A System to Step Back at Work Without Drowning
It’s already halfway through February, but on my desk, it may as well be January 1. I’m getting back into my normal rhythms after coming
down with Covid alongside several members of my family a couple months
ago. Thankfully, everyone is on their way back to health, but, wow, did it knock me out for a while. And leave me with a mountain of work to be done.
It’s not as bad as it could have been, though. I work for myself, which means that, for me, having some sort of maintenance mode in place was the least stressful way I could take the time I really needed to fully recover. To get through the last several weeks without my work life completely falling apart, I needed a strategy for prioritization.
Just to be clear: I’m not trying to spin a “silver lining of Covid” story or recommend that anyone try to work while they’re sick. If you’re down for the count, you’re down for the count. But the time constraints brought on by my illness — I only had about an hour or two of energy each day before I needed a nap — taught me some important lessons about how to prioritize. And I learned that to step back without drowning (in any context, not just Covid), it helps to have a system in place.
A bit of background on my usual workflow: I run a number of small projects and some very large ones, so I employ all sorts of organization tactics in my inbox and calendar. For example, my calendar serves as my only to-do list. I don’t keep another one, anywhere. When a task comes into my inbox, or I commit to it over a call, I decide right then and there exactly when it’s going to get done, how much time it will take, and then I schedule the work. That way, I can commit to a deadline that works for me. (Understanding how long it will take to complete a certain task is a muscle that’s taken me years to grow. I have found it crucial.)
This also helps me stay proactive instead of responsive. At the start of every quarter, I list my goals per month and then I schedule the work that needs to be done to accomplish them. If the hours in my week are taken up working on my goals, I have to be very strategic about what I commit to otherwise. Without those hours blocked off, my calendar used to be clogged with what other people wanted or needed me to do instead of what I wanted or needed to do. The distinction is key.
An example of my week:
I color-code all of my commitments by work (blue), personal (pink), events (orange), and finance (green). In the notes section, I add any info I need and the subject line of the email, in case I have to search my inbox for any info later. Then, when the task is complete, I turn it to gray and add a checkmark (✔). I keep this up-to-date day-to-day as I complete tasks, and I edit the length of time it took me in my actual day. My calendar then serves as a journal of my work, but it also helps me continually refine my spidey-sense about how long something will take to do.
The last month, however, was very different. Here’s the equation that got me through it: prioritization = organization + communication.
Because I was in bed, I just let my inbox flood. And I added an auto-reply: “Unfortunately, I am dealing with a personal health matter (yes, Covid; I’m ok). If this is urgent, please text me. If not, I’ll get back as soon as I am back at my desk.”
Then, each morning (or whenever I could muster the energy), I would scan my inbox. Anyone who was emailing about work got a simple cut-and-paste reply: “Saw your email. Will get back as soon as I can, likely by the end of the week.” That way, I gave myself the entire work week to actually respond in full.
Why the auto-reply and this? People need to first know that you are offline and not working, period, and an auto-reply tells them that this boundary is serious (that is, you have set it with everyone, not just them). Then, they need personal acknowledgement about their email, or they will blow up your phone. It is just the sad truth of the digital world we live in. Lastly, they need to know when a task will be done so that they, too, can plan their week.
I spent about 15 minutes to a half-hour on these responses each day. Trust me, this kind of communication is never a waste of time. It is probably one of the most productive things you can do to keep your world orbiting well. You have to communicate. You have to weed the garden before you can prune the plants.
After sending those responses, I spent an hour or two working on tasks in this order: (1) finances, (2) group projects for which the ball is in my court, (3) other. (Your finances need to always be first. You need the lights on, even if you’re in bed.)
Then, at the end of the week, I would email a cut-and-paste update about anything that was still outstanding, along with a targeted date for completion: “Doing my best, but still recovering. I need until Wednesday. Let me know if that doesn’t work on your end.”
You’ll have to figure out a system that works for you, but the equation, prioritization = organization + communication, is key. Important note: Because I run my own small business, I am usually in a position to move deadlines or at least re-negotiate them. If you are not, have an open and honest conversation with your co-workers or boss and set a realistic deadline for yourself.
Now that I am back to work full-time, I still have lots of catching up to do. Fortunately, no one is waiting on me to climb the mountain. I’ve been taking small steps this entire time.