You know that sinking feeling you have when there's too much on your plate? When you try to tackle your tasks by priority, but it feels like everything's important? Don't get overwhelmed—it's a problem that everyone faces at some point or another, and while it's difficult to skillfully juggle multiple priorities and competing responsibilities, it's not impossible. Here's how.
It just so happens that there's a career that focuses specifically on juggling competing tasks and priorities: These people are called project managers. And as luck would have it, I was a full time PM for many years, PMP-certified and everything. In that time, I learned a number of helpful tricks that can help you manage your workload at the office as well as your ever-growing list of to-dos at home, with your family, or with your friends. Here's how you can apply some of those techniques to your everyday life.
First, Answer the Question: Is Everything Really Important?
Even if everything on your plate is supposed to be equally important, you still need a way to break down which ones you spend your time on, and how you slice up your time. The first question you have to get past is whether or not everything really is of equal importance. Here are a couple of tips to help you cut through the fog and get a feel for how important your responsibilities and projects really are.
- Grill the boss. At work, you have a manager. At home, you're your own boss. One of the primary responsibilities of any manager is to help you understand what's important, what's not, and what you should be working on. You may have a manager at the office who does this (or needs your help doing it well), but everywhere else, you're in charge of your own work, and no one's going to tell you that backing up your data is more important right now than painting the house. It's easy to give up and think "it's all important," but at work, you can lean in and tell your boss that you really need their help. At home, sometimes you just have to pick something from your to-do list and get started to build some momentum.
- Ask around. If you're prioritizing tasks that involve other people, like your family, friends, and coworkers, talk to them. Find out from them when they need your help, how much work is backed up behind the things you're working with them on, and if they can lend a hand. If they don't need you for another week and someone else needs you tomorrow, or if they aren't as busy as you are, you know what to do.
- Work backwards. We'll get into this a little more later, but you probably have an idea of when each of your tasks are due—or at least when you'd like them done by—and how much time is required to work on each item. Start with the due dates, take into account how much effort you need to put into each one and how much input you need from others, and work backwards to find out what you should be working on right now (or what you should have already started, in some cases).
- Cover Your A**. Finally, once you've taken some time to determine what's really important and arranged them based on what you think you should tackle first, it's time to put it in writing and share it with everyone involved. Set expectations with others for when you'll get your work done for them, and set expectations with yourself for when you'll have time to work on your own projects. This is more important in a work setting, but involving others in your non-work to-dos can also keep you—and others—accountable.
Get OrganizedIn order for your priorities to even matter, you need to have some sort of a personal productivity system in place to which you hold yourself accountable—and in which your priorities will actually matter. If you've got a tried and true system, great.
The goal of your system, whichever you select, is to take away the need for you to waste time deciding what to work on next, even when you have a lot on your plate. I've found that David Allen's GTD framework is one of the most effective methods for me, mostly because it focuses on what you should do now and what your next actions should be, and it emphasizes getting your to-dos out of your head and into some system that will help you work. I've mentioned before that I manage my to-dos in ReQall, but there are plenty of other options, like previously mentioned Wunderlist, or if you work on a team, Asana, a collaborative tool we adore.