Managing workloads - tips and tricks

Debbie, Rachel, Stuart, Nick, David, Louise, Julia and Sophy share some ideas that they find helpful. 


Debbie says she has a strategy for dealing with emails:

First of all, I don’t have email switched on all the time.  My working pattern is to work in bursts of 45 minutes, on a single task, and when I’ve finished and noted what I have to do next on that task, then I will check my email.

I process my inbox quickly.  If I can reply to something in a couple of minutes then I do so.  If an email needs more than a couple of minutes, then I flag it with a different colour.  Orange for ‘waiting’, blue, ‘to read’, purple, ‘needs a decision’, red, 'needs action’.  It takes a second to flag them, then another second to move the whole lot into different folders (I have rules set up).  So I am left with an empty inbox. Then I close my email browser again.

One of my (45 minute) tasks every day is to process email.  So I go through all the folders (starting with red, needs action), and process all the emails.  It’s rarely that I need the full 45 minutes.  The aim is to clear as many of the folders as possible (although the ‘waiting’ one obviously isn’t cleared every day). 

I’ve used this system for ages now and I can honestly say I NEVER feel overwhelmed by email.

Oh and another thing I do is I have a ‘smart mailbox’ set up if I’m working on a bid or another project with a group of people. How that works is that as people become involved in the project I flag them as a VIP. This means that all emails from and to them go automatically into the project’s smart mailbox (as well as my inbox).  I still process their emails in the same way as my other ones, but it just means that I have a copy of all emails relating to the project in one place. It just makes it really easy to find anything I need.  When the project ends I remove them from VIP status and empty the mailbox.

Pace yourself

Rachel says working in short bursts is good - "I often challenge myself to 20 mins with a task I'm not looking forward to, and it's amazing how often you power on through because with the promise of being able to break or stop after 20 minutes, you can persuade yourself to start"

Sophy uses the red tomato or Pomodoro method to focus on particular tasks for a time limited period of time

Julia uses lists and allocated diary time: To try and get on top of tasks I create lists, and have an organised “work tasks” folder; this helps me prioritise my workload. I try and book time into my calendar to work on tasks, but often meetings are scheduled into the same times and so my allocations just keep getting moved along – which is time consuming to keep doing!

Louise found that: when I shared an electronic diary with lots of people who would put things in for me, I would block out appointments with myself (wouldn’t say they were that!)  just to keep time in the diary time free for myself to spend at my desk catching up. Likewise, I would sometimes book a meeting room for just myself to go and hide from my team and get some work done without interruptions!

Helpful apps & books

Stuart recommends: The ‘Bird by Bird’ strategy . . . if you don’t know it see:

Sophy recommends the free app - and has looked at Dave Allen's - although admittedly it seems at bit daunting. A lot of people seem to really rate Dave Allen's approach though.  

Louise uses desk top 'stickies' - I find electronic post it notes on my desk top useful – eye level post it with MUST DO THIS WEEK items on there.

Nick says he uses I use a simple program called todoist that helps me map what tasks and deadlines I have which I have sat on my desktop so I can monitor daily and weekly tasks.

Be strategic  

David has developed 9 rules: 

Rule 1 - No one ever got a commendation / bonus for having an empty Inbox

Rule 2 - Start the day by focusing on your task list / calendar - make sure that you computer opens on your these - not your Inbox

Rule 3 - Keep a short list of the really critical goals for your job - anything that does not contribute to these is not that important - make sure that you are spending your day doing tasks that contribute to your critical goals

Rule 4 - Confirm your list of really critical goals with your manager and get their agreement that you need to prioritise these. It won't stop some managers pointing out that you haven't done something else but the response is then - "I'd be happy to do this - which of the critical goal related tasks do you want me to drop to make space for this other item?" Smile sweetly whilst doing this.

Rule 5 - Estimate how much time tasks will take and then add another 20% - if you were right first time you have some space to do less critical work

Rule 6 - Any critical task should be allocated time in your diary - you not only know that you have to do it - you know when you are going to do it

Rule 7 - Assuming that you work 9-5, look at your emails at 9.30 (after you have reviewed your Tasks / Calendar) at 2.00 and at 4.30. Add the following to your signature. 'I check my emails three times a day, so it is unlikely that I will respond to your email immediately. I will respond to any urgent issues as soon as I can'.

Rule 8 - Use the four D's to manage your emails - 

Do it - if you can answer in 2 minutes

Diary it - if it is something you need to do but it will take longer than 2 minutes allocate a slot in your diary. Re-arrange your diary if it is more important and urgent than what it already in there.

Delegate it - are you the best person to do this? Pass it on if there is someone who is more appropriate for the task.

Delete it - you will be surprised how many pointless tasks just sink without trace. If it is really important to someone else they will get back to you.

Rule 9 - If you get an email that you know that you are going to have to respond to, it is important to the person that sent it but it is not sufficiently important in terms of your priorities to re-arrange today's diary send a quick response - 'I just wanted to let you know that I have seen this. I won't be able to deal with this today but I have put it in my diary for (date) and I will get back to you


David suggests ways to manage meetings help: Meetings can suck up a lot of people's time to no useful purpose. Some suggestions:

All agenda items should be questions - 'sharing information' should be done through circulating key points, not in meetings

Think about the purpose of every meeting and who actually needs to attend a specific meeting - if some staff only need to be present for certain items group these together and then let those staff go

Meeting should have a start time and should finish once decisions have been made, with a cut off time (maximum 2 hours). It is fine to finish a meeting in 15 minutes if decisions have been made

Only circulate decisions not minutes

Try not having any meetings for a week and see what (if anything) was missed

Have you been inspired by any suggestions here? Have you got some great tips and tricks you could share with us? Please add them in the comments below. 

Sophy HallamComment