Demanding bosses, difficult clients, an overflowing inbox… everyone feels overwhelmed at work sometimes. If you’re struggling to get your job done, here are 10 strategies to get more out of your day and focus on what’s really important.
1. Get organised
It sounds obvious, but making a list of what you need to get done will help you focus. Look at your ‘today’ tasks – do they really need to be done by the end of the day? Could you push back on some deadlines or delegate any tasks to colleagues?
If you have a big project, break it up into smaller chunks and work on it over several days. Set yourself small achievable goals and you’ll end each day feeling you’ve made progress.
2. Smart scheduling
Get the most out of your day by scheduling tasks for when you are most productive.
‘Group phone calls into one or two-hour time batches, schedule mentally challenging tasks in the morning and always start with the most demanding task first,’ advises Emma Sue Prince, author of The Advantage: The 7 Soft Skills You Need to Stay One Step Ahead.
According to research from the University of Sussex, analytical activities are best performed in the morning, when our short-term memory performance is at its peak. Retention-based work (updating your to-do list) is best done in the afternoon, when our long-term memory is functioning at its best.
3. Get off to a good start
When your inbox is overflowing, how you start the day is key, according to Emma Sue.
‘Don’t begin your day by picking up your Smartphone. If you start the day that way then it will be everyone else who determines how your day goes.
‘The worst thing you can do is check your email first thing. Instead, allow some time to think about the day ahead and what you intend to do.’
4. What’s really important?
The “80/20 rule” suggests that 80 percent of the results we achieve come from 20 percent of our efforts. Are you focusing on the 20 percent, or filling your diary with “busytime” on the 80 percent?
‘Understanding who is determining how you spend your time and what your wider agenda is can help you decide what’s important,’ says Simon North, founder of Position Ignition (www.positionignition.com).
‘Identify what is fundamentally required of you – and then take a step back to reassess what is important as opposed to what is urgent (so much is urgent these days!).’
5. Don’t put it off
Got an unpleasant call to make or a review meeting you’re dreading? Don’t put it off. Procrastination is a common response to stress – but tidying up papers isn’t the answer, according to Professor Stephen Palmer, PhD, of the Centre for Stress Management.
‘Procrastination or displacement behaviour temporarily helps your stress levels go down, but what happens to your stress levels an hour or two later, when you realise you’ve lost all that valuable time?’
6. Avoid distractions: unitask
‘You think that you are being productive when you multitask but all you’re doing is training your brain to be distracted and unfocused. That in turn creates stress,’ warns Emma Sue.
‘Instead, focus on doing one thing at a time. Just breaking off from a task to check social media or email can lose you a whole 20 minutes.’
7. Make some ‘me’ time
If your calendar is swamped with meetings, book some ‘lunch meetings’ with yourself. Head to a coffee shop or go for a walk, so colleagues can’t drop by your desk.
According to research from Stanford University, a brisk 20-minute walk can reduce the production of stress hormones by as much as 45 percent and leave you feeling upbeat for more than an hour afterwards. A 30-minute walk around the park is time well spent if you return to the office feeling refreshed.
8. Create balance
Working long hours and taking work home with you may help in the short-term, but you’re likely to set up unrealistic expectations longer term.
Emma Sue says: ‘If you’re struggling to balance work with home commitments, ask for flexible working. By law employers are supposed to cater for different working needs. Perhaps you could work one day at home or come in later one day a week?’
9. Set early deadlines
If you rely on others to meet deadlines, set them several days in advance if possible. Unexpected things happen – sickness, train delays, home emergencies. Build in some contingency time so that the smallest thing doesn’t end up sending you over the edge.
If you know you’re going to miss a deadline, inform people as soon as possible and suggest alternatives – like bringing more people on to the project or extending the deadline.
10. Switch off
‘Having control over your time is a significant prerequisite for not getting overwhelmed – and digital technology has not helped in that most of us are always on – most of every week,’ says Simon.
Get into the habit of turning off mobile devices as soon as you leave the office. Unless you are working on a major project, there should be no need to respond to work emails out of hours. Making yourself available 24/7 is a sure way to burn out.
Finally, if work stress is seriously affecting your health or relationships, don’t suffer in silence. Speak to your manager, HR team or work counselling service.