Ten Ways to Stay On Top Of Your Work

By Ali Luke

May 5, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man


Do you ever feel like you’re drowning in work? Your inbox is overflowing, you have to move two stacks of papers to get to your keyboard, you have a constant nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten about something vital, and that major project you want to start work on still remains a pipe dream.

Some people say they “work well under stress”, but most of us are happier, healthier and more productive when we feel that we’re on top of things. With that in mind, here are ten tips to help you stay on top of your work.

  1. Don’t Take On Too Much
    If you’re overworked, is it because you’re not very efficient and waste time (be honest) or is it because you simply have too much work?

All the time management tips in the world won’t give you more than twenty-four hours in a day. When you’re offered an exciting new project to be part of, when a colleague asks for a favor, or when you’re thinking about sticking up your hand and volunteering in a meeting … stop and think about your other priorities. Remember that if your day is currently full and you take on new work, something else is going to have to go.


  • Minimize Meetings
    Many time-management writers, from Tim Ferriss to Mark Forster, advocate avoiding meetings if at all possible. How often have you sat in a meeting, bored out of your skull, wishing you could be getting on with your actual work?


If you’re obliged to be in regular meetings, try cutting the frequency (perhaps a team meeting every fortnight, not every week, would be just as effective) or the duration (it’s surprising how much can be accomplished in half-an-hour).

If you can possibly avoid meetings, do. That goes doubly for meetings which are off-site – there’s a lot of wasted time involved in getting there and back.


  • Make A To-Do List The Day Before
    If you normally work on whatever catches your attention, you’re working ineffectively, and you’re likely to end up feeling overwhelmed. Each evening before you stop work for the day, make a “to do” list for the following day. This should cover the crucial things that you want to get done. Make sure that at least one of them is advancing a long-term project.


The next morning, start on your to-do list before doing anything else (checking email, gossiping round the water cooler, making a round of coffee).


  • “Big Rocks First”
    There’s an oft-cited time management adage “Big Rocks First”. The analogy goes like this: if you had to fill a jar with sand and rocks, it’s hard (almost impossible) to do it by pouring in the sand first then trying to fit in the rocks. But if you fit all the rocks first, the sand can simply flow into the gaps.


Fit your “big rocks” – the major things you want to work on – into your day first. All the little jobs like checking email, tidying your desk and making phone calls can fit into small time-gaps in between the bigger tasks.


  • Work In Timed Bursts
    No one can sustain their concentration for hours at a time. And all of us find that we can speed up and focus well when it’s three thirty on Friday, or when we’re off on vacation for a fortnight. Take advantage of this effect by working in timed bursts: for example, work on that big report that’s been hanging over you for thirty solid minutes (no checking emails, Twitter, Facebook…) You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a short space of time.


It’s often useful to use this to do “big rocks” and then to relax your attention by attending to the “sand” tasks like answering emails.


  • Develop Good Systems
    We often work inefficiently because we just haven’t taken the time to develop a good system for something. If a particular aspect of your job is always causing you headaches, chances are that you need to fix the system you use for dealing with it. (In many cases, this means consciously implementing a system!)


For example, if you find that you’re always forgetting to follow up on action points for meetings, develop a framework to help you do this. That might mean that you schedule yourself fifteen minutes after the meeting to go through your notes and put your action points onto your to-do list.


  • Limit Email Checking
    Most of us spend far too much time on email – some companies have even started introducing “no email days”, where workers are encouraged to phone or talk face-to-face rather than use emails. Reading and replying to emails can often be a distraction from getting on with more important work.


Try “batching” your emails: instead of replying as soon as one arrives, set certain times of day (ideally, not before 10am) when you’ll read and reply to all your emails.


  • Set Your Own Deadlines
    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could set your own deadlines? Well, you can, of course: just make your deadline before the one that management (or your client) has given you.


If you aim to get each project finished a few days in advance of the “real” deadline, you’ll feel considerably less stressed (you’re working to your own time, not to someone else’s) and you’ll also be able to cope with any genuine emergencies that crop up, without blowing the deadline.


  • Delegate
    One great way to stay on top of your work is to pass on low-level tasks to someone else. If you’re in management, you’re wasting your time and your company’s time when you perform tasks that a junior colleague could have carried out.


(If, like many people, you’re not confident about delegating work, read Accomplish More Each Day: Four Steps To Easy Delegation)

If you’re self-employed, can you pay someone else to do tasks for you? For example, you might find a student willing to do some administrative tasks, and you could pay an accountant to help with your taxes.


  • Ask For Less
    Depending on your job, you might be unable to delegate anything – in fact, you may be overwhelmed with other people delegating work to you!


If this is the problem, don’t be afraid to say that you’re being given too much to do. Your line manager may not realise that you’re feeling swamped. Don’t moan about having too much work, but mention your concerns that some aspects of your work aren’t getting done (or are being rushed) because you have too much else on.

How do you stay on top of your work? Share your tips and ideas in the comments!

Ali Luke

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