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How to Catch Up on Work When You’re Behind

Do you have an endless list of tasks that keep growing before you can begin to cross things off? Hey. It happens to the best of from time to time. However, add up having an endless list with all the fires you’re putting out, and suddenly you’re behind the eight ball.

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It may not have been your intention, but that mountain of work can start to feel unattainable. And as a consequence, you may miss deadlines or milestones that you’ve set. Understandably, this can lead to an overwhelming and stressful feeling. Even worse? If you start to miss deadlines, it isn’t easy to regain your focus and get back on track.

Thankfully, all is not lost if you use these strategies to catch up on work, you’re behind. Here is a list of the best “get over it and get going” advice I could put together for you.

Recognize that you’re overwhelmed and need assistance.

“The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting that you have a problem.” — Jase Robertson

Yes. This is easier said than done. However, as Jase Robertson noted, this is without question the first step you have to take.

To make this process easier, you first need to acknowledge that not only have you fallen behind on your work, but you’re also overwhelmed. And, not that you’ve accepted this, you can explore ways to dig yourself out of this hole.

Here are some of the strategies that I’ve used in the past.

Prioritize my to-do list and shrink my workload.

I’m a big fan of the Eisenhower Matrix. This system divides tasks into four quadrants. From there, a set of columns and rows helps determine where tasks go. Tasks are then sorted into columns according to urgency and nonurgency, while the rows indicate essential and not so important tasks.

Together, you get the following quadrants:

First Quadrant: Do
Second Quadrant: Decide
Third Quadrant: Delegate
Fourth Quadrant: Disregard

Whatever items are in the first quadrant deserve your attention and energy before anything. Ideally, you want to limit these to only three priorities per day so that you can actually achieve them.

Anything in the second quadrant gets scheduled to when you have the availability. Then, you’ll delegate or outsource the items in the third quadrant. And whatever remains can be removed from your list.

It’s a simple and effective way to not only reduce your workload but also encourage you to focus on what’s most important.

Limit my distractions.

With your priorities identified, you want to add them to your calendar. You want to block out as many distractions as possible during these time blocks. For example, you can turn off your phone, close the office door, or put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Take a deep breath and ask for help.

If you are still overwhelmed and feel like you’re underwater, then let others know. You shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for help. It’s also not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it’s actually a strength, as it provides an opportunity to explore unique perspectives and insights.

In addition, research has shown that doing so builds resilience relationships and is an indicator of high performance. In addition, it can help you enjoy a better mental state of mind. Moreover, sitting next to hard and motivated workers helps one’s work ethic.

Prioritize your backlog.

“If work is piling up, it’s time to prioritize your backlog as best as possible, suggests Mario Peshev, CEO of DevriX. “Compile all of those tasks in one place and categorize them by priority, urgency or complexity.”

“You can push through the most important tasks first and free up some time to sort out the rest of the backlog, or tackle the lowest hanging fruits by reducing the number of activities you have to complete,” he adds. In some cases, seeing a bigger picture in one place may prove to be helpful in delegating some tasks or even outsourcing to partners when needed.

“Having the opportunity to reflect may expose opportunities to hire for a new role.” Or, you may decide to get an assistant or take a break from activities that take up your time regularly without generating the ROI you need.

 Follow the 2-minute rule.

Do you have tasks that take two minutes or less? If so, do them now and remove them from your to-do list. As a result, your brain gets a nice little rush of reward chemicals like dopamine. And, it can help you build up momentum so that you can climb out that “I can’t seem to get anything done today” spiral.

What if it’s a slightly more complicated or time-consuming task? This task should be postponed until you have the time to attend to it properly.

Just say “no.”

I’ll be honest. I’m struggling with this. I don’t want to disappoint others or earn the reputation of being a “No Man.” However, when you’re playing catch-up, you have no other option.

But, how exactly can you master the art of saying “no?” Well, if you’ve added your priorities to your calendar, you have a perfectly valid reason for declining additional work or grabbing lunch with a friend. But, then, a simple, “I’m sorry, I’m booked this week, can we schedule this in two weeks?” should be just fine.

The most important takeaway is that you should be firm, while also being polite. An example response could be, “I appreciate you considering me for the assignment. Unfortunately, I’m not available right now, but I hope to keep you posted.” The great thing about this response is that it shows gratitude while also leaving the door open for future opportunities.

Ask the “Focusing Question.”

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” asks Gary Keller, co-author of “The One Thing. He says that you should ask this “over and over until you’re doing the most important thing – your ‘ONE Thing.’”

“Extraordinary results are rarely happenstance,” Keller adds. “They come from the choices we make and the actions we take.”

“The Focusing Question always aims you at the absolute best of both by forcing you to do what is essential to success,” explains Keller. “It ignores what is doable and drills down to what is necessary, to what matters.” No matter if “you’re looking for answers big or small, asking the Focusing Question is the ultimate ‘success habit’ in your life.”

After you have answered the “Focusing Question,” jot it down. According to Dr. Gail Matthews, an associate professor of psychology at the Dominican University in California, writing down your goals and dreams regularly can make you 42% more likely to achieve them.

Whenever you’re stuck, switch gears.

If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, start something else. That may sound counterproductive. If you can knock out a simple task right now, that will help build momentum.

Compared to trying to push through when stuck, research shows that switching to another unrelated task improves performance. So, the next time you’re stuck, change tack by doing either of the following three things;

Take a short break of 5-15 minutes, then start a new block of time devoted to something else, preferably something sequential.
Whenever possible, take a 30- to 60-minute break to move your body before starting another task or attempting to return to the one you can’t figure out. If you don’t have that much time available, go for a short job or yoga session.
Calm your mind. Even if you’ve prioritized your list, your mind is probably still racing with everything that needs to get done. As a result, this can cause you to feel stressed and anxious. Find ways to manage these feelings through journaling, breathing exercises, or listening to soothing music.

End the procrastination cycle.

Did you know that procrastination is more closely related to emotion than time? Well, that’s according to scientists. It’s been found that people who procrastinate often do so to give themselves a temporary emotional release. However, by avoiding the dreaded task, they aren’t improving their emotional state due to guilt over procrastination.

Although procrastination occurs to all of us from time to time, chronic procrastinators can become trapped in this endless cycle of procrastination. So, if you find yourself in this loop, how can you break free?

Two methods have proven to be effective in interrupting this recurring cycle. One of those methods is an external deadline. When you have a deadline to meet, you often force yourself just to get started to complete it. Ideally, someone else should set this deadline, like a supervisor or client. However, if that’s not an option, you can create a self-imposed deadline even though it’s not as effective.

A second way to break the procrastination cycle is to consider your mood as a fixed state. Researchers found students did not procrastinate when they believed their moods were fixed. But, when they thought they could improve their mood, they procrastinated.

In short, you may find it challenging to start your work if you are feeling lousy. However, you will be more likely to buckle down and get the job done if you accept your lousy mood as part of life.

“Extend your workday.”

“Usually, extending your workday isn’t recommended,” says Ryan Sundling on Robin Waite. “But when you are behind on work, it doesn’t hurt to stay for an extra 30 minutes each day.”

If you decide to stay, make the most of it. “Given that most people will have already gone home, your office will be quiet, and you can get more work done,” he adds. “With fewer people around, there should be far fewer interruptions. If you stay an extra hour each day for one week, you could potentially have enough time to catch up on your work.”

The key, however, is to limit yourself. After all, you shouldn’t burn yourself out. “You won’t do yourself any favors by turning into a zombie, even if you are catching up!” Sundling warns.

Are you really behind or do you just feel like you’re not doing so well?

It’s one thing to have missed a hard deadline. It’s another to feel like you’re behind because you’re comparing yourself to others. If it’s the latter, then try using the positive benefits of competition to your advantage.

“Track your triggers.”

When you become aware of what triggers self-comparison for you, you can transform them into opportunities for more effective responses to self-comparison, writes Nihar Chhaya in HBR.

Shift from reactive rumination to purposeful reframing. For example, after you identify the situations that provoke feelings behind, you may decide to stop all activities that cause feelings of insecurity.

This approach is not always practical. For example, you may not avoid what your peers are saying in the workplace. But, you can reduce comparisons on social media by limiting your time on these platforms or viewing your peer’s progress objectively.

“Exhibit a personal strength to regain validation and momentum.” 

“During an acute bout of insecurity, you may start to brood about how you can catch up to others,” states Chhaya. “At this time, recapture your sense of self-efficacy by taking small actions to achieve small wins.” Highlight your strengths, share them with the world, and apply the validation to boost your resilience.”

“Redefine your peer set and create a new field of play.”

Comparing yourself to a fixed set of peers is like playing a zero-sum game where you are either ahead or behind your peers. “But by expanding your view to include new and diverse peer groups, you create less of a binary evaluation of your success and enable new domains to dominate,” Chhaya adds.

“Shake free of internalized expectations.”

A promotion at work may seem like an actual competition, but it’s another thing to feel behind your peers. Insecurity is also caused by a mindset that leads to perpetual insecurity: the belief that you should aim to outperform your peers and want everything they strive for.

Having to abide by this “tyranny of the should” is like living in a never-ending race. Success depends on what others want, not what you want.

“Consider the possibility that everything you have chosen to do until now has always been the right path, regardless of what you think you were supposed to do,” Chhaya advises.

Image Credit: Yan Krukov; Pexels; Thank you

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