren’t completed first. However, tasks that have an approaching deadline but aren’t costing client, company or team members time and money, can be ordered by how quickly they need to be completed.
#4: Prioritize your A and B level tasks
Now that you have your tasks listed and have assigned a level of importance to each one, it’s not quite time to jump in and start tackling the first thing you feel like working on. Instead, continue to rank your entire task list and define a clear order of priority.
Review your A tasks first and list them by order of importance and deadline. Next, repeat this process with your B tasks.
#5: Prioritize your C level tasks
Now that you have your high-level tasks ranked, move on to review your C level tasks. Decide if any of them can become E level tasks. If they can’t, and you still want to make time for them, prioritize them by time involved to complete and then set a deadline to complete them.
#6: Delegate your D level tasks
It’s now time for the fun part, delegation!
Take a bit of time to determine how to pass your D tasks off to more appropriate individuals or teams. Then, schedule time to effectively and efficiently do this, including scheduling a meeting if necessary, compose an email or otherwise provide special instructions that need to be conveyed.
Then cross that task off your list.
In the happy spirit of crossing items off your list, review your E level tasks and enjoy the satisfaction of crossing these off as well.
#7: Start with your highest priority task and break it down into the actionable steps necessary to complete it.
At this point you finally have a fully prioritized list of tasks that you need to dedicate time to completing. Now, it’s time to define exactly how you will tackle each task.
Begin with your top A task and break it down into the exact action steps necessary to complete it. Repeat this process for each task. This is important because you can now adjust your schedule and plan the appropriate amount of time for each task.
#8: Schedule time into your day to complete each actionable step
Schedule one hour, uninterrupted time blocks into your day to compete your action steps. Within each time block, focus on the individual step and ignore all other distractions such as email, phone and coworkers. Focus on only one single actionable step at a time.
Keep in mind, multitasking is not your friend! Focused, deep work is what will help you power through your actionable steps in a fraction of the time it used to take.
Read more on this at How To Counterbalance Your Life for Greater Productivity.
You may find that some steps don’t require your full time block. Perhaps entire tasks can be completed within this time block. Don’t let that sidetrack you into a visit to the break room to catch up on the latest Netflix episodes. Instead, continue to use this time to systematically step through the work necessary for all your A and B tasks.
#9: Once you complete your highest priority task, repeat the process with the next task.
When you’ve powered through your A tasks, and your B level tasks, take a short break and savor the moment. How long did it actually take to do the work once you broke each task down into its individual actionable steps? Probably not nearly as long as expected.
Once you’ve taken a little time to reflect on your progress, move on to your next level tasks.
If you find more tasks are being added to your plate faster than you can complete your C level tasks, schedule time to review your entire task list all over again and re-prioritize everything.
Of note: Notice the highlighted schedule time. It’s important to plan for this time rather than just interrupting your workflow. (Remember Step 8 and the importance of uninterrupted time to focus on each actionable step of your task?)
#10: Begin each morning reviewing your top tasks for the day
You’ve already made time to create a prioritized list of tasks. Then you broke those tasks down into the actionable steps necessary to complete each task. Most likely, your priorities will change and evolve as some tasks are completed and new tasks are added.
To prevent overwhelm from starting in the first place, begin each workday by reviewing your current task priorities. Break each task down into its actionable steps, then schedule time to complete those steps.
This is a critical step to stop feeling overwhelmed and to prevent it from building up again. Give yourself a clear picture of what you need to focus on over the workday, and an understanding of how that focused work will move your forward to achieve your goals.
#11: Learn to say no
Your time is important. Repeat that a few times until you start to believe it.
It’s necessary to protect your time so that you can focus on completing the action steps you schedule into your day. Without distraction or getting sucked into projects that don’t really need your immediate attention.
Only attend meetings that are absolutely necessary and ensure that they are focused and do not run over time. If your presence isn’t essential, request an summary after the meeting or have someone attend in your stead.
Turn down any new tasks or projects that don’t absolutely require your immediate involvement.
#12: Schedule meetings close together
Meetings are often scattered throughout the day. This means you can’t effectively time block around the meetings since your focus will be on preparing for the meeting just before, and wrapping up any loose ends after the meeting. A 30 minute break between meetings isn’t enough time to fully focus on a separate task and productively work through important action items.
By scheduling meetings close together, you can free up more of your time for focused and uninterrupted work. Additionally, schedule meetings during the second half of the day in order to utilize your most productive hours.
#13: Protect your time
Highest level tasks, requiring more focus, are best scheduled at the beginning of the day. Therefore, make time for those A level tasks at the beginning of the work day and protect that time. Use 2 hour time blocks, or even block the entire first half of your day, such that no one can adjust that time.
If this is difficult or you receive push-back from your employer or colleagues, try notifying everyone ahead of time. Often, coworkers and clients simply need to understand when you are available. Clearly define exactly when you are unavailable, along with times they can drop by, call or email. You will likely find that everyone can adjust to, and respect, your constraints.
During your time blocks, lock your office door or create a do-not-disturb sign and turn off all devices. If you find yourself checking email or social media often, utilize an app that blocks web browsers, such as the StayFocused Chrome extension or Freedom app for Mac or Windows.
#14: Allow for breaks between your scheduled time blocks
Breaks are essential. They allow you to refocus and remain productive throughout the day.
As this article in Psychology Today highlights, breaks:
- Are essential to our physical and emotional health
- Allow us to avoid “decision fatigue”
- Restore motivation to complete goals
- Increase productivity and creativity
- Restful periods during the day help consolidate memory and improve learning
#15: Fuel your body
Avoid that afternoon slump by fueling your body for a productive day. Highly processed and sugary foods (aka, the really tasty stuff that leaves you craving more) cause spikes in blood glucose levels, providing that sudden burst of energy that you long for. The problem is that this spike will plummet quickly, leaving you feeling fatigued and sluggish. And craving more highly processed and sugary foods. Food cravings mean you are focused on your next fix, rather than your to-do list.
Prevent this vicious cycle by staying hydrated and eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day. Foods containing protein, healthy fats and whole grains will provide more stable glucose levels so that you can focus on what is most important, that list of A and B level tasks.
Feeling overwhelmed at work will happen from time to time. But it can be managed and there are steps you can take to get back on track and prevent that overwhelm from building up again in the future.
By prioritizing your work tasks, breaking them into smaller, actionable steps and then setting aside time to focus and be productive, you can strategically and systematically make progress. That progress will move you towards achieving your goals and provide the much needed satisfaction and reward so that you can enjoy your work again.