Swamped by your workload? 5 ways to get out of the mess!

This week I met up with a client who had over 150 emails in their inbox waiting for their attention. Just the thought made me squirm with discomfort!  How can you possibly respond, action, remember or even read that many emails? How can you honestly be productive with that much content staring you in the face?

This situation reminded me of a common problem I would witness with consulting staff time and time again.  A month would not go by without someone in the team getting themselves in a flat spin about the pile of work in front of them. When my Consultants found themselves in this tough situation, stressed, overwhelmed and really not knowing where to start I would do ‘desktime’.  If any old staff member is reading this now, they will probably be having a cold shudder just at the thought. They honestly dreaded it at the time, but loved it afterwards because they came out clear, focused and organised.

In any job, there are often so many tasks to do and all of them can appear urgent.  It is very easy to get lost in the detail of emails, phone calls and ‘stuff’ that distracts you from the bigger picture goals that you are trying to achieve.

Let me start by saying I am not a micro manager.  I am not interested in looking over someone’s shoulder, critiquing and controlling their every move.  Who has time for a start? I learnt that lesson early in my leadership career that carrying everyone else’s problems and being a control freak is a complete waste of time and effort as well as being incredibly ineffective.

However, there have been countless occasions where a senior staff member, and often a top performer, can get inundated with work and can become quite upset in not knowing where to start or how to tackle what seems to be the impossible.

1. Clear the inbox

If you’re like this client and have an overload of emails, start by getting rid of them. Clear the inbox! Being flooded with emails is usually the downward spiral on a slippery slope to disorganisation and feeling out of control.  As a rule, my inbox will only have enough emails to take it to the preview line, let’s say 10 – 12.  This will usually consist of new emails ready to be actioned, or something I need to refer to that day in terms of reference information.  That’s it.  Everything else has either been actioned or deleted.  My motto has been do it, delegate it, delete it, but don’t delay it!

2. Re-prioritise & re-organise

One afternoon in early 2002, one of my consultants was in tears in a complete panic unsure of where to start.  I spent two hours with her at her desk going through papers, trays, resumes, client files, emails and filing systems to see where it was going wrong.  It was a painful exercise.  She was completely disorganised.  I had to bite my tongue and avoid the lecture of how did things get like this in the first place? That wasn’t going to help.  For her, it was difficult as she felt being exposed like this made her incompetent.  We agreed that the purpose of the exercise was to help, with good intent, find a solution to avoid getting herself in this situation again and to re-prioritise.

3. Clean your space

I have always maintained a clean work-desk policy in all my roles.  At the end of every day, I would insist that all Consultants clean their desk.  This included empty inbox, files away, work in trays etc. Apart from just liking things neat and tidy, there is method in my madness.  A clean and organised workspace has the benefit of feeling like you’re on top of things, being clear in what needs to be done and not being distracted by mess.  There are of course obvious benefits like being able to find things, the cleaners could actually do their job and clean as well as the confidentiality of not having candidate’s personal details lying around.

4. Central list

Through these situations, I learnt that sometimes people just need to go back to basics. I strongly recommend one list – a daily to do list (see are you busy or just ineffective?) where every task or action is recorded (avoiding sticky notes and electronic reminders).  This way there is a central point and you don’t need to rely on your memory (which rarely works).  The inbox can be cleared when there is a central list, your in-tray should match the list with anything that needs to be actioned and the rest should be filed and out of sight creating a clear and organised workspace.

5. Time out & clear your thoughts

When things just seem all too much, I am a big believer in getting up from your desk, taking a deep breath and getting some fresh air.  A walk around the block, a trip to the mall or grabbing a coffee can seem a bit trivial, but honestly it can work wonders.  Physically removing yourself from a situation that is causing stress or where you can’t think straight is an easy remedy to get some immediate time out.  I would often take a notebook and pen with me, to be away from the chaos to refresh and rewrite my priorities to re-focus on what I wanted to achieve.

These tactics were consistently successful with Consultants over the years as they found it helpful (and painful at times!) to have someone external to sit with, to talk to and get some clarity around “ok, what are the priorities again”. It got to the point where ‘desktime’ was even requested!

The client with the 150 emails argued with me, telling me that you should keep everything.  It is a record and you never know when you may need to refer back to it.  I don’t disagree completely ….. but hording hundreds of emails in an inbox is a sure fire way to miss something important or a quality service standard.

Instead of feeling swamped by workload and looming deadlines…clear your head, desk and inbox, reorganise and reprioritise so you can take control.


Nicole Underwood offers a range of consulting and workshop services to help other businesses implement similar success strategies.  As a previous finalist in the prestigious Telstra Business Women Awards, a business coach and entrepreneur, Nicole partners with organisations to improve their leadership, performance and results. Contact Nicole here.