Unorganised or overworked? Battling the Never Ending To-Do List

September 2010

I’m not unorganized, I’m just overworked.

For me, coming to this realization was pretty profound. As someone with a strong desire to be productive, it has really bothered me recently that I haven’t had the headspace to really deep dive into major project work. I’ve felt as if periods of blissful concentration and useful problem solving have been just out of reach. Beyond yet one last minor task or piece of administration. This feeling has caused me some angst as I believe that you can only do really terrific or unique things when you have time to think about a problem in depth. As well as the angst, to try and get to the project work I’ve been working longer hours and neglecting other areas of my life. Time to try and fix things.

Note: I also believe that given the amount of unpaid overtime Australians work, there are others out there with similar personalities who might find they face the same situation.

How do you tell when you are overworked rather than unorganised?

Over the last year I’ve tried about six different online and offline methods for organizing myself including Basecamphq, Action Method, KanBan, cards, over-zealous calendaring, excel based WIPs, and paper based to-do lists. Largely, these methods have worked. I get a tonne of work done on a daily basis. I’ve learnt lots about ways to keep myself and my projects on-track. I’ve even devised my own system to help myself get better at delegating and prioritising my tasks (more on that in a future post). So, I’m actually pretty organised.

After trying all these different methods, I have realised that these while these tools may be fantastic, the reason I haven’t felt content with any of them is that I am using to try and mask the underlying problem that I simply have too much on my plate. I am overworked not unorganised. An overloaded system will never work as well as one that is running at capacity.

There is always more to do than can be done.

I’ll put it out there. I don’t believe that being overworked is something caused by the company I work for or by my manager. In my case (and this has taken me a while to underestand) being overworked is a self-imposed condition. Like any other aspect of my professional life I need to learn to manage it better.

The solution to overcoming overwork, I hope, lies in determining which of the things I’m working on are most important and then making them priorities to be knocked-off one at a time. While I may be asked to complete additional tasks, I need to communicate both to the business and to myself that accepting additional tasks will cause other projects to take longer. Either that, or apply stricter filters on incoming tasks to reduce the number of items competing for attention.

This is something that I’m really starting to understand as a result of working with a larger team and using more agile project methodologies. There is a direct consequence to accepting new tasks, namely that by taking new tasks it will take longer to complete other tasks. It sounds simple, but I have found it quite hard to communicate.

**Establishing boundaries and cutting the cord. **

I have an addictive personality. Even though learning to say “No” and “Yes, but…” will help reduce the number of things I have to work on at any one time, I still need to set myself boundaries. Thanks to the omnipresence of digital to-do lists and computers, I find that the tasks I have accepted follow me everywhere to the point that I find myself tossing and turning at night thinking about all the things that need to be done or working back late at night. They niggle at me until they are finished, but then it’s straight onto the next thing. It’s a crazy battle as *there is always more to do than can be done. *

To try and fix this I realise that I need to cut the cord in order to switch off – I need to sever my ability to do or think about work outside of work hours.

So far I have:

1) Set my work password to a really long randomly generated string I cannot remember. I can only find this string at work or in emergencies.This stops me from checking my work email at home or checking up on projects on password protected staging servers.

2) Taken work email off my iPhone and home computers. I’m addicted to email as it is so by removing my work email I’m helping myself kill this addiction.

3) Bought a new computer for home so I don’t have to take my work computer home. I’m currently teaching myself Ruby on Rails and I love my side projects, so having a computer at home is essential. Lugging my work computer home meant that I kept getting sidetracked back to work. The next step for me is to set up separate personal and work dropbox’s instead of sharing them.

4) Swapped to Post-It notes organised on my desk for task management and removed electronic task lists completely. This stops me from thinking, organising or adding to my to-do lists outside of work because I cannot see them.

5) Tried to be more disciplined about leaving work on time. If I’m working on something really engaging then I’m happy and I’ll keep working, but if it’s something that can wait till the next day I need to learn to walk away if it’s past time to go home. Having a pregnant wife who needs my help at home a lot more makes this much easier, but it’s still something I have to keep an eye on. Also, if I work back later, I make sure to make up the time elsewhere by getting a coffee on the way to work etc.

Hopefully this combination of things will let me a) remain organised and productive at work by being able to work on fewer projects at a time, b) reduce stress by understanding that my mental health is more important than productivity and c) let me spend more time with my family and on my personal projects outside of work hours.

It’s going to be an interesting experiment methinks…I’d love to know if anyone else has any techniques they use to keep their lives under control.