It isn’t hard to accidentally overload your schedule. It starts by making a few commitments, months in advance. Those commitments get pushed back and rescheduled until you need to face all of them at the same time. Working through an overloaded schedule without burning yourself out isn’t easy.
I’m currently going through my own mini-overload with my schedule. Although I’m normally careful about balancing my schedule, I mismanaged when my major commitments would be taking place. As a result I’ve been dealing with exams, starting up on a volunteer position I was just recruited for, finishing an e-book, completing my taxes, running elections for my Toastmasters club and catching up on all the work I missed last week when I was sick.
This hasn’t been the first time I’ve unintentionally overloaded my schedule, and I wanted to share some tips I’ve learned in the past and the ideas I’m trying to apply right now.
Tips for Avoiding an Overload
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Getting out of an overloaded schedule is never fun. But you can save yourself hassle by insuring you don’t get in one. Although some work-related crunches are unavoidable, here are some tips for avoiding one in the first place:
- Worship Your Calendar. I love Google Calendar. Place all of your projects and to-do items on the list and you can quickly see when events start piling up. The calendar can be somewhat deceptive (a 15-minute meeting looks the same as a 20 hour project), but it does give you a heads-up.
- Say No and Don’t Back Down. I enjoy taking on a lot of projects, but I make sure that they are my projects, not just those forced on me from the outside. Learn to say no to events that don’t add value.
- Give Yourself Flexibility. I avoid making promises I might not be able to keep. Let people know where the activity sits on your priority list before you sign up. This way you have more flexibility to back out if you can’t follow-up later.
- Go Soft With Your Deadlines. Hard deadlines (those given by other people) often clump together. Take the initiative to train yourself to follow your own soft deadlines (those you give yourself). I use a weekly and daily goals system to commit myself to getting as much work done ahead of time as possible.
- Use Your Network. You won’t be able to delegate everything in a crunch. But if you’ve helped other people during their crunches, they will be more willing to help you when you have an overload. Help out and call in favors when other people can lighten your workload.
Tips for Boosting Your Productivity
If you didn’t manage to avoid the overload, you now have two options:
- Become more productive.
- Dump some of your commitments.
Depending on your situation you might have to do a bit of both. I try to avoid the second option as much as possible. I don’t want to tarnish my reputation by going back on promises to other people. More importantly, I don’t want to tarnish my resolve by going back on promises I made to myself.
If you’re committed to the first options, here are some tips to temporarily boost your productivity while avoiding complete burnout:
- Set Your Alarm Clock an Hour Earlier. I already wake up at 5:30 on most mornings. But if your natural rising time is 7-8, turn back your clock an hour earlier. The more momentum you can build into your morning, the more likely you’ll get everything done.
- Eliminate Television, Games and Internet. Cut off the big three time users in your life. Television, internet, email and games can chew up a lot of time. Eliminating them keeps you from procrastinating when you’re behind.
- Be Excessively Top-Heavy. When setting your to-do list for the day, place the biggest activities in the morning. If your entire week is overloaded, place the majority of work on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A bottom-heavy schedule won’t get done if you’re overloaded.
- Don’t Cut Exercise. Energy, not time, will be the critical factor in a schedule overload. Cutting exercise for a day might not have an impact. But if your overload lasts a week or two, avoiding the gym will drain your energy. If you’re tight on time, try 30 minute runs in the morning.
- No Junk Food Allowed. What you eat has a big impact on your energy levels. Don’t eat foods high in fat or simple sugars. Go for whole grains, vegetables and plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated and allow you to maintain a stable blood glucose level throughout the day.
- Turn Off Phones, Email and Blackberries. Only check your inbox at specific times each day. In an overload, connectivity becomes less important than productivity, so turn off anything that distracts you from work.
- Be a Hermit. I like to spend time with friends and have fun. But when you’re facing 2-3x the workload, you don’t have the time. Isolate yourself and keep your contacts work-related. The quicker you get out of your overloaded schedule, the faster you can get back to seeing other human beings.
- Keep Your To-Do List With You at All Times. Your to-do list should never be far from your mind. Unless you are working on a task, you should be checking your to-do list to see what should come next.
Tips for Lightening Your Schedule
Boosting your productivity might not be possible. I have a great deal of flexibility with my projects and commitments. If you’re married with kids and work 60-hour workweeks normally, then a schedule overload might kill you. Here are some tips for lightening your schedule while reducing the damage:
- Create a Consequences Table. Instead of looking at the payoff if you do finish a task, look at what will happen if you don’t. I’m not a fan of this strategy in down times, because it can overvalue urgent, but unimportant tasks. But in an overload, knowing what will hurt you the least to drop can be a lifesaver.
- Lower Your Quality Threshold. Lower the standards for what you consider “good enough”. Mediocre work won’t win you awards, but it can save you a lot of time without the costs of breaking a commitment.
- Explain Your Situation. If you need to break a promise with someone, explain what has happened and why you won’t be able to help. An explanation won’t undo the damage, but it gives you room for repaying the debt later.
- Triage. Triage is a principle from war-time medics. The idea is that you don’t treat the patients that will live without treatment. You also don’t treat the patients that will die with the treatment. Focus your efforts on the injuries where medical attention can save a life. Apply the same concept to your projects by focusing your energy where it has the biggest impact.
- Defer, When Possible. If a task can be put off, put it off. Selective procrastination can keep you focused in an overload.
- Eliminate Noisy Tasks. Noisy tasks are activities that draw your attention, but don’t have major consequences for avoiding them. Shutting down email, not picking up your phone and ignoring some requests can save you time with few short-term side effects.
- Decide What Your Priority Is. What is your global priority in life at this moment? Is it work? Family? Health? Finances? Use that as a guide for deciding what to drop.
Avoiding a crunch is the best solution. It’s far better to work with a calm focus at a sustainable pace than scramble to finish everything last-minute. But, when that fails, you might as well have a strategy to all the scrambling you’ll be doing.
Now I’m off to go finish more work…