Slice Through Overwhelming Workloads

Don Maruska and Jay Perry, co-authors of Take Charge of Your Talent (Berrett Koehler 2013) are Master Certified Coaches who help people take advantage of business and personal challenges in unique and powerful ways.


Attention ManagementIf you’ve ever played Tetris, you know how quickly things can spiral out of control.

Tiles begin to pile up, and soon you’re working feverishly—even though you know that you’re past the point where you can even keep up with everything that’s coming at you, let alone reverse the trend to actually win.

Sometimes workloads and personal responsibilities can feel much the same, but with much more serious effects. Deadlines are missed, projects completed poorly, teammates disappointed, obligations unfulfilled. The toll extends to ourselves, as well, with stress, burnout, and negative effects on our overall health.

The ability to effectively manage personal and professional workloads has always been valuable, but in our current age of fast-moving processes and 24/7 connection, it has become a critically important skill. (tweet this!)

The most commonly discussed aspects of workload management are setting priorities and learning to delegate. A third element gets much less attention—attention management.

Most of us find countless things tugging at our sleeve throughout the day.  Here’s an e-mail, with a link to an interesting article, which in turn links to another website. The e-mail dings and you see there are still 37 unread items in your inbox. Now the phone rings, and that conversation leads you to walk down the hall for a discussion with a colleague. She’s not in, but someone else flags you down on the way back to ask if you’re free for a meeting.

The details may be different, depending on your situation, but the effect is the same. Half the day is gone and you haven’t even looked at the first item on your prioritized to-do list.

Attention management can help you prevent that loss of productivity. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Identify your most productive time. When are your energy, creativity, and focus at their peak?
  2. Block out time for your most important projects. If your best time is in the morning, schedule a block of time each morning for focused work that addresses your top priorities. Shift tasks like meetings and responding to routine e-mail to other times.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary demands and distractions during these times. Block the time as unavailable on your calendar. Turn off your phone and e-mail notifications, and use voice mail and autoreply if needed. Close your office door. Shut off your web browser unless you need it for research. If it’s helpful and you have the flexibility, take a laptop and go offsite.
  4. Train others to honor your schedule. Tell your coworkers and assistants what you want to accomplish. Have them screen phone calls and other requests so that only critical demands interrupt our project time. Indicate that you will be available to answer all calls before the day is over or at defined intervals during the business day. Informing other people about your schedule also prompts them to organize their work rather than assume that they can tap you whenever they wish. Bottom line: you can focus and be responsive to the needs of others.
  5. Sustain the practice for at least three weeks. Many people report a huge boost in productivity and personal satisfaction with their first few project times. When you practice a new habit like this for three weeks or more, you’ll shift from adrenaline-driven behavior to focused performance.
  6. Enjoy the results. Reflect on what you accomplish and thank the people who help you secure the time for productive use of your talent.

We live in a world where distractions are growing almost daily. Developing a habit of attention management will keep you ahead of the game.



Enter A Comment

James Lawther   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply

I think it all comes down to having the strength to say no…

No I am not going to do this – prioritisation
No somebody else can do this – delegation
No you can’t have this time – time management

Funny that no is the hardest word to say.

Susan Mazza   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply

“No” is indeed one of those very difficult words to say James. All too often people say yes when they wish they could say no. If someone says “yes” and doesn’t mean “I promise”, we would all be better off if they just had the courage to just say no.

Olivier Gourment   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply


I enjoyed the article… For about 5 mn. Until I realized what step 6 would be like, for me:

6. Enjoy the results. You now have 6453 unread emails to go through and 76 voice mails.

I think you’re missing a step here, maybe to also take the time to study the source of requests and find a way to avoid them in the first place. Would you have recommendations to do this?


Susan Mazza   |   04 October 2013   |   Reply

I get it Oliver! While I will look forward to the authors response to your dilemma here is my perspective.

Whether your phone or e-mail is turned off or not that there are “6453 emails and 76 voice mails” that you must attend to in a day indicates carving out dedicated time won’t help much unless it forces you to make changes to address the amount of input coming your way.

Here are some things to think about…

How many of those e-mails/voice mails are things you actually need to tend to personally (or at all)? Just because people relate to our voice mail and e-mail like an open door doesn’t obligate us to respond to everyone who steps through. Sounds like you need a better way to filter what comes your way (or a gatekeeper who can do it for you).

Also, are people relying on you more than they really need to? Are you holding people accountable for completing tasks or completing deliverables and results? Too many people wanting and needing your attention may indicate your practices for establishing accountable relationships need some work.

Don Maruska   |   04 October 2013   |   Reply

Oliver raises an excellent concern about how to manage the flood of information and requests that we receive. As one client described it, “I’m drinking from a fire hose!”

Here’s a perspective and then some specific action steps:

Emails beget emails and voicemails beget voicemails. Responding to an email and copying a bunch of people will create more emails.

Part of #4 above (“Train others to honor your schedule”) involves asking people to figure out when your input is particularly needed and then to search you out. Better yet, when you reduce your instant responses to all but critical messages, others become more focused, prepared, and self-reliant. They think through their work and draw upon their resources and learn rather than take the easy way out at the moment, “Well, I’ll just IM or email him or her when I have the need.”

Huge benefits from slicing through overwhelming workloads occur when we begin to change the culture of our organizations and relationships from “instant interrupt” to “focused results.”