When you find yourself completely overloaded with a mountain of tasks and more things keep piling on top of the mountain, you need a tactical solution. Then you need a long term task management solution to ensure that it doesn’t keep happening. Task overload can happen even to people with highly organised task management systems, as projects go into busy periods. This is why it’s important to consider the tactical as well as the long term solutions as necessary tools in your belt.

If you find yourself constantly putting out fires, to the extent where you’ve considered wearing a fire helmet to the office, you’ll benefit greatly from putting in place a long term task management solution.

Tactical task management

When you’re overloaded on the day, things are piling up and you’re starting to panic…

1. Ignore your overloaded task list

Having a massive list of tasks that keeps growing, and adding more tasks onto that list creates a sense of being overwhelmed. To get your focus back and start working effectively you need to be able to pick out the most important things for you to work on now. To do this, start with a fresh list of what stands out as being important now.

2. Write a brand new list on a fresh piece of paper – what’s on your mind now

Write down what you’re currently thinking of that’s really important for you to get done today. The things on the top of your mind are likely to be the most important. E.g. you probably won’t write down that you wanted to read an article, even though this was on your original task list. This simple act sifts out the lower value tasks that may be overloading you.

3. Prioritise

You might have written down 10 things. Rank them one to ten, with the one that stands out as something you need to work on now being number one. When you’re using this kind of tactical solution, your ranking will probably be according to what you think will impact your boss’ deliverables the most. This is very important; when you’ve prioritised your work and are tackling the most important tasks first, you won’t have any reason to wonder whether there’s something else you should be doing. This is a powerful factor that will eliminate that feeling of being overwhelmed.

4. Let your manager know what you’re working on

In a high pressure environment when there are a lot of things on your plate at the business end of a project, you need to check-in with your boss every day (sometimes twice a day – whatever is appropriate in the situation). Make sure he/she knows what you’re working on and how you’re prioritising the work. This ensures your boss has a chance to set the priorities if they don’t agree with what you’re doing. It also ensures your boss doesn’t add more tasks to your mountain without knowing that they will be delaying something of higher priority.

5. Make it visible

This is an experiment if you have a boss who just drops by and ask you to do something, adding more tasks to your mountain without thinking of what you’re already doing. Put your top things on post-it notes and stick them on your wall. When your boss comes by with another task, point out that you could do it, but it would delay these other projects you’re working on. Your boss may reconsider and give the task to someone else, rather than delay more important work.

6. Say no to further requests

If you have colleagues who drop by and attempt to delegate work to you, on these high pressure days you just need to say no. Say that you’re flat out at the moment on all these tasks and can’t take on any more.

7. Work calmly and efficiently

With all this done, you don’t have to feel panicked; you can work calmly and efficiently knowing that you are using your time the most effective way. When things cool down you can go back to your long term task management methods. If you don’t have a long term method consider investing some time to develop one, as it will ensure these situations don’t occur regularly (although keep in mind projects will always have some insanely busy periods and you will still need your tactical task management solutions on occasion).

Looks like an extremely busy week

This is when you’re a little more organised and not under immediate pressure. When you can see that the next week is going to be extremely busy. You have a lot of tasks that are queuing up and you know that attempting to get them all done will be spreading yourself too thin.

1. Determine what really needs to get done during the week ahead.

Think about what’s really important for the project that you’re working on to gain momentum and make progress. You know you can’t do everything in a week, so what do you really want to do next week? Knowing this will ensure you don’t use your time for too many things that won’t contribute towards these key goals in the project.

2. Plan – 3 things per day that will get you to where you want to be at the end of the week.

Make a plan for the week. Work out what you need to get done to be where you want to be at the end of the week. Then break this into 3 things per day. This helps you focus and not feel overwhelmed or distracted by a large list of tasks.

3. Set expectations for anything you know you won’t be working on during the week.

With this tactic, there will be some things that you’ve decided you’re not going to work on during this particular week. At the start of the week be sure to let impacted people know what you’ll be working on and that you won’t be working on their things until the next week. Also make sure you look through the meetings in your calendar and decline any that you don’t need to attend, decline any that you can ask someone else from your team to go to, and decline any that you only need to find out the result afterwards.

Long term task management

There are two keys to long term task management that will keep you working efficiently and effectively:

1. Planning
2. A good task management system

Pay attention to planning by being aware of the project schedule, the schedules of interdependent projects and the key dates for governance gateways and IT handovers. Planning your own work is critical to managing your tasks well and not becoming overwhelmed every day by having to put out fires and scramble from one thing to the next.

A good idea is to build planning this into a habit. Spend some time every day thinking about what is coming up next; what’s coming in the next day, in the next week and in the next month. Looking to the future in this way will ensure you’re spending your time on the things that will help you in the future, not low value tasks that aren’t contributing to the approaching deadlines.

A good task management system will also help you stay on top of things and avoid procrastination as well. I like the autofocus system as it is very simple, paper passed, always visible and available, and doesn’t get blocked by pesky organisational firewalls.

An effective system will be:

  • Simple
  • Visible

You want something simple so that it doesn’t take up your energy to manage the system; you want all your energy available to perform the work. You also want it to be visible. I once tried to put all my tasks in an Outlook to-do list. This was very ineffective, as the to-do list was hidden away within the Outlook application (which I sometimes have closed) and I never looked at it at all. Make sure your system is simple and keeps your tasks visible.


What have you found effective for tactical or long term task management solutions?