Monday, October 10, 2011

On Having Too Much to Do, Lists, and Stress Reduction

Ginger, over at Ramble Ramble, had a post up today asking for ideas for handling stress at work, and "switching off" when at home.

My husband can tell you that I still have some work to do in this regard, too. However, I've gotten a lot better at this over the years, and I do have some ideas about how to reduce stress caused by having to much to do, so I took some time on my lunch break to answer Ginger. Long time readers will not be surprised to find that my beloved lists feature in my answer. Here is what I said, expanded and edited to make it more clear, now that I have the time to do so:

For me, the only way to deal with "too much work to do" stress is to get the work organized and under control. I find that what stresses me out the most isn't a full to do list- it is the feeling that I might get surprised by some item on my to do list that needed to be done earlier than I thought. In other words, it is the feeling that I could open my email in the morning and find a five alarm fire. My method to minimize this stress is to make sure that I know what is actually urgent, and concentrate on that stuff first. If some other stuff comes up and I start to get distracted, I write that other stuff on my to do list, to worry about later. If I focus on the things that are actually urgent, I can usually clear them off my list and leave work for the day feeling free and clear. I don’t worry about the other things, because they are written down, so I won’t forget about them. I still have a full to do list, but I’m fairly confident that the things that had to get done are done. For this to work over the long term, though, the list of things that must get done can't just be set by external deadlines, but must also be set by the internal deadlines of my projects.

That is pretty wishy-washy, so I’ll try to explain. Right now, I’m revamping one of the key systems I manage. I have promised to deliver the updated system by the end of the month. I also have a complicated (but dull) tracking spreadsheet to complete for my boss, a report to write for my boss’s boss, an interview to schedule to allow me to hire some help, and a bunch of random little things that need doing.

I have a big list with all of these things on it, and more (I have a couple of other big projects running now, which I've left out for clarity). But I knew that TODAY I needed to finish that stupid spreadsheet (external deadline- the boss needs it tomorrow), complete some tasks and schedule some meetings to move my revamping project along (internal deadline- no one would notice if these slipped, but they'd put my project behind schedule), and get the interview scheduling process underway (another internal deadline- I just know that scheduling interviews takes a long time). I got all of those things done, so I walked out the door at my usual time, and have left the rest of the work in the office- mentally as well as physically.

The report needs to be written within a week, so it can wait until tomorrow or Wednesday. There are a lot of other tasks on my revamping project, but I know from my project plan that they aren’t gating anything, so they can wait, too.

The random little things on my to do list are the emails and in person requests from other people, trying to get their to do list items done. I have a two step process for deciding how to handle those. First, I ask myself: can I do this in less time than it takes to write it on my list? If the answer is yes, I do it. If the answer is no, I ask: is it more urgent than whatever I'm working on right now? If the answer is yes, I do it, if it is no, I write it on my list. Of course, the answer to this second question is sometimes hard to know- it depends not just on my priorities but also on the priorities of the other people at work. Sometimes I have to ask my boss for guidance, but this is also something that I've gotten better at gauging for myself as I've gotten more work experience. However, I do make a point of trying to help people out unless they are serial procrastinators who are always coming to me with requests that are urgent only because they failed to plan. If I can't get to their request immediately, I will at least tell them when I can do it, and will reconsider if that is going to make them miss a deadline. This is just the nice thing to do, and maybe it buys me some good deadline meeting karma.

I’m also pretty vicious with myself about procrastination. If I catch myself goofing off too much at work, I start writing daily to do lists, as I described in my post on working through a slump.

This system works really well for me, allowing me to switch off from work and focus on my family (and blog!) at home. This was true even at previous jobs that required me to carry a blackberry. I set boundaries about how often I'd check it, and told people that if something was really urgent, they should go ahead and call me at home. At first they don't believe me, but eventually, they realize that I'm serious. I'm not reading email, so if they truly need an answer right now, they had better call. I'm selective in who I give my home phone number to, so this has never led to a bunch of phone calls at night. People are far more willing to send emails during off hours than to make phone calls.

Of course, none of this helps if the stress is from general jerks playing politics, etc- then I find that yoga and beer help.

What about you? How do you keep work stress levels down and keep work out of your home time?


  1. Anonymous6:05 AM

    Does NY Super Fudge Chunk count or is that too unhealthy a way of coping?

  2. I handle things in a very similar way. I keep a To Do document on my desktop, which includes things that need to get done in both the short-term and long-term, as well as ideas for future projects, when grant deadlines are, dates of conferences, etc..

    Each week, I bold out things that need to be done that week. In general, that's usually enough to keep me busy (because things get added to that list throughout the week as well). If things aren't super busy, or I'm just bored with a certain task and it's not urgent, then I'll start working on the non-bold items.

    I also try to leave as much flexibility in my days as I can, because things always pop up at the last minute that need tending too. I try not to schedule meetings back-to-back, for example, so I can check my email or be in my office for visitors if need be.

  3. I am pretty similar in my attack, and think prioritization is key. I rate each To Do list item (both at work and at home) as Top, High, Medium or Low priority. I am pretty restrictive about the use of Top. But after work hours, I focus on my home Top priority items first and then on work Top priority items, if there are any. If there aren't, like you, I am happy to let it go and come back to the work To Do list the next day. It's pretty rare that I have to work more than 45 hours a week, and I'm quite happy with my work/life balance.

  4. I'm a huge fan of this system, and to-do lists in general, as they're usually very helpful in reducing stress. However, they tend to spiral out of control when I come up with ideas for work while at home (hey, this random thought that occurred during dinner might be a great way to solve that problem I'm having with current kewl science).

    I'll of course forget the great idea if I don't write it down immediately. So I enter it as a new task on my Android, which won't automatically sync with my MacBook task list, in the hopes that I'll remember to move the new item to my work to-do list the next day. Which leads to the development of two somewhat-overlapping yet distinct to-do lists, and sometimes more stress than it's worth trying to keep them synced up.

    Or I can grab my MacBook out of my backpack and immediately enter the great idea into my main to-do list, saving the stress of maintaining two unsyncable task lists. And since my computer is already out, I might as well go ahead and start searching the literature to figure out if this great idea is valid, all the while I'm getting sideways glances from Hubby because my dinner is getting cold.

    But I really do love to-do lists, and as soon as I figure out why technology hates me, I think I'll be in good shape. :)

  5. Always good to find that I'm among fellow to do list lovers....

    @Dr. O- this is going to sound strange, coming from a techie, but I like paper lists. They're more fun to cross things off of.

    But... you should check out Workflowy. It is a web based to do list, and it is quite well done (IMO). I'd use it as a master list, but I can't put work things in the cloud (long story that I am probably prohibited from telling).

  6. Paper to-do lists all the way, baby. I also follow the 2 minute rule of doing whatever it is that needs to be done now if it can be done in 2 minutes or less.

    Being ferociously organized is the only way I'm able to manage work/life stress. I write everything down, and I always follow up.

    I also work from home so it is imperative that I stay organized and on top of shit, or I could end up working constantly.

  7. OMG I may be in organizational heaven - workflowy is awesome! Thanks for the tip!!

    I too like paper lists, but generally tend to lose them. Except my bench log, which I keep on my bench in a small spiral notebook. It's very helpful when trying to update lab notebooks after long-ish periods of time, and the satisfaction of crossing bench-work related items off on busy experiment days is great.

  8. the milliner6:55 PM

    I've tried arranging/keeping track of my to do lists in several ways. There was a time when I prefered a hand written list. But nowadays my chosen method is a list in word that I print out about once a week (or more if there are a lot of major changes). Then I'll add the extra things to this list as they come up during the week. And then update the word list once/week with the changes. In general I organize the list with big/important projects at the top and small/less important tasks at the bottom. And by printing a copy I get that great feeling from crossing something off (just not the same as deleting something...then it's like it was never there).

    Similar to @Alyssa, I bold (and change to red) the urgent value-added projects (i.e. big projects that make a big impact). I don't bold/red urgent but administrative tasks that keep things running but are not part of my priorities or key responsibilities at work.

    In our company and our department we get a lot of requests for different things from all over the place (both within our team - ugh, and outside of). These requests may or may not be my responsibility (complex is our company's middle's not always obvious who is responsible for what). So if there's any question, I'm usually asking more questions to the requester before I put it on my to do list. I need to make sure I'm not doing someone else's work (not because I want to push everything off, but because it sucks time away from the things I should be focusing on), and to confirm if there is another more efficient way to get the result (without me necessarily having to do the work).

    I've also suggested to the people that report to me that they keep a 1/2 hr time slot open every morning to do the requests by other people that are not part of our group priorities. So, this way you don't need to necessarily say 'no' to everyone, but you might be saying that you'll only get to it in 2 weeks. Half the time they'll find another way to get it done themselves.

    Which means, I'm spending a lot of time in evaluating priorities, and confirming with my boss when I have a conflict or it's not clear to me. Things change very rapidly (and drastically) at our company and this is the only way in 10 years there that I've managed to keep my energy focused in the right place the majority of the time. It also means, consequently, that I even decide that some things don't need to be done.

    As for keeping work out of my home time, I generally just switch it off. It's taken me years to develop this ability (at least in terms of thinking about and doing work at home). But I've lived the working-all-the-time existence (both self employed and for a company), and I just need the space and time away to stay sane and healthy.

    Right now I'm working about 35 hour weeks and I find I'm super productive. I suspect this is the magic number for me right now where everything is in balance and I get the most done / am the most rested, etc.

    Oh, and my boss and I have taken to texting outside of work hours for something important that can't wait (which is pretty rare). I find this gets the immediacy of a phone call with the less intruding style of e-mail. Also, it takes into account that we both have 3 yo's and it's hard to know when it's a good time to talk or not.

    Where I'm less successful is leaving the emotions about work at the door. If something is bugging me / upsetting me emotionally I have a hard time not thinking about it as it affects me so deeply. So, I just try to work through it best I can. Writing it down (just random thoughts, whatever comes to mind) really helps when it's particularly stressful. Also, it lets me see the situation from a different angle once I see it all on paper. This will often lead me to a solution of how to deal with the issue or at least the next step to take.

  9. the milliner6:56 PM

    Ooh! That was a long one. Can you tell this is a hot topic at work right now?!

  10. There are some really great ideas here, and a lot of food for thought. If nothing else, it's helped me try to figure out where the problems are coming from to determine if any of these ideas will help me fix them. I have a feeling I'm going to be visiting this post and the comments for a while as I try things out.

    A lot of my issue has to do with what the milliner said about the EMOTIONS of work. I'm pretty good at shutting off the work part of work when I leave. I'm bad about leaving the emotions of work behind when I've been pushed to my limit/pissed off/frustrated/upset. I'm not sure how to approach that one just yet. Besides beer.

  11. @the milliner- long comments are always welcome here! I like the idea of writing down the emotional stiff, just to get it out of your brain.

    @Ginger- you'll notice I didn't say all that much about how to leave the emotional crap at the office. That's because I'm less good at that. But I do have one trick, beyond the yoga and beer suggestions (or, as @nicoleandmaggie suggest, ice cream): I do some "what is the worst thing that could happen?" thinking. This comes from having had to learn how to deal with the high level of volatility in my industry. That can eat you alive. Or, you can realize that the worst thing that can happen is that they'll lay you off, and have a plan to handle that. So now, I do the same sort of thing when I'm dealing with any emotional stress at work. Usually, the worst thing is some sort of firing event. I have a plan to handle that, so it is less stressful. That really takes the sting out of some of the nasty work place politics that can happen. But I will admit that they still bother me enough that I'll come home and have a beer or two to unwind if something stressful has happened that day!

  12. If I feel like wallowing, I listen to the song "Too much to do" by Sparkadia ( It can be cathartic to sing along to the chorus "too much to do, and not enough time..."

    And then I get my shit together and make lists. My work lists are all in a spiral bound A4 notebook that is also my meeting notes book. We have a lot of meetings in my company. I generally start a new list at the start of the week, carrying over items that weren't finished off the week before. I tend to have multiple work lists - one for all the general stuff I need to get done (like safety training courses, booking annual leave etc) and then project specific lists. I find it really handy to keep all my work lists in one place over time and to have the list with me at meetings so I'm asked to do something, I can add it directly to the list. If it doesn't get written down then, I tend to forget by the time I'm back at my desk.

    For home stuff, I vary between paper lists and using the To-Do app on my iPhone. I've just come back from holiday, so I really need to sit down and do a master list. I also use the Shopping List app on my phone.

    The other thing that has really helped me is menu planning. I have a cute menu planner pad from Kikki K ( It may seem a bit strange, but if I go to work in the morning confident I know what we're having for dinner that night, I am so much better able to concentrate and cope at work. If I'm worried I'm going to get home hungry myself with a hungry not-yet-two year old and no plan for feeding us... that is real stress!

  13. @Zenmoo, I have been known to listen to "I want to be sedated" from the Ramones when I'm pushing to meet a deadline....

  14. Work's not so much a concern right now but for home/school I make daily lists on paper and have three calendars, hard copy on my wall and electronic synched on my phone and laptop. I can't for the life of me keep things in my head anymore.

  15. Anonymous4:30 AM

    me too on ramones

    Get me to the wheelchair, take me to the show

    though my current song is Still Alive from Portal I.


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