What to do when you have too much to do

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Man carrying a lot of stuff, looking at his watch and generally rushing

Focus equals results. This is an important understanding. ‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,’ said Steve Jobs. ‘That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products’. It’s also true for people and work traffic planning. 

I’m re-discovering this lesson this week as my workload is piling up, my task list is growing impossibly long and I’ve got way too much to do. It always goes back to the profit-to-pain ratio. Even the next ten minutes are important.

If this Wallace and Gromit video looks like your life, welcome to the club.

Top tips for when you have too much to do

This blog post is a sort of reminder to myself but I hope it’ll be useful for you too. Some of these tips will help you get through the backlog but the last few are about selection, prioritisation and refactoring, and they will help you improve things in the long run.

  • SingletaskingMultitasking is a myth. When you think you are multitasking, what you are doing is inefficiently flipping between several single tasks and distracting yourself repeatedly. Oh look, a squirrel! Better to do one thing, finish it and move on.
  • Change your environment. Your office is killing your productivity. Work somewhere else or change your office.
  • Concentration. There are at least 22 ways to stay focused on your work. The Pomodoro technique seems to work well for many people and sometimes for me.
  • Getting up early. I’m writing this at 6:28am, mainly because it’s the only time in today’s multi-call, multi-meeting day that I can do it. But getting up an hour earlier and using the quiet time before the day for creative work or BANJO tasks can be incredibly productive.
  • BANJO = bang another nasty job out. That thing that you’re putting off because it’s complicated, gritty and not quite urgent enough to do now but important enough to nag at you. Yeah, that one. Just do it now.
  • Cancel those meetingsMeetings are the opposite of work. If you have to have them, have quicker, shorter, better meetings. Meetings with travel are the worst – switch to a video conference if you can. But there are probably some meetings in your diary and some in my diary that could be cancelled. We’ve all had clients (and, ahem, bosses) who would rather book a 30-minute call than write a three-line email. Tools like Calendly make booking meetings easier but use them sparingly if you don’t want your diary to fill up with non-work.

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  • Delegate. Even if your colleagues are also very busy (as are mine), you can assign them tasks to do later and at least clear them off your plate. You can also find freelancers, contractors and associates who can help carry the load when things are really busy. In fact, having a roster of tried-and-tested associates is something that has worked well for Articulate even though we prefer to do our work in-house as much as possible.
  • Prioritise. I love Wunderlist and Basecamp, but they both tend to accumulate tasks. So I use Taco to prioritise my tasks and only show two or three things at a time. It takes a few minutes but it’s quite calming to review everything and pick the priorities.
  • Cure the disease, not the symptoms. I’m insanely busy now because Articulate is growing fast. That’s good and an occasional sprint is good for the heart but long-term growth is a marathon and I need to pace myself and that means refactoring (ie taking a good look at how we work and trying to make it better). In particular, I’m focusing on productisation, which for us means building tested, repeatable, scalable processes for delivering our services (rather than making them up from scratch for each new project and client), saying no to business that isn’t a great fit for us, focusing on training and development to help my colleagues contribute more to the business and hiring new staff.
  • Take a break. Even a short break or a mini-holiday at work can recharge your productivity.

All this is hard, but if I’m going to be busy, I should be busy doing the right thing.

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