This post was updated October 4, 2021
Early in my career, I was lucky enough to learn exactly how to stay on top of my workload. My first job out of college was for a company that provided tools and training that helped employees be less overwhelmed by their work. That was my first insight into how being busy isn’t enough to make progress.
Staying on top of your workload requires using a tested system for managing tasks and responsibilities. By developing the most effective habits and behaviors for using task lists, calendars and other productivity tools, a knowledge worker can more effectively handle an otherwise overwhelming workload.
How to Stay on Top of Your Workload
What follows are 12 strategies from my Empowered Productivity™ System, a workflow management system I developed to help people feel less overwhelmed by their work.
Tens of thousands of leaders and professionals use this system to increase their daily productivity and achieve team and company goals with less stress. This is not an app or software, but a collection of habits and behaviors.
I’m confident that you, too, can use these strategies to stay on top of your workload, make progress, and feel better.
1. Begin with a Brain Dump
To jumpstart your productivity and stay on top of your workload, it’s important to get your tasks out of your head, off of the sticky notes and various to-do lists, and out of your inbox.
So let’s begin with an exercise called a brain dump. Doing a brain dump is the first step toward staying on top of everything at work.
With this exercise, you will take time to write everything you need to get done in a single list, collecting information from all the various places you have “stored” it — your head, sticky notes, your inbox. Think of appointments you need to make, bills you need to pay, people you need to thank, tasks you need to complete, presentations you need to prepare.
Your brain dump won’t neatly separate work from personal tasks and that’s okay. Don’t censor yourself when listing all of the things stored in your head, write anything and everything that comes to mind. You’ll filter and organize it later.
Once you get all of these details out of your head and into a single, organized list, your brain will be free to create, imagine, and solve problems. You’ll be less prone to distraction and primed to optimize your productivity.
Before continuing to read about the other 11 strategies described in this article, take a second now jot down a task to complete a brain dump. Then let’s continue to the next strategy.
2. Keep Your Responsibilities in One Place
How do you normally keep track of your responsibilities and stay on top of your workload? Are the items that should be on one to-do list scattered across apps, calendars, sticky notes, and flagged emails?
Trying to work with a set of scattered task lists like this makes your workload feel much more overwhelming.
It’s like trying to do a puzzle when all the pieces are scattered around your house instead of on the table in front of you! Take a second to imagine what it would be like to put together a puzzle when the pieces are scattered all over your house. I imagine it would be much more difficult and a lot less fun.
For the same reasons that a puzzle-making strategy doesn’t start with pieces scattered all over the house, you shouldn’t store your responsibilities in different places. It just makes your workload much more difficult to manage than it needs to be! So, after completing a brain dump, you next step is to get everything you wrote down organized into one place.
There are many apps available to track this information, like Outlook. (And I’ll share my favorite later in this post.) But no matter which one you choose, pick just one and use it to track all of your tasks, appointments, and notes.
3. Make Your Task List Actionable
Start each task on your list with a specific, actionable verb. It’s true that verbs such as “organize,” “plan.” and “develop” are action verbs, but they are not specific. They are too broad to use on your task list.
As a productivity trainer, I see again and again that when my clients first come to me, they are writing the items on their task list with vague words.
My client John would write things like “set goals” and “address website bug” on his task list. But this task list wasn’t doing enough to help John stay on top of his workload.
Eventually, John learned to use very specific action verbs instead. Soon his tasks looked more like these: “Decide on re-enrollment goals for Q4 based on 10% increase over last year” and “Email Denise in IT about the bug on sign up screen.”
Remember, your opportunities to get things done may come in very short windows — 5 minutes before a meeting begins, 15 minutes before your lunch appointment. To empower your productivity, your task list needs to help you quickly identify the best use of your time in those short windows.
For more specific tips on how to make your task list actionable, check out this post.
4. Organize Your Task List by the Best Categories
Now that you have your task list written in a way that is actionable, it’s time to organize the tasks on the list.
Organizing by category is the most efficient choice.
Why? Because your brain loves categories. It takes less time and effort to process information that is categorized.
You may have previously added some of these tasks to a calendar or to-do list, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of items from your brain dump are still sitting on your list, all jumbled together.
By categorizing your tasks, you bring a sense of order to your responsibilities. You will easily be able to see what needs to be done. When you organize your tasks, you are organizing your workload and this helps make your workload feel less overwhelming.
The categories matter and the wrong ones (like by project or by person) won’t help much. To find out the specific categories I’ve tested and proven to work for your task list—no matter your role or industry—check out my book From To-Do to Done. (It’s designed to be read in just one hour!)
5. Prioritize Your Task List by Due Date
Do you prioritize your to-do list by ranking tasks according to your perception of “most important” to “least important”?
That’s problematic because if you’re a busy professional, everything is important. Isn’t that why those items are on your task list to begin with? Less important tasks don’t even make it onto your list at all! And, if you’re like most people, who organize the list by “A-B-C” priorities, the “A” list gets done first, and you may never find time for the “B” and “C” tasks.
Instead, here’s my suggestion: Use your to-do list for everything that needs to get done, but doesn’t have a specific due date. Assign an arbitrary date to each item, a date by which you’d like to have the task completed.
You’ve already grouped your task list by category. Now sort each category by the due date you’ve chosen—but don’t put them on your calendar. Keep them on your task list.
6. Add Time-Based Items to Your Calendar
When we were young, still in school, we had very little discretionary time. Our days were planned for us — when to go to school, when to hand in our homework, when to go to sports practice. Our lives were very time-based.
Now, as a busy professional, our lives are too complex to rely on a time-based calendar as our main productivity tool. That’s why I suggest using a calendar only for appointments and events that have a strong relationship to time.
These are things that happen on a certain date, or date and time. Items such as appointments with others, meetings, conferences, should go on a calendar, rather than on your task list. Usually, items that involve other people have a strong relationship to time.
But many of our tasks have a weak relationship to time; their due dates are arbitrary. These are the tasks that go on your task list, not on your calendar.
To stay on top of your workload and organize tasks, you’ll need to understand the different uses for your calendar and task list.
7. Be Realistic About What You Can Complete in a Day
If you’re like most of my clients, as you work from your task list, you find that you’re not accomplishing everything you’ve planned for on any given day.
So you’ll want to cut down the items on your list to make your timeline more realistic.
In working with clients for decades, I’ve found that most people, on average, complete three things per day from their task lists. “It’s not enough!” you say.
But, with everything else happening during a regular workday, with all the interruptions, and all the new communications and tasks that will also need to get done in a day, this truly is a realistic number.
Also, remember that just because a task is on your task list, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it. If there’s a task you dread doing, or you feel you don’t have enough expertise, there are many ways to get support or outsource.
(TaskRabbit and Upwork are two of my favorite companies for outsourcing to free up my own time.)
8. Leave Space for the Unexpected
Crises are unexpected occurrences that interrupt our days—sometimes serious, sometimes just unplanned. The only thing we can anticipate about these unexpected events is that they will happen!
So leave flexibility in your schedule to handle a crisis when one comes up. If your calendar is packed with meetings, appointments, and other commitments, the unanticipated (and often unpleasant) event can completely derail your plans for the day.
A good rule of thumb is to schedule no more than 60% of your productive time — the time you are awake and ready to take action on your goals and commitments.
If you commit more of your time, either to work or personal responsibilities, those unexpected events will likely derail you. Then you’ll be over-committed, overwhelmed, and you won’t have time to be proactive.
9. Make Your Calendar Easier to Absorb
There are two simple ways to make the information on your calendar easier to absorb.
First, instead of using a monthly view, which is in block form, use the weekly view, which is linear. You’ll see your tasks and commitments at a glance. With the linear view, you can more easily tell how much of your time you’ve already committed on any given day and, conversely, how much free time you still have.
A second way to make your calendar more digestible is to color code it. Use various colors on your calendar to denote different types of appointments. For example, you might use red for business appointments, and yellow for personal appointments.
For more specific strategies, check out my post Tips for Effective Use of Your Calendar.
10. Use a Multimedia Notes App
Items from your brain dump list that don’t seem to fit on your task list or calendar are most likely notes. Notes are reference material. They don’t require any action. Things like ideas, instructions, and lists fit under the “Notes” umbrella.
It’s important to choose the right tool for keeping your notes, one that is easily accessible from all your devices. This tool should accept more than just text — things like video and audio files, and images, for example.
11. Choose the Right Productivity Tools for You
Are you already using productivity tools that you like? Do you have a digital calendar, task list, and email client with the features you need? Then there’s no need to switch.
But if your tools leave you frustrated, I have some suggestions.
For notes, I like the popular app Evernote (but only for notes, not for tasks). If you like to sketch or draw with a stylus or Apple Pencil, you may want to look into Nebo. And if you like Windows, and use the Microsoft Office system, try OneNote. It’s already there for you to use.
The most important tool in the Empowered Productivity System is the task manager. If you’re using Microsoft Outlook for Windows, the Tasks feature works well or Microsoft ToDo is their newest add-on and syncs with Outlook Tasks.
However, the best task manager, in my opinion, is Todoist.
Regardless of the tools you choose to help you stay on top of your workload, make the effort to learn all they can do. That’s the way to harness their power to maximize your productivity.
12. Work Your System
For any system, maintenance is a must, so I recommend doing a Weekly Update. This is a routine check-in to help you keep track of all you have to do. Fridays are good times for a Weekly Update. You can review the past week, and plan for the week ahead.
The Weekly Update should include several checks:
- First, review tasks and make any adjustments needed.
- Next, do a brain dump. Just because you’ve already done one doesn’t mean that thoughts won’t continue to accumulate! So get everything out of your head and onto paper, where you can see it.
- Now look back on the week that is ending. Has anything fallen through the cracks?
- Then look ahead to next week. Are you prepared for every event?
When you work the system, your system will work for you. You’ll be better organized and less overwhelmed. And you’ll go through your days proactively, accomplishing your most significant goals with far less stress.
Resources to Stay on Top of Your Work—and Your Life!
Read From To-Do to Done
My new book, From To-Do to Done, is brimming with ideas to help you be more productive, and get yourself on track to achieve your significant results.
I’ve designed this book so that you can read it in about an hour. In the book, I describe the strategies in this post in more detail. These techniques can help you feel energized and fulfilled at work.
Use My Empowered Productivity™ System
Empowered Productivity is my workflow management system. It’s designed to help you get back in the driver’s seat of your work and personal life.
Online, Video-Based Course for Individuals
Individuals can take an online, video-based Empowered Productivity course. You’ll move at your own pace and in less than 10 minutes a day, you’ll start to change your life! You’ll learn to use new skills to increase your productivity and decrease stress. Skills include:
Attention Management – Discover how to resist distraction and focus on your most important tasks. Attention management is the key to unlocking productivity.
Action Management – Find out how to use systems and tools to organize and prioritize your daily tasks. (The tips in this blog post come from the Action Management module of Empowered Productivity.)
My team and I only open Empowered Productivity training for individuals a few times a year, so that we can provide the very best support. Click here to get on the waitlist. We’ll send you more information and let you know as soon as registration opens.
Live Training for Teams
If you’re a leader looking for live virtual or onsite Empowered Productivity training for your team, in addition to the Attention Management and Action Management modules mentioned above, you’ll also get training in:
Communication Management – Learn how to manage the constant influx of messages in the form of emails, texts, team communications. Manage meetings so they are effective, as well.
Burnout Management – Learn about work-life balance and how to achieve it. And if you’re a leader, you’ll discover strategies to help employees engage in their work again.
Behavior Change Management – Learn how to successfully change habits.
For more information about virtual or onsite Empowered Productivity training for teams, please contact me here.
How to Stay on Top of Your Workload
If you just write out a to-do list each day, with no system for organizing it, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed. And if you don’t use the right tools for the right reasons, you’re likely feel scattered.
But when you use a workflow management system to get a handle on your workload, you’ll feel less frazzled and more energized to pursue your most meaningful goals.
That’s why I really hope you’ll give the strategies here a try. I want you to see how quickly you can feel better about your work and your life!