Vow to Overcome Overload in 2012

By SHRM Online staff January 9, 2012

For many workers, the first day—or week—back at work after a holiday or from vacation can be nightmarish, with extra-long to-do lists looming and e-mail inboxes bursting at the (cyber)-seams. Relaaaxxx. Workplace performance expert Jason Womack offers the following tips to handle both and maybe even keep that resolution to get organized this year.

“Most of your dread doesn’t come from the work itself—it comes from how you think about the work,” said Womack, who is an executive coach and author of the book Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, February 2012). “The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less. You can’t change that reality … but you can make peace with it.”

Womack provides strategies, tactics, tools and processes to help readers improve their performance at work consistently and incrementally, explaining the fundamentals of workflow and human performance and showing how to get more done, on time, with fewer resources and with less stress.

“The first step to changing the way you get things done is to accept that you’re never going to get it all done,” said Womack. “You’ll always be updating your to-do list by crossing off completed tasks and adding new ones … and that’s okay. When you improve the way you approach the things you need to get done, both on the job and off, you’ll stop wishing things were different and start really making new things possible.”

Steps to Help Improve Productivity

Following are other good habits Womack suggested could help increase one’s productivity:

Purge and unsubscribe. Reducing one’s psychological burden in some cases means reducing literal burden. Start 2012 by deleting and recycling to make room for the “new” of the new year.

“Get rid of everything you can and reduce what might be coming in,” advised Womack. “Unsubscribe from e-mail newsletters, magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, perhaps even the ad-hoc committees you’ve joined recently. Try the ‘un-subscription’ for three months; at the end of those 12 weeks, you can re-up if you want to.”

Block out your time and prioritize. These are keys to daily productivity, said Womack.

“When you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging ‘urgent’ e-mails, you’ll never get any real work done,” said Womack. “Instead, look at your day and figure out where you have blocks of time to really focus and engage on what needs to be done. I keep my defined ‘work’ actions to 15 to 30 minutes each,” he said. “These are the ‘chunks’ of time I can use to stay focused, minimize interruptions and work effectively.”

Womack suggested designating specific “Interrupt Me” times during the day for the first couple of weeks back in the office. This lets people know that you’ll be working “head down” for larger blocks of the day and encourages them to “think bunch-interrupt” so you get more done at once.

Change how you manage e-mail. “The moment you click on your inbox, your focus goes and your stress grows as you proceed to delete, respond, forward and file the messages you find there,” said Womack. If you’re not careful, managing e-mail can eat up the entire day. Rather than simply flag e-mails that require action, Womack suggested using the subject lines to catalog and organize them.

“For example, you might put ‘Follow-Up Call’ in the subject line of an e-mail about a meeting you just had with a client,” he said. “Also, don’t look at your e-mail unless you have a block of time to devote to prioritizing them and responding to them.”

Take technology shortcuts. “Practically every kind of software you use daily has tricks and shortcuts that … could save a lot of time,” said Womack. “Sit down with those who can teach you more about these systems. The more you fully understand the tools you use, the easier it will be to learn even more about their features and how to use them to your advantage.”

Break inertia. Do some small things to get rolling on getting caught up, then pace yourself. You’ll probably find it’s much easier to keep rolling along at a comfortable clip.

“We build up such a sense of dread that what we have to do seems insurmountable,” said Womack. “Once you get started with something small and manageable, you almost always realize ‘Hey, this isn’t so tough after all.’ And soon you find that you’re making real progress—and it feels good.”

Keep the BlackBerry out of bed. Womack writes about a client who listed “Check e-mail on BlackBerry (in bed)” as part of his morning routine. Note that he didn’t do anything about those e-mails while still in bed; he waited until his morning train commute to the office to start taking action.

“He and I designed a five-day experiment during which he would leave his mobile device in another room and use an alarm clock to wake up instead of his phone,” explained Womack. “He would shower, dress, eat breakfast and then check e-mail on his train ride to work. Initially, he expressed concern that he might miss the ‘thinking about what I have to think about’ time he had built in to the early part of the day, but he was willing to give the experiment a try.”

The experiment worked. “He was less stressed and was using his morning more productively. This change in his routine gave him a higher quality of life with less stress and increased productivity.”

Always be prepared for “bonus time.” This is a great strategy that’s especially helpful in the days following a holiday vacation (or any break).

“Take small chunks of work with you wherever you go,” suggested Womack. “While waiting for a meeting to start or for a delayed flight to depart, you’ll be able to reply to an e-mail or make a phone call. In other instances, you might have enough time to review materials for another meeting or project you are working on. If you’re prepared, you can also confirm appointments, draft responses, or map out a project outline.”

Reduce meeting times. If meetings at your organization normally are given 60 minutes, start giving them 45 minutes, suggested Womack.

“Usually, we fill the time we expect to fill,” said Womack. “Give yourself less time and you’ll get it done in less time. The shorter time frame really gets you focused. All that extra time will really add up and provide you with more time to work toward your goals.”

Figure out what distracts you. It can be extremely helpful to discern exactly what it is that gets in the way of your focus, said Womack. “Identify what is blocking your ability to give all of your attention to what needs your attention. Once you have this inventory, you can begin to make subtle changes so that you wind up getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality.”

Divide projects into small, manageable pieces. Take one step at a time, and don’t worry about reaching the ultimate goal, Womack said. Make use of small chunks of time. A great way to approach this is to break yearly goals down into quarterly goals. Set milestones, decide actions and make progress faster.

Identify the verbs that need attention. Organize to-do lists by verbs in order to manage productivity in terms of action, delegation and progress. Actions such as Call, Draft, Review and Invite are things that usually can be done in one sitting and that have the potential to move the project forward one step at a time.

“If your to-do list has ‘big’ verbs—verbs that are mentally demanding or longer term in nature, such as plan, discuss, create or implement—replace them with action steps to just get started,” said Womack. “This will save you time and reduce the sense of overload you’re feeling.”

Learn to delegate clearly. “Come to terms with the fact that you can’t get it all done yourself,” said Womack. Identify what needs to be done and by when. “Over-communicate and (if you need to) track what you have given to whom.

“Check back weekly with your ‘Waiting on…’ inventory, and follow up with people whom you think may wind up falling behind,” urged Womack. “Be relentless. After all, if the people you delegate to aren’t productive, you won’t be productive either.”

Hold yourself accountable with end-of-day notecards. At the end of each day for 20 or so workdays, write down (on a 3x5 notecard) basic things about each day: Who you met with. What you completed. Where you went. What you learned. At the end of the month, this “inventory of engagement” can be used to identify what one wants/needs to do more (or less) of.

“It is essential for you to be conscious of how much work there is that you have taken on,” said Womack. “When you see how much you are doing—or how little of the right things—you will be motivated to get better. This activity is a great way to hold yourself accountable and make sure you’re really doing the things that help you make the most of your time.”

Implement a weekly debrief. Take time after every five days to stop, look around and assess where you are in relation to where you thought you would be, said Womack, who suggested looking at three key areas:

  • What new ideas have emerged?
  • What decisions need to be made?
  • How should this information be tracked?

“Not only does the weekly debrief help you hold yourself accountable, it allows you to course-correct if necessary,” noted Womack. “Things usually don’t go the way we expect them to, so these weekly debriefs give us the opportunity to ask ourselves: Does this still make sense? And if not, what does?”

Forecast your future. Open your calendar to 180 days from today. There, write three to four paragraphs describing what you’ll have done, where you’ll have been, and what will have happened to your personal and professional life by then. This kind of forecasting is good to do from time to time, said Womack, adding that by spending 10 minutes or so at the beginning of the year thinking about the next six months, you’ll put your goals into action.

“What we think about is what we do,” said Womack. “Identifying what we’d like to experience is the first step in developing the habits and actions that move us closer to our goals. That 10 minutes is the starting point to moving off the ‘thought trails’ that force you into thinking what you’ve always thought—and doing what you’ve always done.

“There’s a reason we’re so drawn to New Year’s resolutions,” said Womack. “On a deep, fundamental level we want to get better and better, both on the job and off. There is no reason to remain mired in frustration and struggling to catch up. Life can be a wonderfully exciting journey, and it can start whenever we want it to start. January 2012 is as good a time as any.”


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect