Back in the Saddle: 10 Tips For Taming Backlogs At Work After Being Gone

Sound familiar?

  • You are heading out on vacation or on the road for work, and there’s the mad rush in preparation beforehand to tie up loose ends.
  • Then, while you are gone, you are stressed out because you are afraid of ‘missing’ something and feel the compulsive need to keep checking emails to stay on top of things.
  • Upon you return, there is a monster tsunami wave of work waiting gleefully to engulf you on that first day back in the office.

Is it any wonder we are running around stressed out all the time?

Personally, I have been traveling quite a bit for the last month and a half – three weeks, to be specific. While on the road, I have maintained office operations (being a one-person shop) and kept client appointments thanks to cloud computing and having a virtual office.  But it still stressed me out and being away from the ‘normal’ routine of daily work… and having some email connectivity issues didn’t help when Outlook decided that it would receive but not send email messages… that always helps ease one’s frustration. (Ha!)

But what I learned from this experience is that a lot of this stress is self-induced.  Of course there are people that need responding to, and projects that need to be completed. But it was me and me alone that allowed the sense of urgency to compound itself into aggravation by feeling like I was almost overwhelmed.

We can all learn a lesson here on how to handle situations like this, and calm our anxiety levels.

Here are some quick tips to help you navigate getting around the stress of backlogs at work while maintaining your productivity:

  1. Before you leave, see if you can have someone checking messages on your behalf.   This obviously only works if you have support or other employees in your office, but having someone running interference while you are gone can take a huge amount of anxiety off your mind.  Don’t be afraid to delegate, or ask your boss to assign someone to help in your absence.
  2. Block out specific times to respond to messages.  We are ALL in danger of becoming messaging addicts. A recent article in PC World showed that there is a physiological response, sort of an adrenaline hit, that takes place when we get a message, which prompts us to look, and so the cycle continues. Instead of responding each time our smart phone pings us, turn it on silent and then plan a specific time of day to manage those messages.  If you are on vacation, this is especially important- our brains need a rest from work-related issues and if you are on the beach in Hawaii stressing out about a project that just suffered a major problem, you are not resting and relaxing. You are tense and pacing like a tiger. Try to leave your office at home if at all possible. Easier said than done, but this is your health.  Remember: THE WORLD WILL NOT END if you aren’t checking email!!
  3. Upon your return, do a once-over of all of your messages (voice mail and email) so you have a general idea of where things stand.  Until you have the big picture, you won’t be able to develop responses.
  4. Keep a task list.  Getting everything on paper or into a software tracking program will help you organize your thoughts and you can also feel a sense of accomplishment as you slowly and steadily scratch things off that list.
  5. Triage the urgent priorities.  Create a master list of what you need to respond to and develop an idea of what it is you need to do in terms of urgency and priority.
  6.  Start responding after you collect the facts. As you know, sometimes there are multiple tiers to one particular conversational thread – read the first one and then skim through the rest- sometimes what was an urgent situation was already rectified by the time you read the last message!
  7. Take a deep breath. You aren’t going to be able to do everything in one day… so remember you need to step away and take a break just to give yourself that breather before diving right back in.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for deadline extensions.  Sometimes, these are set in stone. Othertimes, they are arbitrary timelines set up.  It never hurts to ask for additional time – the worst thing they can say is “no” and the best thing they can do is say, “sure” – and wouldn’t that be a load of stress off your back?
  9. Communicate.  Keeping stakeholders in the loop is important… most people are understanding that you just got back, but they only get upset when they simply don’t hear from you.  Providing updates and acknowledgement of receiving their messages is just good business form, but also gives them a sense of reassurance that their project is a priority and on your radar screen.
  10. Don’t be afraid to push back… in a good way.  You know the type: the pushy client who thinks their project is the only one on the planet… you can reassure them that you are working on it but if they keep pushing you, you can firmly establish yourself by saying, “I want to reassure you that I am working on this project, and as soon as I can, I will make sure it gets the attention and priority that it deserves. I am doing my very best, and as you can understand, this is my first (day or week) back in the office, so I am balancing multiple priorities at this moment.”

It is very difficult to be away from a busy office no matter if you are gone on business or taking some “time out” vacation time (much deserved, too!).

Structuring your work flows and maintaining some kind of regimen will help you slowly but surely work through backlogs at work.  By feeling like you have forward momentum, your level of stress should decrease as you keep progressing forward.   It can help you retain some sense of peace and organization to your work while keeping productivity levels up!