How to stop feeling overwhelmed at work so I can get things done?
August 12, 2016 2:37 PM   Subscribe

I love my job. I really do. But it involves a constant chaotic frenzy of emails, phone calls, people stopping by my office with questions that are sometimes quick and sometimes involved, meetings (both in and out of the office), presentations, and paperwork. I get overwhelmed with the volume and variety of tasks and feel paralyzed. How do I overcome this?

The individual tasks are not difficult, and I enjoy them. But I have trouble prioritizing and figuring out where to start. As I stare at my computer screen trying to figure out which of fifty emails to answer, five more come in, the phone rings three separate times, and someone stops by my office to share interesting news. The volume of everything pouring in through all the channels feels very heavy.

I don't generally have trouble with organization, but I'm struggling. I delegate as much as I can, and have asked for permission (which was granted) to bring on a volunteer to help tackle the workload. That has been helpful, but still - the volume and variety of things I have to get done in any given day feels overwhelming. I generally let calls I'm not expecting go to voicemail so I can check them all at once when I have time, but the voice mailbox fills up quickly, and then I'm faced with a mountain of calls to return, which stresses me out.

What kind of systems would help with this? If this sounds like your job, what works for you? Do you carve the day into tasks (e.g., emails in the morning, phone calls in the afternoon) - but if you do that, how do you handle the inevitable derails and interruptions? How do I keep my brain from skipping from task to task and then shutting down completely? How do I triage and prioritize?

I'd rather not go into details about the nature of my work, but I will say that I am supposed to be an accessible support person for a number of people who volunteer for my employer. Some volunteers need more support than others.
posted by thepokylittlesockpuppy to Work & Money (14 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
How urgent are the requests? If not immediate, sending everyone to voicemail you check x times a day and only receiving email every x minutes is a god send.

I only check voicemail twice a day and have my email receive emails every two hours.
posted by JPD at 2:43 PM on August 12, 2016

Would it make sense to implement a ticket/help desk type system? This way requests would come in in a structured format and you could tackle them one at a time in an order that makes sense (by priority, by order received, whatever.) and keep all the discussion related to each request in one place. There are free services that do this or you could just start with Google forms. Let's say you know you always need the same 5-6 types of information for each request (name, contact info, priority, stuff related to the request). Set up a form with those questions and the responses go into a spreadsheet. If someone calls you you can fill out the form yourself with what they tell you, but you'll still get one list of requests in order of receipt and you can move down the list in an order that makes sense to you. You'll also get hard data about the types and volume of requests you're getting that you and your boss could use up figure out what parts of this can be automated/put on a website/delegated to a temp/something more efficient than you running around.
posted by bleep at 2:55 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

So (not sure if this came through) you don't have to feel like you're stopping what you're doing with each request. You're recording the request and handling it in the order and context of every other request, which is clearly visible since they're all in the same place and in the same structure.
posted by bleep at 3:00 PM on August 12, 2016

I never knew how to use Excel until I became desperate for a spreadsheet whereby I could organize all of my tasks, on the fly, as they came in. It saved me, and I grew to really like Excel for all it can do.

MeMail me if you are interested and I can send you a template.
posted by onecircleaday at 3:16 PM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

JPD is on to something. It's challenging to separate immediate from urgent and important. It's both smart and a recommended technique to follow the advice to look at email only twice a day and listen to voice mail twice a day. That allows you to focus on priorities, which are important things and urgent things first and less important things later. Don't tell anybody you are doing this, just do it initially to see how it works. If that's too scary, do it after you've put in an hour of work, just after lunch and around 4 pm. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:31 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have an office with a door you can close? Keeping it closed will discourage co-workers from stepping in and interrupting your flow. It may seem anti-social, but you're there to work, not socialize.

Also, phone calls and voice mails are the worst. State in your outgoing message, "I'll be able to respond faster if you email me at [whatever]," which will train people to email instead of calling in the future. This way you'll be able to focus on email tasks, and checking voicemail will just be deleting requests you've already handled.
posted by ejs at 4:15 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Put a large clock on the wall behind your head, so that people are always reminded of the time when they're facing you and talking.
posted by invisible ink at 5:51 PM on August 12, 2016

I think others have good tips with getting all organized and becoming more efficient in tasks. Do you feel like you could actually accomplish everything if only you had it all prioritized and organized?

I don't. There is no way I can possibly cross every item off my to-do list, and in my position, that is ok. I feel like admitting it's ok helps me, because before I allowed myself to be ok with not finishing everything, I felt like a failure even about the stuff I was getting done.

I keep a simple high level to-do list that doesn't delve much into detail and consult it frequently to make sure that whatever I'm spending my time on makes sense in terms of priorities.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:51 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

For creating presentations you need time where you do not check email or answer phone calls for say 50 minutes at a time, ideally you could have a whole morning where you start early, don't check anything when you arrive, and work until lunchtime. That is my method for focused work. If people interrupt me it breaks my flow of thought and takes me longer to get back into it.

For paper, do paperwork when your energy is low if it's not difficult.

Do you have meetings every day? How many days a week are you out of the office? Those can really make it hard to make progress on everything else.

That volume of emails sounds challenging. You can't have it open all day, or you need a priority inbox if it's possible to separate urgent and non-urgent messages, like messages from your boss vs. inquiries that can wait a few days. Can you create some standardized responses to frequently asked questions to make it a bit easier to compose responses? Agreed to discourage people from calling you and leaving messages if possible, but depending on your clientele I know it might not be reasonable.

Can you set some limits with colleagues? Like - I am struggling to keep up with the volume of emails/requests I receive. I will be unavailable from 10:45-11:30 and 3:30-4:15 each day so I can focus on urgent emails, then close your door. Wearing headphones can help signal you're unavailable if there's no door.

I work in an open office with lovely coworkers but it can be very distracting. Some get in to work early to have more uninterrupted time so that when the office gets busy they've already knocked some things off their to-do list and can respond better to unanticipated meetings/requests. I've started doing that when I can and it's really helpful 1-2x/week, by 9:30 when our office gets busy/chatty I've already been working in peace for an hour or more.

And finally yes, just accept you can't do it all, it sounds like there could easily be a second person working full time in your role so it's good you have a volunteer helping but continue to be remind yourself that you can't do everything every day.
posted by lafemma at 6:49 AM on August 13, 2016

OP, I can certainly empathize with you.

A proliferation of tasks can certainly lead to task paralysis because your brain does not know where to start.

One trick I use, is task isolation. I will pick one task and focus on that and nothing else.

Here is what I do:

1) Get a whiteboard or Postit note and write the task down. This way you are psyching your brain up for the task. Do this the night before if possible.

2) Start on task. This will be the toughest part because the brain will come up with any excuse NOT to start. But here is where you say that the next 90 minutes or whatever will be devoted to task X an nothing else. Then the task can start. (Btw, Turn phone off is possible. Answer emails later on in the day)

3) Hopefully you should now get a sense of flow with your task. Then things can really get done.

4) Measure task progress. has some great print-out sheets for doing this. Place these near your desk.

5) Reward yourself, if you do get your task done, go to your favorite coffee shop or buy yourself that album you've been meaning to buy for ages on iTunes.
posted by jacobean at 9:30 AM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

What works for me is brutal honesty and simply telling people, "I want to give you my full attention, but right now I'm in the middle of something and it's not a good time. Can I come find you later?" Usually they understand but sometimes they'll insist their thing will only take a second. Then I reiterate, "I really can't focus on this right now and I want to give it my full attention. I'll get back to you."
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:34 AM on August 13, 2016

That kind of volume and variety does sound really overwhelming, especially when you add in a lot of interruption (even by lovely colleagues).

You mentioned that you delegate, which is great. I'm not sure how many people you supervise, so the following may be more or less useful.

Is there a way you can control the flow of staff stopping in to your office? Could you set up weekly/daily meetings with your staff as a group and ask them to save any non-urgent questions until then? This would also allow you to gather your thoughts and deliver information once to the group instead of individually.

Could some be assigned as team leaders? Delegating to 3 team leaders instead of 15 staff (for example) could make things easier.

Yes to doing email once a day (or twice, depending on your org's culture about such things). Assuming you have a lot of non-email work to do, you may want to set time limits on your email. For example, clear your inbox in an hour or less, once a day. Personally, I tend to dawdle over email, answering things I shouldn't, editing needlessly, reading unnecessary stuff like newsletters. A timer helps me to be more strategic. If you haven't already, set up filters to move any subscriptions (listervs) into a read later folder.

Similar to bleep's response, I think having some boiler-plate responses for typical email questions is really helpful when a lot of your email comes from outside the organization. If you have (or can create) an FAQ on your organization's web site, you may be able to redirect people there. I like this solution because if I answer one question, there often seem to be a few more behind it. When I direct people to the FAQ they'll see answers to most/all of their questions and stop bugging me.

Depending on your seniority and the volume of stuff you're dealing with, you might consider putting your email on auto-reply, with a note saying that you try to respond within 48 (or 72 or whatever) hours on weekdays, and including link to the FAQs. You can do the same with your voicemail. This could prevent people from needing personal contact if the FAQ answers their questions, and letting them know not to expect an immediate reply may stop some from phoning/emailing again when they don't hear back right away.
posted by Frenchy67 at 12:31 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just came out of a job like this. Two things that really helped me that haven't been mentioned yet:

Bullet journal used in conjunction with Google Calendar
Kanban board
posted by Miko at 1:39 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

My job is kind of similar - I work as a project manager for a web services agency, and in addition to working on long-term website design/builds, I also manage support for several of our clients. This means when I sign on in the morning I have:

1) Emails from our longer-term clients about their projects
2) Support tickets (often urgent) from our support clients
3) Notifications from our project management system about tasks recently completed by our developers that often require my input or testing

And these things just keep coming in waves throughout the day as I have client and internal meetings.

As you mentioned in your post, the thing that has helped me the most is setting clear and specific times for addressing each particular item. I check and respond to support issues once in the morning and once in the afternoon (unless it's super urgent). I do the same for completed tasks. I check email throughout the day, but if I really need to focus on something, I sign out of it completely. If it's really that urgent, someone will find a way to get a hold of me.

I work virtually so I don't have the stop-by-the-office-for-a-"quick"-question problem anymore, but I managed three people in my last position and that drove me nuts. I had a stand-up meeting with my team every morning so they knew they could come prepared with questions for me then, and I tried to keep my door open as much as possible throughout the day. But if I needed to focus on something, I closed the door and put a sign on it that said "Working on tough stuff - please come back later!" Often times, people would just email me their question or if it was urgent enough, call or knock.
posted by anotheraccount at 7:13 PM on August 13, 2016

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