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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

How to Work When You Are Overwhelmed

Unhappy

Probably each of us faced that situation at least a few times. We either committed to do more work than we are actually able to deal with or someone just threw that stuff at our heads. Either way we suddenly see there is no such way which would make us delivering everything on time. Of course we can sit and cry, but I guess that isn’t an approach which would make us a great leaders.

Which techniques can help you to deal with overwhelming number of tasks then?

Define last responsible moment

We often have tasks which are time-constrained, like delivering a speech at AgileEE. I know when I have the presentation (in case I forgot it’s in the program) and I know how much time I need to prepare it (like two weeks). This means I can mark the last responsible moment I have to start working on a task. It also makes it easier to plan other activities I might have as I know which evening I have filled with rehearsals.

Delay tasks which can wait

There are some tasks which can wait. You may convince yourself you’d be able to complete them in the meantime but in vast majority of cases you’re fooling yourself. You won’t. So you better delay them for some time and don’t waste any minute on them while you’re overloaded.

Cut distracters out

If you noticed my almost non-existing activity on Twitter and significantly reduced frequency of posting on the blog this is exactly how I implement the advice. By the way, regular blogging is pretty high on my priority list, so if I’m slacking with that it means time is really hectic for me.

Focus

Don’t try to deal with too many things at once. Actually try to focus on one and only one. Choose whatever the most important thing at the moment is and deal with it. Until then, forget about a long list of issues which are waiting for your action. Even if you make them wait you are at least finishing something instead of going to constant context switching hell.

Delegate

This is a great moment to learn delegation if you still have troubles with that. If you can choose between obvious failure, since you aren’t able to spend ten seconds on solving the problem, and some chances of success, when someone else is dealing with the problem, the choice is pretty obvious. You might want to quickly sketch a rescue plan for worst case scenario and let others do their best. Believe me, they would surprise you.

Reject

Ideally reject new tasks before you are overcommitted. I’m not a good role model here though. But then, when you already see how you have overpromised yet again, don’t make it even worse and agree you’d help with yet another task. Yes, it means you need to learn how to let opportunities go. A pretty difficult thing to learn, but definitely worth the effort. That is, unless you want to be considered as unreliable person.

Get into the flow

You’ve probably heard about being in the flow. When your focus is clear and you have no distracters and context switches. You’ve read about that above. However there is also a bit different kind of flow. The flow you can be in for a couple of weeks. It is when you are facing overwhelming number of tasks and you are barely able to deal with them all but somehow day after day you juggle with all the most important issues and avoid a failure. Each of those days builds a motivation to keep running, to find some more energy to push a few things more. And somehow you seem to be completing much more than you would otherwise.

And what are your techniques to deal with overwhelming number of tasks?

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in: personal development, project management

8 comments… add one

  • Toby Franklin October 7, 2010, 9:05 am

    Excellent post. Focusing on one thing at a time is so critical to staying productive, especially as PM’s are often trying to keep tracking of many moving parts at once. At work, I have even tried strategies like closing my email for an hour to work on a document, so I’m not interrupted by new messages.

  • jfbauer October 7, 2010, 9:25 am

    Pawel, solid tips on how to handle competing priorities. One tip I’d like to propose for consideration is applying some structured estimating of the work on your plate. With estimation data in hand, one can appeal to a higher authority (in an intelligent manner) for confirmation of assigned priority and sequencing. Once in the habit, as new work arrives, it can be easily held up to existing work to see where it fits and what the downstream impact is on that existing work.

    I recently wrote about this and provide a template for folks to consider leveraging for capturing those estimates here.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 9, 2010, 3:40 am

    Toby,

    Pretty often email is just yet another distracter. Turning your inbox off is a typical strategy to support environment where you can get and sustain focus.

    What more, we tend to overvalue the sense of urgency attached to emails. I realize that every time I’m cut out from my inbox. Somehow nothing bad is happening. In the worst case everyone knows my phone number to catch me if something is really important/urgent. And the phone almost never calls.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 9, 2010, 3:42 am

    John,

    It is an interesting idea. Personally I haven’t use that as a formalized approach, yet I catch myself doing that a bit unconsciously. When I fell I have too much on my plate I just ask about priorities. It isn’t that hard to get a reasonable answer which helps you to organize your tasks effectively.

  • Vicky Stamatopoulou October 20, 2010, 3:44 am

    Right… cut distracters, prioritize, delay things of low prio, delegate if possible…and focus.

    I am not sure whether blogging should be abandoned though… It is distracting, sure, but for it me, it’s chilling. It gives me the feeling.. I am being in the flow and strengths me in doing all other tasks of my long list as well. Thanks for sharing your strategy :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 20, 2010, 6:31 am

    Vicky,

    That’s just subject of priorities. As I said blogging is pretty high on my list, but don’t expect me to sacrifice my commitments or family “because I have to write another blog post.”

    But then again, it all depends what are your priorities.

  • Motasem Al-Shareef October 26, 2010, 1:22 am

    Great post. However, you may run through some scenarios that you cant help it but to get involved in things you should delegate.

    One example from my experience: I had a team of three of whom I could not rely on any of them… they really surprised me there :)

    I hadto double, and sometimes triple, check on them.. and that was just annoying.. I have to make it twice: one time to delegate and explain how to do it, and other time to go and explain again, or even do it myself.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 26, 2010, 1:45 am

    If delegation doesn’t work, no matter how hard you try it have a source in wrong people in the team. And than we come back to one of manager’s responsibilities, which is building the team.

    Restraining from delegation is never an answer for a poorly performing team. You either fix the team or change the team.

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