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You at Work

Overwhelmed? Here’s How to Dig Out When There’s Too Much to Do

By Joan Feldman

When you’re overwhelmed with work and stress, triage — assigning priorities to tasks so you can figure out how to allocate your time — is how you dig out.

If your January was anything like mine, you spent most of the month clawing your way out of a profound funk. Maybe it’s because you spent your holiday downtime playing “is it COVID or ‘just’ the flu?” with your entire family — canceling reservations and searching for test sites instead of relaxing to a steady supply of Netflix holiday rom-coms. Maybe instead of scrambling to set your annual goals and implement your strategic plan, you procrastinated through January. You languished.

And now? Your fight-or-flight response has just kicked in. Because now it’s February and what have you done? Scratch that. It’s a week into February. Everything you put aside in January is coming at you. All at once, with equal urgency. And your endless explanations and apologies are beginning to sound tired, especially to you.

So how do you stop apologizing and get back to getting things done?

Triage: Tips to Help Get Back Your Life

Create a master triage list.

When the dam is spouting multiple leaks, you need to figure out which holes to plug first, and fast. I’m not an organization guru or project management pro (for help with that, check in with Andrea Cannavina on controlling chaos and Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner). This is my quick and somewhat messy system for digging my way out when there’s way too much to do. First step? Create a master list:

  • Check your calendar. Write down upcoming meetings, deadlines and other commitments. Go two weeks out, then go two weeks back for deadlines you missed.
  • If you use an email folder system or flags, check those folders for items that need immediate action.
  • Next review your practice management and project management systems for outstanding and upcoming tasks.
  • Check with your assistant and team members to make sure you have all the latest deadline information.

OK, sometimes this list can add to your stress. Try not to shut down. You are creating a master list you can whittle down to the most urgent and most important tasks so you can find a way out of this mess.

Start whittling.

Use a highlighter and mark all the things you can cancel — be brutal — or reschedule for later in the month; use another color to highlight everything you can delegate.

What’s left is a list of projects and tasks you must get done, or at least start, in short order. Now you need to prioritize, find time and, if necessary, people.

Next, group like tasks together: phone calls to make, emails to write, documents to draft, errands that will take you away from your desk, and so on. Next to each item, write down how much time it should take you to complete. Be honest. Then try to rank the big projects — ones that require the most time and focus — by priority or level of stress. (Here’s Jamie Spannhake’s method for prioritizing when everything feels urgent and important.)

Make a daily task list that thinks for you.

When my stress and anxiety are high, and I’m overwhelmed with work, I need a list that tells me exactly what to do and when. The kind of list that thinks for me.

Use your daily planner, yellow pad, spreadsheet or a favorite app and begin writing down the time in 15-minute increments down the left side of a page. (I use grid paper.) Before the next workday begins — preferably the night before — start scheduling in tasks from your triage list.

  • First, pick the one thing on the list that is giving you the most anxiety — the one thing that will give you the most relief once it’s handled. It probably isn’t the most time-consuming. More than likely it’s somebody you need to tell ‘no’ or something you don’t know how to do. It’s a phone call to ask for forgiveness or to ask for help. Put it first in your day and eat the frog.
  • Next, slot the meetings or errands that will take you away from your desk. (The ones you couldn’t reschedule, that is.)
  • Then look at your priority projects and schedule one of those tasks into your day. Schedule the others for the remainder of the week (and let people know).
  • Now, look at your triage list and group small items together —10-minute phone calls, standard email replies, and online tasks like replenishing your child’s lunch money or paying bills. Challenge yourself to see how many of these small things you can get done in one focused hour.

Once your day’s task list is complete, review it for roadblocks. Is there anything you can do the night before or early in the morning to make the day run more smoothly? Are there emails you can draft? Assets you can gather? Approvals you need? Tasks you can quickly delegate?

Don’t overschedule your day, but don’t be too easy on yourself, either. This is triage. Besides, you are going to feel a lot better when you realize how much you can do in a few focused hours. (Wise people will tell you that you’re lucky to get three things done, at most, each day.) Even if you don’t follow the list completely, having it there will ease your mind.

Follow the daily triage strategy for a week or four full days, if possible.

A word about control: delegate.

Until you learn to delegate, this cycle will keep repeating.

Sometimes people are simply too disorganized to delegate. Sometimes it seems easier to do it yourself, especially if you want to make sure things are done your way. But just because you like things a certain way, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another way that’s good enough. Learn how to delegate and take credit for being a great leader with an eye for talent. Clear the way for the less experienced to learn and move up.

Also, keep in mind that to others, your need to control the situation may look like client hoarding. If you’re too busy to handle client matters, those clients won’t stay with you or your firm.

If disorganization is the issue, try delegating simple tasks to a virtual assistant who can help you get organized, and gradually learn to delegate more.

Change the wallpaper.

There’s nothing like a change of wallpaper to help you see things from a different perspective. You might want to write your triage list away from the office or home office, free from interruptions. (Somewhere you can burst into tears without family or colleagues around.)

Taking your work somewhere new — like a “third place” as recommended by Analog Attorney — can help free your mind to make better decisions. In or out of crisis mode, my best tip for working from home is to shake up your routine and get away from the desk at least once a week. Spend the afternoon in a museum, take a nature walk, take a drive. Do something completely outside of your norm.

Find your people.

Sometimes it takes a kind word and a gentle shove to help you figure out your next move. Sometimes you need more. If you’re lucky, the people closest to you will know what kind of assistance you need. If people are walking in wide circles around you, though, you may have to make the first move and ask for help. Or, it may be time to get some outside help — a life coach or career coach, or attention from a medical professional skilled in recognizing and treating depression and burnout.

Getting Back to Everyday Operating Mode

Triage is for emergencies, of course, and not meant for everyday operating mode. It isn’t sustainable and it won’t help you build your practice. Once things calm down some, revisit your goals and plan a strategy for achieving them, including a daily and weekly schedule that leaves time for rest, relaxation and rom-coms.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Categories: Lawyer Health, Lawyer Stress, Well-Being, Work from Home, You At Work
Originally published February 7, 2022
Last updated December 29, 2022
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Joan Hamby Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and served as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and @JoanHFeldman.

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