Hit by Hurricane Sandy last week—or just feel like you’re falling behind? Maybe your office (or your home) has been out of power, your flight was cancelled, or maybe you’ve just been sick in bed with the flu. Whatever the reason—and there are a lot of potential reasons about now—you’ve been away from your work for a few days, and you’re returning to a desk and inbox that can only be described as complete and utter chaos.
When you’re faced with what seems to be an insurmountable amount of to-dos, it’s probably your first inclination (after considering hiding under your desk) to just start powering through. But there’s a better approach: Get strategic. Here’s your four-step plan to get you back on track.
1. Evaluate and Prioritize
It’s tempting to respond to emails in the order you received them and deal with the items on the top of the pile on your desk, because it’s orderly and you won’t miss anything. But when time is at a premium, you must give the urgent issues greater attention.
First, skim everything. Don’t skip over an email from someone because of the subject or sender—give everything at least a quick glance. Next, create a folder in your email (and on your desk, if applicable), label it with the date three days out, and drag anything that can possibly wait there. Flag every item that has to be addressed today, and make a note of anything you need to take care of in the next two hours. No, this won’t actually take anything off your plate, but it will get it out of sight, and that will already make your workload feel less overwhelming.
2. Set Reasonable Expectations
Now, get real with your timeline, and ask yourself how many hours you have today and tomorrow. With each must-do-now task, look not only at how long it takes to complete, but how much time you can realistically devote to it. Then, draft your to-do list, along with an outline (hour-by-hour, if it’s helpful) of when you plan to tackle each item.
It’s better to be honest about your time and complete less work than it is to ambitiously overcommit, stay up all night, and be exhausted the next day—because tomorrow, you’re still going to need to be on your A-game.
3. Communicate With Your Supervisor
Once you’ve come up with an action plan, send your boss a quick note, outlining which projects you’ve put in the urgent bucket and which ones you’re going to get back to. This way, she can correct course if needed—like if that person you were going to politely blow off is a major donor, or that event company needs numbers today or your rate changes.
Moreover, in doing this, you’re managing up. Now, your supervisor knows that you are swamped (so when that client who loves to gab asks where you are, she can tell her you’re in a meeting), and she knows you’re taking a deliberate approach to your work and that while not everything’s going to be done right away, you do have things under control.
4. Put Everyone Else on the Back Burner
It sounds counter-intuitive, but before I get started tackling a crazy to-do list, I begin by setting aside 45 minutes to email everyone I’m not going to be able to help today. Send each person a two-line email: “Dear X, I’m playing catch-up and I won’t be able to look into Project ABC today, but I will get back to you early next week.”
This is effective for a few reasons: First, it frees you up to work on your pressing projects for the rest of the day, guilt free. In addition, people will know you received their email (and won’t keep emailing and calling to confirm receipt—distracting!). Bonus: By communicating with everyone you can’t get to, they’ll feel looped in, and may even wait a few days to email you about anything else.
Sometimes we all get behind, even through no fault of our own. It’s tempting to just start working away, because sitting back and planning eats up another part of the day—but taking the time to actually plan a way out of your to-do pile can make all the difference in getting you back on track.