Dreading Work After the Holidays? 10 Tips To Deal With an Overwhelming To-Do List

Now that the presents have been unwrapped and the halls have been undecked, it’s back to the daily grind. And while you’d love to feel energized and excited about jumping into 2012, instead you’re weighed down with dread. You know the second you step foot in your office you’ll be hit with 20+ tasks to add to your to-do list and an inbox full of emails begging for an immediate response. You’ll start January 3 feeling overwhelmed and incapable of getting everything done—and 2012 will become another year of wishing things were different.

It’s true, according to Jason Womack: For too many of us, feeling anxious and overwhelmed has become the new normal. But 2012 can be the year you finally get a handle on your to-do list and start working—and living—at your best.

“Most of your dread doesn’t come from the work itself—it comes from how you think about the work,” said Womack, a workplace performance expert, executive coach, and author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More. “The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. There is a constant feeling of pressure to do more with less.”

“The first step to changing the way you get things done is to accept that you’re never going to get it all done,” he added. “You’ll always be updating your to-do list by crossing off completed tasks and adding new ones…and that’s okay.”

Learn more about the essential good habits you can create in 2012 and make it your most productive year yet:

Purge
When Womack suggests reducing your psychological burden, in some cases that means reducing your literal burden. Start 2012 by deleting and recycling to make room for the “new” of the New Year. Too many people let a backlog (paper and digital information) pile up over the last six weeks of the year.

Block out your time and prioritize
Ask yourself this: How much time do I really spend each day clicking through emails and making my to-do list? The answer is probably a lot. When you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging “urgent” emails, you’ll never get any real work done. 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.

Time blocking and prioritization are two important keys to daily productivity, according to Womack. On that first day back after vacation, you might also designate specific “Interrupt Me” times during the day for the first couple of weeks of the year. 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, instead of getting interrupted multiple times per day.

Change how you manage email
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. You see names and subject lines and suddenly your mind starts racing; all you can think of are the latest projects, the “loudest” issues, and the high-priority work that shows up. If you’re not careful, all you’ll do all day is manage your email.

Rather than simply flag emails that require action, use the subject lines to catalog and organize them, suggests Womack. For example, you might put “Follow-up Call” in the subject line of an email about a meeting you just had with a client. Also, don’t look at your email unless you have a block of time to devote to prioritizing them and responding to them.

Break inertia
Ever watch a freight train start to move? That first forward jolt takes the most energy; keeping the train rolling is much easier. Do some small things to get rolling on getting caught up at the beginning of the year. 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.”

Always be prepared for “bonus time”
This is a great strategy for increasing productivity throughout the year, but it will be especially helpful in the days following your holiday vacation (or any break). Bring small chunks of work with you wherever you go. Then, while waiting for a meeting to start or for a delayed flight to depart—Womack calls these unexpected blocks of free time “bonus time”—you’ll be able to reply to an email 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 time lengths
If meetings at your organization are normally given a 60-minute time length, start giving them a 45-minute time length. You’ll find that what you get done in 60 minutes you can also achieve in 45 minutes. You’ll also gain 15 extra minutes for each meeting you have.

Divide your projects into small, manageable pieces
Take one step at a time and don’t worry about reaching the ultimate goal. Make use of small chunks of time. In fact, a great way to approach this is to break the yearly goals down into quarterly goals. Now that you’re back, there are X number of weeks left in the first quarter. If you worked on a goal only two hours each week (perhaps over four 30-minute sessions) you’ll have a total of X hours to invest in that goal. Set milestones, decide actions, and make progress faster.

Identify the verbs that need attention (hint: smaller is better)
Organize your to-do list by verbs in order to manage your productivity in terms of action, delegation, and progress. Actions such Call, Draft, Review, and Invite are things that you can do, generally in one sitting, that have the potential to move the project forward one step at a time.

“If your to-do list has ‘big’ verbs—by which I mean 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. “That is, pick ‘smaller’ verbs, by which I mean verbs describing tasks that are easier to start and faster to finish. This will save you time and reduce the sense of overload you’re feeling.”

Learn to delegate clearly (much, much more clearly) C
ome to terms with the fact that you can’t get it all done yourself. Identify exactly 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 who you think may wind up falling behind,” said Womack. “Be relentless. After all, if the people you delegate to aren’t productive, you won’t be productive either.”

Implement a weekly debrief
Take time after every five-day period to stop, look around, and assess where you are in relation to where you thought you would be. Look at three key areas: 1. What new ideas have emerged? 2. What decisions need to be made? 3. How do I track this information?

“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?” “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 of 2012 is as good a time as any.”

Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA, provides practical methods to maximize tools, systems, and processes to achieve quality work/life balance. Author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More, Jason shows that working longer hours doesn’t make up for a flawed approach to productivity and performance. Womack’s signature workplace performance techniques offer specific strategies to consistently and incrementally improve performance. For more information visit www.womackcompany.com.

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