8 Game-Changing Productivity Strategies to Use When You’re Feeling Totally Overwhelmed

By Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew

Ever feel like your to-do list is so long, it couldn’t get done even if you had an extra eight hours every day for a week? Believe us: We’ve been there. As founders of a startup that’s grown from, well, ourselves to nearly 150 employees and 600 partner companies in just over five years, we know the feeling of being completely overwhelmed with work. In fact, there were times we spent nearly six hours in back-to-back meetings, only to get out and find we’d received 300 new emails.

Most people in this situation either completely panic or head into “go mode,” foregoing sleep and focusing on nothing but work until every last task on that to-do list is done. But we believe there’s a better way. Read on for an excerpt from our brand-new book, The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career, for ideas on how to tackle a crushing workload in a more strategic — and infinitely saner — way.

Even equipped with the best productivity strategies, you’ll have times when you feel overwhelmed. Your to-do list has gotten out of control, you’re missing deadlines, and your inbox is full of emails from coworkers following up on things you promised them weeks ago. When things are really dire, a quick fix or new productivity app isn’t going to cut it. To take control again, you’ll need to take a step back, assess the situation, and make some more strategic moves to clear your plate.

First, grab your ever-growing to-do list and block out time on your schedule for a reality check with yourself (Alex likes out-of-office solo breakfasts). Yep. We know that means putting off other things that seem pressing, but this will help center your mind so you can think clearly about what you have going on right now and how to tackle it. At that “meeting with yourself,” write down absolutely everything on your plate. Most of it is likely on your list already, but being as busy as you have been, it may not be up to date. Now is your time to get it there.

Next, identify the major categories of work (e.g., client communications, internal reporting, meeting follow-ups), making sure to add an “Other” bucket for all the miscellaneous items that inevitably make it onto the list. On a piece of paper, place each of your tasks into the appropriate bucket. You may think of additional to- do items as you’re writing — don’t panic, just add them. No item is too small or too insignificant to make this list. It’s important to face the reality of exactly what you need to get done to determine the seriousness of the situation — and how extreme a strategy you’re going to need to put in place.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Typically, after going through your kitchen sink list, you’ll find it lies in one of two camps: long but doable, or overwhelming and unfinishable. If the latter, don’t despair. Whether you just have a bit of catch-up work ahead of you or you’ve truly bitten off more than you can chew, here are several strategies that can help get your frazzled work life back under control:

1. PRUNE THE TREE

Look at the tasks on your list and decide which ones can be taken off entirely. I know, it sounds scary — even impossible. But we’re willing to bet that there are a few things that don’t really need to get done right now (at least not by you). Anything noncritical should get the ax.

2. USE THE 80/20 RULE

Are there any tasks or projects for which 20 percent of the effort would yield 80 percent of the impact? For example, let’s say your boss wants a competitive analysis for a new product she’s thinking of launching. Before handing her a novel on the competitive landscape, would one page on each serious competitor be enough to help make that decision? If so, do that instead. Or, if the majority of the revenue you bring in as a sales rep comes from bigger deals, but you spend half your time on small deals that barely move the needle, could you shift your time and attention to the bigger deals instead? Yes? Then do it.

3. AUTOMATE OR OUTSOURCE

Productivity expert Stever Robbins wrote a great piece explaining that something that takes you thirty minutes each day adds up to three weeks a year. Whoa, three whole weeks! Get that time back by seeing if there are any smaller recurring tasks you can automate or outsource by hiring a freelancer or intern, or using third-party tools, such as Assistant.to for scheduling meetings.

4. ASK FOR HELP

If you’re really underwater, there is no shame in turning to your boss, colleagues, employees, or even people in other departments for help. First, your teammates may have pointers on how they’ve dealt with similar challenges in the past. Or they may even be able to help take on some of the workload. Who knows — maybe your intern has been dying to get her feet wet in PowerPoint, or Dan from sales has an Excel model you could easily adapt to forecast your budget, or your boss no longer needs that document she asked you to draft. Look to areas where there is some overlap with colleagues’ work for the most obvious handoffs. If you’re concerned about seeming like a slacker, remember that it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to get some things off your plate so you can give everything else the full attention required to do your best work.

5. START PRIORITIZING

If everything left on your list at this point has to happen, and you’re not going to get any more help, then it will all have to happen — just not at once. Look at your deadlines to determine which items are truly urgent and which timetables can be pushed back. Your manager can and should help you with prioritization and sequencing, so after you’ve ordered your list, consider discussing it with your boss. If you feel comfortable, simply approach her and say something along the lines of “I feel like I have a lot on my plate right now and would love your help figuring out the best way to tackle it all.” Don’t worry, this approach is proactive — and won’t seem like you’re complaining or trying to get out of work (so long as you aren’t complaining and trying to get out of work).

6. PASS A MORATORIUM ON YES

As we mentioned above, saying no is an important strategy at all times, but right now it’s mission critical for keeping your wits about you during this stressful time. Until things are under control again, you need to be the king or queen of “No!” Don’t take on additional projects until you’ve gotten yourself out of this mess.

7. SUGGEST A HIRE

If you’ve tried all of the above and still find yourself swimming in todos with no end in sight, it may be time to request adding someone to your team. Depending on your company’s culture and budget, consider a part- time hire, freelancer, intern, or temp as a lower- cost option.

8. TAKE A BREAK

Finally, don’t forget that no matter how many things you have on your to- do list, you still need breaks — both throughout the day and at the end of it. We know it’s tempting to think you have to work endless hours, pull all-nighters, or come in on the weekend in order to get it all done — we’ve been there, too! But you know what? When we take the time to take breaks, our minds and bodies function much better when we do get back to work. Give yourself the breaks you (and your brain) deserve.


Adapted from The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career, Chapter 12: The New Rules of Productivity

Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew are the co-founders of TheMuse.com, a career platform used by over 50 million people every year to find a job, learn professional skills or advance in their careers, and by hundreds of companies looking to hire or grow their employer brand. They are also the co-authors of “The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career,” published by Crown Business/Penguin Random House and available for purchase TODAY. Get your copy here.