Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #03: Managing your workload

This feature comes from Jo Alcock, Researcher at Evidence Base, Birmingham City University. Jo has been using different productivity tools and techniques over the years and writes a column for CILIP Update on time management and productivity. Jo blogs as Joeyanne Libraryanne and tweets as @joeyanne. The #uklibchat discussion on managing your workload will take place on March 5th 6.30-8.30pm. 

I’ve been asked by the #uklibchat team to introduce the topic for the next discussion, on the theme of Managing your workload. I’m not an expert in this topic, nor is my workload always managed perfectly, however I have been testing a number of different systems over the years and have now adopted a system which seems to work for me (most of the time!). In this introductory blog post I’d like to discuss some of the methods you may wish to use to help you manage your workload.

Getting Things Done

The system I use is an adapted form of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. The main principles behind this are that in order to be able to focus on getting things done you need to have a clear mind and an organised system you trust for recording information and actions. There are five stages to the GTD system:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organise
  4. Review
  5. Do

There are a number of blogs written about the Getting Things Done methodology, or you can read the book for a more detailed overview (and if you are so busy you don’t have time to read the full book, there’s even a summarised version).

To Do List by David Machiavello on Flickr

To Do List by David Machiavello on Flickr

The to-do list

The to-do list is often at the centre of our systems to help us manage workload. I’ve tried a number of different types of to-do list – pen and paper, whiteboard, to-do list notepads, to-do list post-it notes, and many software systems. To-do lists range from the simple list of tasks to the more complex which include additional information such as projects, due dates, start dates, priority, estimated time, and contexts (i.e. environment/equipment needed to complete task).

I currently use Omnifocus as my to-do list, which is available for Mac, iPad and iPhone. It suits my workflow as I can add things via mobile devices wherever I am, and can organise in more detail using contexts and due dates.  I can also email tasks from my inbox which is great for helping me move tasks straight from my email inbox to my to-do list. If you’re interested in trying online to-do lists, I’ve created a bundle of tools to try with some brief notes about each: http://bitly.com/bundles/joeyanne/4

Each have similar basic functionality but vary in implementation and advanced features. Some of the things to consider when trying to-do lists include the ability to:

  • add projects, due dates, start dates and contexts (e.g. Errands, Office, Home)
  • add repeating tasks
  • input tasks from emails
  • add notes or file attachments
  • access via mobile devices
  • collaborate

You may find it useful to consider the features you’ll need whilst reviewing the to-do list options available to find one which suits your workflow best.

The to-don’t list

A concept which is gaining popularity as our to-do lists grow and become more out of control is the to-don’t list. This can help keep our to-do list in check by removing any tasks we shouldn’t be doing. This could be projects we need to remind ourselves not to take on (e.g. ones which sound really exciting but in fact just drain our energy or create unnecessary stress), or tasks we want to stop doing to reduce distractions and enable us to focus on the things we really need to get done. To-don’t lists can be long term reminders to help us select different tasks, or they can be short term reminders to help avoid distractions.


Calendars are useful not just for appointments and meetings, but also for identifying how much time is available for completing tasks. I like to check my calendar alongside my to-do list so I can see what I have to achieve for each day (see screenshot below).

To-do list with calendar (screenshot from Omnifocus)

To-do list with calendar (screenshot from Omnifocus)

Some people like to use their calendar to block out periods of time to work on specific tasks. These may be time dependent (i.e. tasks that can only be done at a certain time), or can just be a way to ensure there isn’t a situation whereby too many appointments mean a lack of time available to work on getting things done.

In order for calendars to be effective, you’ll need to have a way to view everything at a glance. I use Outlook for my work appointments (shared with my colleagues) and use Google calendar for my personal appointments (shared with my partner). I view my calendar through either my phone or tablet and these have both calendars so I can easily see everything, whether it’s a work or personal commitment. Some prefer to use a wallchart or a paper diary – choose whatever works best for you as long as you can view everything in one place.

Tickler file

Do you have information ready for a particular date in the future? Maybe notes for a meeting or tickets for an event? One idea you may want to try adopting to help you manage this sort of information is the 43 Folders approach (sometimes referred to as a tickler file). The 43 folders represent the upcoming 12 months, in the following way:

  • 1-31 for the dates of the month
  • Jan-Dec for each year

Anything for the upcoming month goes in the relevant date number, whilst anything further ahead goes in its relevant monthly folder, ready to be added to the particular date once it’s closer to the time and therefore the numbered folders are in place. Each day, the daily folder is reviewed for information for the day, and then it is moved to the following month ready for one month in the future. It’s difficult to describe in a textual way, so watch this video and you’ll see what I mean!

This can be a useful method of storing information out of the way until it is needed or acting as a way to remember to review something on a particular date in the future. As well as adopting this for a physical system, you can also use it in electronic format by setting up folders (e.g. in an email client) though it takes a little bit of managing. Gmail handles this sort of thing well as you can add multiple labels to emails (you could add one for the date, one for the month, and one for the year to help drill right down).

Inbox zero

Another productivity tip you’ll probably have heard people mention is inbox zero, another recommendation of the GTD system. This includes physical inbox, but more often nowadays refers to email inbox. The reasoning behind this is that the inbox should always be left clear for incoming items only. I use reference folders within my email system to store emails I have read and may need to refer back to in future. Anything that needs an action that will take longer than a couple of minutes I forward to my to-do list with the relevant information to enable me to complete the task at a later date (anything that will take less than that I do straight away and then archive/delete the email).

Adopting inbox zero really does help me – it means I know all my tasks are in one place (my to-do list) and helps ensure my mind stays clear to focus on tasks. In order to stay on top of emails, I have rules set up to label emails, making it even easier to archive them once I have read them rather than having to move them each time. I check my email on a fairly regular basis, though there are others who prefer to only check at certain periods of the day. Some suggest not checking first thing in the morning, instead spending the first part of the working day on an important task you wanted to get done that day.

Balancing Act from Colin Harris on Flickr

Balancing Act from Colin Harris on Flickr

Work-life balance

There have been  many blog posts, articles and discussions recently on work-life balance. Technology is supporting a more flexible approach to work, however that does also mean it can be difficult to switch off and working long hours outside core working hours is becoming common.

Each of us has different priorities in our life and will therefore be comfortable with different levels of balance. It’s not so much about the actual hours worked; some people will feel out of balance working 10 hours a week, some will feel in balance working 60 hours a week. Only we know if we feel out of balance. How do we achieve balance?

There are some useful tips in this article, including setting your priorities, focusing on one thing at a time, setting boundaries (and making sure other people are aware of them), taking time off, and spending some time each day doing something you enjoy.

I went through a period where I didn’t feel I had an effective balance, so as a naturally reflective person, I spent time identifying which activities should be removed, reduced or streamlined and which activities should be introduced or increased. It took a while to change my habits, but I now spend a lot more time away from the computer screen and having things to really look forward to away from that (in my case it’s crafts, going for walks, and talking to friends and family) has been a great motivator for helping me achieve balance and still stay productive.

And on that note, I’m off to enjoy evening knitting in front of the TV for a while…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on February 28, 2013 by in Feature and tagged , , , , , .


%d bloggers like this: