If you’re using any kind of task management tool you have probably noticed a section for overdue tasks – tasks that you had set a date to complete, but for whatever reason you weren’t able to get to them. Without conscious action these overdue tasks will continue to multiply, like a virus, and the more they do, they more they distract your mind from what you should be doing as you begin to stress about them more and more. If you’re using the age-old pen and paper task list method then the overdue tasks are either whatever is left over each day and/or those tasks that you find yourself writing at the top of the list on each new day.
There are ways to handle overdue tasks and to keep their virus at bay, but first it’s good to understand how you work and how your tasks go from “upcoming” to “today” to “oh my god, now it’s overdue”.
How Tasks Become Overdue
There are many ways that a task can fall through the cracks and end up on the dreaded “Overdue” list. Once they are there it can be difficult to get them off. It can be even harder to empty the “Overdue” list completely.
Probably the most common way that the overdue list is populates is when you take too much on. So often we find ourselves saying “yes” and accepting more work and deadlines, and so often we do this because we think we work much more efficiently then we actually do. Sure, in a perfect world where there are no distraction, no mental and physical exhaustion and our focus is always laser sharp, then we could rip through all these tasks in no time. But that isn’t reality. Sometimes we don’t even realise we’re doing it. For example, what do you do when you’re boss (if you have one, if you don’t, lucky you) asks you to complete a new report/project/whatever by the morning; what do you do when your inbox is flooded with hundreds of emails each day that you are expected to read; what do you do when you’re knee-deep working on something and a new project lands on your desk? We take them on and bear the burden of so many things to do. We do our best to prioritize and schedule these things and we expect we can complete everything either on-time or earlier. The fact is that 99% of things take longer to do than you first think. This being the case, if you have set say four tasks for the day that you believe you can accomplish, you’re probably only going to get through three of them. That last one ends up on the overdue list. Tomorrow, if you again set yourself four tasks to do and only get through three, the overdue list now has two tasks. This vicious cycle repeats again and again until the overdue list is bursting.
Handling Overdue Tasks
So what now? These overdue tasks still need to be done. I believe that if a task makes it onto the overdue list this is partly due to your brain subconsciously assigning it a very low priority, even though when you first received the task it was clearly very important – you know these tasks still need to get done, but since you weren’t able to get to them when you’d hoped, surely another day won’t matter much, right?
Yes! That is exactly right. In most cases if a task ends up on the overdue list then it is something that can wait just a bit longer. Of course this isn’t true for all tasks, for example, I found a task on my overdue list to “Pay electricity bill” and if I put that off again the consequences could be dire. So here’s what I suggest you do with your overdue list.
- At the end of each day review the overdue list. If something needs immediate attention and can be done in less than 5 minutes (like paying my electricity bill), do it, if it’s going to take more than 5 minutes update the due date to “tomorrow”
- Anything that does not fit the rule above, leave, for now.
- When your overdue list has about 6 items on it, schedule a “catch-up day”. Block out the entire day and work on your overdue list. There may be other tasks also due on that same day – make sure you do those tasks first.
A catch-up day is something you’ll need to put in your calendar so that others can see that you’re busy. You may get asked into meetings, or given other tasks on that day. However, if possible try to avoid taking on new tasks on your catch-up day. At the end of the day you’ll feel better with yourself and more productive. If there are tasks still on the overdue list that’s ok – make these the first tasks to do on the next catch-up day. You may find you need a catch-up day once a month, or once a fortnight. If you need it more frequently then this then there are other issues to deal with, especially with respect to taking on too much and burning out.
Avoiding Overdue Tasks
It’s always better to do those tasks planned for today first rather than working from the overdue list first. Why? Well, if you work from the overdue list first, that means that most other tasks planned for “today” will end up not done and therefore will end up on the overdue list tomorrow. This approach means that you’re constantly working from the overdue list and you’ll constantly feel like you’re behind.
Always do those tasks scheduled for today first.
The most important principle to remember to avoid tasks ending up on the overdue list is to be realistic. Understand how you work, understand how long something takes to do (so you can better estimate the time required for similar tasks), understand your strengths and weaknesses.
Over To You!
Your challenge this week is to set yourself a catch-up day. Put aside an entire day in your calendar and on that day do as many of the tasks in your overdue list as possible. Then, come back and let me know how you feel and the impact to your stress levels now that there are fewer things on your overdue list.
If you need a simple task management tool, go and grab Wunderlist. It’s free and super-cool.