6 Ways to Deal When You're Way Behind at Work

Being overwhelmed and falling behind at work may be a universal phenomenon, but it is possible to get back to a solid footing. If you are drowning in incomplete TPS reports, here are six ways you can improve the situation and get your head back above water.

1. Take 20 Minutes Every Morning to Review and Plan

Truly productive people start their mornings by taking 20 minutes to review their calendars and create their to-do lists for the day. This allows them to be prepared for whatever the day ahead has to offer.

This is the sort of habit that often goes out the window as soon as a major work deadline looms large. When you are overwhelmed at work, it can be tempting to jump right in as soon as you get to the office. There are fires to put out and meetings to attend, so you don't have the time to plan out your day.

But skipping the 20-minute morning review means you are surprised by plans, meetings, or interim due dates that slip your mind while you're focused on the big project. Make sure your morning starts with a plan so that you can prevent today's small deadline from becoming a major problem tomorrow.

2. Say No to More Work

When it comes to optional work projects, the way to say no is simple, but not easy. It's a matter of getting in the habit of saying "My plate is full right now."

However, the harder issue is when your boss is trying to assign you more work on top of what you are already doing. Pushing back against such an assignment is not simple, and it can feel very uncomfortable.

The best way to handle such an addition to your workload is to ask for and provide open communication. Set a meeting with your boss to agree on what your priorities, goals, and objectives are for all of your projects, so it's clear what can and cannot reasonably get done. Request regular progress review meetings so everyone will be clear on what is happening and when. It's important for you and your supervisor to recognize your abilities and limitations and not try to squeeze blood from a turnip.

3. End the Procrastination Cycle

Scientists have found that procrastination has less to do with time than emotion. Chronic procrastinators are often choosing not to start their work because it gives them momentary emotional relief — but the level of guilt they feel over procrastinating means they are not really improving their emotional state by avoiding the dreaded task.

Even the best of us fall victim to procrastination, but chronic procrastinators can find themselves spiraling into an endless procrastination cycle: Putting off a dreaded task makes them feel guilty and ashamed, which causes them to have less cognitive and emotional energy available to be productive, which makes them even less likely to start the task.

So how do you end the procrastination cycle?

There are two proven methods for interrupting this loop. The first is an external deadline. Knowing that you are beholden to another individual is often enough to force you to just get started in order to meet the deadline. If you can't ask your supervisor for hard deadlines, creating self-imposed deadlines is not as effective, but still better than nothing.

The second method of interrupting the procrastination loop is to regard your mood as a fixed state. According to a 2001 study by Dianne Tice, students didn't procrastinate when they were primed to believe their mood was fixed — but when they thought their mood could change (especially if they thought it could improve), they procrastinated. It can be tough to start your work if you are in a bad mood, but if you just accept that your bad mood is here to stay, you're more likely to roll up your sleeves and get to it.

4. Procrastinate Productively

If you truly feel like you emotionally need to avoid a task that you should be working on, there are far better ways to dodge it than by surfing Facebook. Instead, you should work on another task that may not be as time-sensitive, but still needs to get done.

This used to be my favorite way to get homework done in college. When I had a major project due, the days leading up to the due date would often find me working on homework for other classes. This allowed me to feel the emotional relief of procrastination without allowing me to fall into the shame associated with a procrastination cycle.

You can also take this habit one step further by creating a procrastination list. This idea comes from Chris Bailey, the blogger behind A Year of Productivity. Your procrastination list will include any items you're allowed to work on when you find yourself procrastinating. This will help you to still use your time productively if you procrastinate. Alternatively, if you find that nothing on your procrastination list is appealing, then you are more likely to just get started on the task you'd otherwise avoid.

5. Nip Complaining in the Bud

When you are overwhelmed, it can feel great to complain about your heavy workload to your coworkers, friends, family, and glassy-eyed cashiers who really don't care about your TPS reports. But complaining only offers you momentary relief. If you keep talking about how rough it is, you're likely to make yourself feel even worse about the situation.

So if you are tempted to complain about your bozo boss and his unrelenting workload, stop yourself and think about what could be a more constructive use of your conversations. Perhaps you could ask a coworker to help you with a task, or request that your spouse take over school drop-off for the week so you can get to work a few minutes earlier to plan your day. Use your conversations as an opportunity to reduce your sense of being overwhelmed, rather than magnify it by complaining.

6. Get Some Rest

Sleep seems like an easy place to cut back when there are more tasks than hours in the day. But staying up late to finish a project isn't just bad for your health, it's actually counterproductive if you want to get your work done. Not only does lack of sleep make you more easily distracted, which means it will take you longer to get your work done, but fatigue can also hurt your job performance.

One of the best things you can do to chip away at your seemingly endless to-do list is protect your sleep time. Don't let work encroach on your rest, or you'll find that both your rest and your work are worse off.

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6 Ways to Deal When You're Way Behind at Work

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