Whether at university or in a job, you will need to effectively manage your workload and stay on top of the tasks you have been assigned. This article focuses on how to plan and manage your workload effectively, which in turn helps with reducing stress and anxiety and increasing your productivity and sense of fulfilment.
Your workload refers to the amount of work that you have to complete. Managing your workload, and the tasks and activities involved, is an essential part of work and also of our personal lives.
For most of us it starts with making a “to-do” list, but workload managmement goes beyond that: it also involves tracking your progress, setting deadlines and – where relevant, involving other people in collaborations.
Being able to plan your workload effectively puts you in a position of control as you know what’s coming, and you can also say no to tasks which are simply not possible for you to complete. Equally, knowing how to manage your workload efficiently enables you to work in a more productive way, creating better quality outputs and giving you greater satisfaction. This in turn will reduce your stress levels and make your work more enjoyable.
When planning and managing your workload, there are three core aspects to consider:
- How much work you have to do
- How urgent or important each task is
- How difficult or time-consuming each task is
How may this affect me?
Managers tend to expect high levels of productivity from their employees, and they may also expect that an employee has the ability to manage their time. However, this is not an easy task and being overworked and overwhelmed can lead to stress, anxiety and a loss of productivity.
From talking to autistic graduates, we have learned that this is a common challenge, especially when starting out in a new role. Common issues include:
- Stress and anxiety about the tasks ahead
- A general feeling of being overwhelmed
- Risk of burnout
- The inability to ‘switch off’ after work, which can result in poor sleep patterns and an inability to relax
- Higher levels of absence
- Missed deadlines and appointments
- Procrastination and a lack of focus
- Inefficiency and low quality of work
- Increase in errors made in work
- Strained workplace relationships
- Lack of enjoyment in your work
- Constant re-scheduling
- Working longer hours than you should
Learning how to effectively plan and manage one’s workload is an important aspect of work. It can be daunting, especially when it feels like an extra burden on top of the actual work. This is normal and understandable. It is however worth to take the time to reflect on how you approach your workload, how long things take you and what work you can take on – or perhaps say no to.
What can I do next?
Create a to-do list to organise your tasks
Putting tasks into a list can make your workload more manageable as you will be better organised, this means you will be less stressed and won’t forget anything important.
To meet the challenges of managing and planning your workload, these tips may help:
- Prioritise your work and set achievable goals and deadlines
Sit down at the beginning of each work day and review all of the tasks you need to complete. Organise these by levels of urgency and importance (See quadrants image below: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, not urgent and not important). Some may need urgent attention and some tasks can wait until the end of the day. You may find using the Eisenhower Decision Matrix useful as it is a simple tool to help you prioritise and focus.
(source: Brett McKay, Kate McKay: A Man’s Life, Personal Development, 2013)
- Refine your tasks
Gather as much information as possible on each task e.g. ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘who’, also consider adding ‘how’ if you know this, even if it is just the first step. If you have an idea of how long this task will take to complete, add that too. This can help you fit in smaller tasks that may be otherwise overlooked.
- Consider electronic planning tools
Electronic planning software can help you stay on track and highlight urgent tasks. Examples of electronic to-do list software include; Apple Reminders, Microsoft To-Do, Google Tasks.There are also more advanced tools which let you manage several lists in a visual way, on what is known as a “Kanban” board. They are designed for teams but work perfectly fine for individuals. Examples include Trello, DragApp and Basecamp
- Avoid multitasking
Unless you are extremely organised, multitasking tends to be counterproductive and focussing on one task at a time is far more productive.
- Discuss workload with your manager
Speak to your manager if you feel overworked or overwhelmed. They may be able to help you manage and plan your workload or allocate some of the tasks at hand to other members of your team.
- Acknowledge that you can’t do everything
You may feel obliged to say ‘yes’ when managers or team members present you with new tasks, if you take on too much responsibility, it can lead to stress and anxiety. If you feel that you don’t have the time to complete a task that has been asked of you, say so, don’t overburden yourself. This can be tricky, but being honest about how much work you can manage is better than accepting work that you cannot complete.
- Focus on your personal strengths
Every individual has unique strengths that they can bring to a work team and accepting tasks that you may not be very good at can lead to frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed. Ensure your work team know your strengths and that you know theirs. Something which you are good at may take you less time than your team members and vice versa. Consider strengths of different team members when dividing tasks.
- Take time to understand the task at hand
Ensuring you know the task inside and out can save a lot of time. Being clear on priorities, outcomes and timelines means you can better understand the task at hand and complete it in a timely manner. If you are unsure of the task at hand, ask for clarification from a manager or team member.
- Know when to stop
Knowing your task means knowing when it is finished. However, this is not always easy to define and often there is uncertainty about the standard to which a task has to be completed. To avoid this uncertainty, ensure you set yourself a time limit after which you check with your manager about your progress. You can then assess together how much is still left to do, if anything.
- Take breaks
Take time out of your workday to rest and recuperate, have a walk or rest in a staff room or cafeteria. If you find staff rooms and cafeterias overwhelming, consider taking your break outside, on a bench, in a park or even your car (if you have one). If you need time to yourself, that is ok, you don’t have to take your breaks with other staff members.
- Commit time to complete smaller tasks
Small tasks can often sit on your daily to-do-list, but get forgotten about due to other more important and higher priority tasks. Commit a certain amount of to these tasks, perhaps one or two afternoons a week. Having a to-do list which is clear of smaller tasks can make you feel more refreshed.
- Audit your work
Sometimes you may be spending too much time on certain projects or tasks. Take the time to analyse your time when working and see where most of your time is being spent. You may need to consider changing your focus, or you may find that other team members are better at completing tasks that are time consuming for you, and you may be able to help them with some of their tasks, which they find time consuming.
- Check your appointments
Unnecessary appointments or meetings may be wasting your time. Are all meetings that you attend relevant to your work? If not, consider asking if your attendance is necessary, back this up with how you could be making a bigger contribution to your other tasks if you didn’t attend this meeting.
- Organise your paperwork
This may be physical paperwork or electronic paperwork, but ensuring your documents are well organised can improve productivity. Organise your emails, your files and folders on your computer and your physical paperwork. Consider only having physical documents for ‘to-do’ work, and file away any other work you have completed. Take immediate action with paperwork, organise it into appropriate folders and schedule time to re-organise these folders regularly.
- Close your emails
Having your email program open all day can be disruptive, receiving incoming emails regularly can distract you from the task at hand. Instead, consider checking your emails at regular intervals, perhaps every hour, or at the end of each task.
- Reward your accomplishments
It is important to acknowledge what you have achieved, credit yourself for your hard work and if possible reward yourself with something as simple as a cup of tea or coffee.
Questions to think about
When thinking about your workload, you may want to consider the following questions:
- Do you need any workplace adjustments to improve your productivity?
(have a look at the most common adjustments in the workplace)
- Do you need to speak to your manager or team members about your workload?
- Do you have clear deadlines for your task?
- Are you taking on more work than is expected of you?
- Are you clear about the quality standard that is expected of you, and how long a certain task ought to take?
- Have you planned in sufficient breaks in your schedule?