Wrestle your overwhelming workload with this tool
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It can be frustrating when workloads are overwhelming and it seems that your manager doesn't have any appreciation for all that you are expected to do.  You may lack confidence or assurance that you are working on the correct projects/tasks.  Informal conversations with your manager may help, but you still leave the discussion with the same amount of work to perform.  An alternative to letting this situation persist is to come to an agreement with your manager on the specific work items you should be working, along with their relative priorities.  This article describes a method of coming to this agreement and building a solid alignment between your work priorities and those of your manager.

The Problem: "Much too much to do"

Ask any group of your friends and colleagues about work and you will likely hear woeful tales about heavy workloads - there's just too much that needs to get done.  Perhaps this describes your situation as well.  You go home many evenings thinking "They expect too much from me,"  "This is more than any one person could ever get done," or, in a moment of reflection, you might conclude that you are not in control of your work load or your daily schedule.

Sounds pretty bad, but it can get even worse.  What if you aren't even working on the most important items? Your manager might accusingly mention "I expected that work item to get completed today"  (News to you; you haven't even started on it yet!).

If you are a manager, you might have a similar problem.  You have important work items that need attention but you are not certain that your team members are properly focused on those priority projects.  You struggle with the choice of adopting a hands-off approach (hoping that the work gets done) or falling into micro-managing each task to ensure the progress you need - neither approach is a formula for success. 


The Ultimate Solution: A Discipline in Priority Management

All of these are symptoms of problems in time management and priority management.  Most time management courses that I've encountered have excellent methods for recognizing and taking steps to improve your abilities in these areas.  The core teaching for many of these courses includes elements of:  ensuing your work is compatible with your skills and interests, utilizing a method of continuously assembling all of your work items into a single collection, dividing large work items into smaller chunks, prioritizing your collection of work items, and always applying yourself to those items that are most important.  In the work environment, you'll also need to ensure alignment with organizational objectives and managerial expectations.

Early in my professional career, I had the good fortune to work for a company that stressed education and training.  Of the many training events, conferences and seminars I've attended was a tremendous workshop on time management conducted by Steffen, Steffen and Associates.  We delved into topics (e.g., Aligned Thinking, Most Important Now) that were intuitive, easily understood, and yet quite significant.  Tools provided by SSA helped us in applying the concepts in our everyday work patterns.

For me, the most valuable method covered during the Steffen time management workshop was their approach to managing priorities - key to their approach is ensuring alignment with your own goals as well as the goals of your company/manager/team.  I've taken one aspect of their priority management method and have adopted it for use in many different companies, organizations and teams.   Indeed, this has become one of the most important components of my managerial toolkit.  The approach is comfortable, straightforward, logical and easy to implement.  Through the years, I’ve adjusted the approach slightly to help speed its use by my managers and team members.  The remainder of this article introduces this "Priority Feedback System" that I have implemented with universally excellent results.


Overcoming the Reasons Causing Stress about Too Much Work

It's easy to be overwhelmed with the volume of work that lands on your desk.  Unbelievable as it may sound, it is possible to manage these demands upon your time.  In your current position, the keys to controlling your obligations are:

  • Agreement on ownership.  You and your manager agree that the proposed work item is indeed within your area of responsibility and should be assigned to you.
  • Alignment of priorities.  You and your manager agree on the relative priorities of each item on your list of assigned achievements/responsibilities.
  • Common understanding of your capacity.  You and your manager agree on the volume of work you can complete successfully.
  • Good possibility of success.  You have the necessary support if your priority work items cannot be reasonably completed.


Agreeing on the Right Work Items -  The Priority Feedback System

The Priority Feedback System (PFS) naturally ensures that your work efforts are in alignment with the goals of your manager.  As well, this method creates a forum for

  • Asking your manager for assistance if you are having difficulty
  • Giving your manager visibility to the approach you are taking – thus creating an opportunity for your manager to critique and make suggestions that may be helpful to you.

You and your manager will meet periodically to review and agree on your work assignments, following these steps:

  1. Prepare your list of work items.  You’ll prepare two lists: 
    1. Active Work Priorities: A priority ordered list of work items that you are actively working.  Items on this list satisfy two criterion: they are the higher priority items and they fit within your work capacity.
    2. Deferred Items: A second list of work items that are your responsibility but are not currently receiving any of your attention.  These items are all of a lower priority than those on the first list (or they are of a comparably high priority, but no active work is currently required).
  2. Review with your manager and agree.  During this PFS review meeting, you and your manager meet to review both lists.  You'll agree on the priority ranking of each of your active work items and the proposed completion dates.  Your manager has the responsibility of offering suggestions in how you are approaching your work items and also in supporting your requests for assistance.  You'll also agree on the list of deferred work items.
  3. Revise and distribute.  You'll revise the list right after your meeting and provide it to your manager.  This becomes the record of your agreement for this work period.


Tips on the Priority Feedback System

The description of PFS is deceptively simple, the difficulty is in adhearing to these few steps and actively participating.  Here are a few tips that may help: 

  • Are you a "list" person?  PFS works well for people that naturally use lists to organize their work.  (Those of you with an aversion to lists may struggle a bit).
  • PFS - use only when needed.  I don't use PFS all the time.  Generally, I implement PFS with my direct reports in times of change or urgency (e.g., when I initially join an organization, when we are initiating a complex work program, when there are many conflicting influences on team).
  • How often to meet?  Choose an effective interval for the PFS review meeting.  If your work is routine and steady, then an interval of three or four weeks might suffice.  In times of change or urgency, an interval of one or two weeks might be best.  In rare situations, and only for a short period of time, you may need to meet multiple times each week.
  • Prepare by writing well.  This method works so much better if you complete the PFS template clearly and concisely.  Understand the information in each field of the PFS template and tailor your text to that definition. 
  • Active participation by both parties.  This requires active participation by the manager in setting priorities, offering helpful suggestions, and providing any needed assistance
  • Identifying all priority work items.  This method also relies on you and your manager applying sufficient effort to identify all of the priority work items that should be actively worked.  You'll need to have a method of consolidating your work items (Getting Things Done is one well-known approach to this).
  • A template for recording your work items.  Here is a Priority Feedback System - Template (in MS-Excel format) that you can use for recording your active and deferred work items.


Your Priority Ordered List of Active Work Items

You'll document your active work items with this information:

  1. Priority.  A rank ordering of your work items.  Your highest priority work item is #1, the next is #2.   I generally rank order the first four to six items, the rest are in 'buckets' (e.g.,  two or three items as #7, the rest as #8).  For independent contributors (who do not manage others), I strive to keep the list to about five items.  For managers who have direct reports, I let the list get a bit bigger.
  2. Name of Achievement.  A short name that conveys the focus of the achievement.
  3. Achievement Description.  A short description of the achievement - something meaningful that can convey the significance of the work item.  This is not a description of the work to be performed; it is a description of the intended result.
  4. Work Steps.  For complex work items, or for a work item that will span a long duration of time, this is the place to list a few of the key steps.  This can be useful in discussing your approach with your manager (who then may offer helpful suggestions).
  5. Completion Date(s).  Most times, I encourage showing just the date when the result will be achieved.  For complex or lengthy work items, you probably should show some intermediate dates so you can represent progress during each work period.
  6. Who.  If it is relevant, show the key individuals who are contributing to the achievement.
  7. Assistance from Manager.  If assistance is needed during this work period, provide a clear, actionable request for help.
  8. Progress.  Describe progress in the prior work period, with a focus on accomplishments (and not merely a description of actions or activities) that contribute to the overall result.
  9. Obstacles.  Having problems and think you will not be able to achieve the agreed result on the agreed schedule?  Here's your chance to describe your significant issues and brainstorm on possible resolution actions.  This isn't the place to complain about annoyances that don't matter.


Your List of Deferred Work Items

You'll document your deferred work items with this information:

  1. Name of Achievement.  A short name that conveys the focus of the achievement.
  2. Achievement Description.  A short description of the achievement - something meaningful that can convey the significance of the work item.  This is not a description of the work to be performed; it is a description of the intended result.
  3. "Next Visit" Date.  The date on which this project should next be considered for inclusion on the Active Work Items.
  4. Alert: Assistance from Manager.  If you feel this should be an active work item, but you have insufficient capacity, then describe that situation.


What's Next?

Take the plunge: make a good effort to adopt the Priority Feedback System this week!  Assemble information on your Active and Deferred work items, populate the Priority Feedback System - Template, schedule time with your manager and start working towards having your work priorities and work load aligned and agreed.