Q I have so many tasks on my plate that I often don't know what to do first. The e-mail flow is so heavy that I don't know how to organize it so that I can determine my next actions, let alone find time to answer them all. How can I get out of these trees so I can see the forest?
A Once you know what your forest looks like, you'll be able to see which trees fit. You'll then be able to get organized and take action.
The inner game
Step away from the frenzy and focus on becoming calm and centered. Let your mind stop racing so that you can cut through the clutter of excessive e-mail and competing priorities. Sit down and take some deep breaths to help you relax.
Next, outline the big picture of your job. Write down your top tasks and major responsibilities so you're clear about what you should be doing. List the time-eaters that are outside your scope, too. If necessary, meet with your boss to establish clear priorities and remove items that don't fit.
Then, gain focus by getting your e-mail under control. Assess which e-mails are necessary for your core accountabilities. Realistically, many are probably unrelated and could be deleted unread. Does that suggestion cause anxiety or give you energy? If you're anxious, examine the source, and consider the worst thing that could happen. Typically, the risk is low. However, it's important that you feel comfortable, so take the time to explore your reactions.
The outer game
Just like clearing clutter from a room helps you feel lighter, getting your work life in order will give you new energy.
If you have hundreds of e-mails waiting, pare them by sorting by sender. Delete those that are information only, including newsletters and status updates for non-core projects. Avoid the temptation to open them -- move quickly. Consider putting on headphones and listening to music to keep it fun. If needed, make a "should delete" folder as a first step. But no reading! Find them later if needed.
Create a system to organize the keepers based on your personal style. If you like a detailed filing system, replicate that in e-mail; use broad categories if they work better for you. Decide on an approach to track e-mails that need responses, perhaps creating a separate folder or using "action needed" flags. Then, file your remaining e-mails into your new system.
Now that the clutter is gone, how does your workload look? Still overwhelming? Get more input from your boss. Manageable? Focus on completing the tasks on your plate.
Some simple steps can help maintain your system. Decide what time of day you'll review e-mails, and plan your work. Be disciplined about deleting unneeded e-mails unread and getting off unproductive distribution lists. Find an "e-mail buddy" who can support you. Getting an ally is like exercising with a friend -- it's more fun and keeps you accountable.
The last word
Readers, it's your turn to have the last word. What works for you? What tips and tactics do you have to share? Send them to me at email@example.com, and I'll feature the best ones in a future column.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 651-398-4765. Questions also can be submitted at www.deliverchange.com/coachscorner.