When Work Becomes Overwhelming

As I mentioned a month or so ago, I’ve come to the recognition that time management is a vital part of personal finance. It not only helps your career, it also has an impact on your focus throughout the day and on your other financial choices. With that in mind, I’m writing occasional articles on time management issues.

Most of us have jobs where the work ebbs and flows. Sometimes, there’s not much going on – there aren’t many customers or you’re in between projects. At other times, it feels insane and you’re devoting what seems like all of your time and energy to your job.

Often, it’s your performance during those crunch times that determines how valuable you are in your workplace. The person that doesn’t come through when the chips are down is going to be the first person out the door when downsizing occurs.

It’s stressful, no doubt about it. Here are some techniques that I use every time my professional demands are peaking at the same time.

First, I assemble a list of what I need to accomplish in the next week. What are the specific things I need to take care of by next Friday? I might stretch this a little bit based on due dates of major projects, but one week is a very good timeframe for this kind of list.

I’m not usually worried about what I complete today unless there is a specific deadline for that little piece involved. My focus is on that bigger deadline.

Just “brain dump” all of it out onto a piece of paper or a word processing document. Check your calendar and your email so that you’re sure you’re including every task you’re going to need to accomplish. You want to write everything down that you’re going to have to take care of between now and then.

Next, identify the ones that are “musts.” The reality of any workplace is that some tasks are simply more important than others. Go through and mark the ones that are vital with an asterisk (or whatever mark you prefer).

After that, look for the ones that can easily be delayed until after the deadline. Are there reports or other items that can be submitted after the end of the crunch period? There are many routine reports and other things that can easily wait until after crunch time. Evaluate your list, figure out what tasks can wait, and cross them off.

Often, I’ll make a separate list of those items I crossed off and I’ll set it aside to deal with after the crisis.

Once you’ve done that, take what’s left of the list and bear down on it. Give the highest priority to the items with the asterisk beside them and when none of those are relevant at the moment, move on to the other items.

When I’m in the middle of crunch time, I find it works really well to use the pomodoro technique when pushing through the tasks. Basically, I just shut down all outside distractions for about half an hour or so, then I allow myself five minutes to check my email and my phone for messages, then I go back to a half-hour period of focus. Often, I find that the half-hour periods run long, as I often stretch them to a good stopping point or the completion of the task.

When I finish a task, I usually look at my list for additional tasks that match up well with what I just completed. If I can carry my state of mind forward into the next task, then I’m going to be able to get that next task done faster. I don’t worry about priority too much as I assume everything on the list needs to be done in the next week.

These steps summarize how I deal with both professional and personal “crunch” periods. I list everything I need to do, mark the ones that are urgent, cross off the ones that can actually wait, work in short batches with little breaks, and try to link together similar tasks. That little pattern has helped me survive through seemingly insurmountable projects.

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