Some days you get to work early, work nonstop, and head home without being able to figure out what you actually accomplished. Everything rushes past you in a blur of emails, meetings, and errands, and your to-do list remains more or less untouched. You’re always going to have a few workdays like this no matter what you do. But if they start happening regularly, you may have a problem on your hands.
If that’s the case, then it’s time to start looking for systematic failures, not just one-off fumbles. And ironically enough, the best place to look may be at your to-do list itself. What better record do you have of the tasks that you’re consistently failing to achieve? These are a few common to-do list items that might be getting in the way of your more important goals. If you can cut them out–even just for a day or two–you may be able to regain your footing.
1. Email Catch-Up
Many of us add things to our mental or literal to-do lists that we don’t plan in advance–either because we don’t see them coming, or we don’t think they’ll take much time. Unsurprisingly, catching up on emails is one big offender in this category.
Some productivity experts suggest blocking out set periods of time for doing nothing but answering emails. But many of the same experts (myself included) recommend certain time periods away from email to work on other things. This either/or method works great for some people, but for others, it causes a problem that they turn to their to-do lists to solve. While you’re away from email, your inbox keeps expanding in the background, and eventually those messages need to be read, deleted, or answered. So you add “catch up on emails” to your daily tasks–which might not actually be the best use of your time.
Instead, you may need to find a tool to decrease the flow of emails you’re getting. And as one Fast Company contributor recently found out, it turns out that you have that tool already: your voice. Glancing at my own inbox, at least 20% of my current email threads run to five or more individual messages entries. Once you’re having a full-on conversation with someone over email, you’re taking a lot of time to do something that you could probably accomplish much more quickly by talking to them.
So rather than spend time in your workday catching up on emails, hop on the phone or stop by someone’s office. That two-minute chat will be much more productive than racking up a series of emails that takes much longer to deal with. (As an added bonus, people will generally like you better after a conversation than after answering a string of emails.)
2. Whatever You Were Planning On Doing During That Meeting
There’s such a flood of work to do that it’s hard to focus for long on just one thing. So you begin work on that major report, only to find yourself 20 minutes later flitting between that and your email and your text messages, and maybe two other tasks on top of that. Or you just drag your laptop into that team meeting so you can continue to chip away at whatever you were doing before it started. You know multitasking is inefficient and cognitively draining, but you keep doing it anyway.
If you were achieving the important goals in your work life, that would be one thing. But as your to-do list makes clear, you aren’t. So it’s time to take a cold, hard look at your list for the day and cross off anything you were planning to do in tandem with something else. It can wait. Forcing yourself to tackle just the things that you’re able to “monotask” is a great way to prioritize.
While you’re at it, put your smartphone away–leave it in your bag or even in a desk drawer. Remove as many distractions as you can from your environment. Give yourself a fighting chance to get things done.
3. That Item That Just Came Up This Morning
Despite all of your best efforts, though, there are often tasks that leap up out of nowhere and derail your plans for the day. In those instances, you need to start saying “no” to requests. Everyone wants to be a helpful colleague, and early in your career especially, you may try extra hard to make a good impression on the people who’ll decide when you get your next raise or promotion.
But if you look at your to-do list and notice that you keep jotting new, unexpected items onto it at the very last minute, you’re in trouble. The fact is that you can’t impress anyone if you don’t achieve your most important goals. You have to start by being willing to say “no,” but you also need to know how to say it. When someone higher up the food chain asks you to do something that will take up time and you need to accomplish something important, sit down and have a discussion with them.
You don’t have to be defensive or apologetic. Just let them know your current priorities and ask where the new request fits into it. Usually, once your boss or a colleague understands what you’re trying to get done, they’ll ask someone else for help instead. Or they might recommend that you take on what they asked for in exchange for them taking care of something else that’s already on your to-do list. Sometimes these tradeoffs and unexpected collaborations can give you the breathing room you haven’t been able to find on your own.