There are basically two types of task which we are faced with during a typical day. First there is the type of task which either gets done or doesn’t get done. You either renew the car insurance or you don’t. You either paint the bedroom or you don’t. You either buy a new dress or you don’t. You either send your great aunt a birthday card or you don’t. The consequences of doing or not doing this type of task may range from the trivial to the momentous, but essentially they are one-offs.
Then there is the type of task which produces a backlog if it is not attended to. Dealing with paper is the classic example of this type of task. Have you ever noticed how paper has the strange tendency to breed if given the chance? Leave two bits of paper together overnight and miraculously when you come down in the morning you have a six-inch pile of papers in various stages of inaction. Leave the pile on its own for another 24 hours and you have an office full of piles of paper.
The modern age has produced an even worse backlog producer — the email. Leave your inbox for 24 hours and you will have hundreds of these little monsters clamouring for your attention. I have had clients who complain that they have literally thousands of emails they haven’t even got round to reading.
Other well-known backlog producers are phone calls, filing, and updating client records. There may be others that are peculiar to your life.
The real problem with backlogs is that they take you out of the present. Instead of dealing with today’s work, you are constantly trying to catch up. It’s the difference between walking along a well-defined path and walking across a muddy field. On the path you can walk freely, but in the field your boots get caked in mud and you have to put out more and more effort while going slower and slower.
Backlogs can make people feel hopeless. It may seem impossible to catch up. And even if you do catch up you may only find yourself almost immediately slipping back again.
So how can you deal with them once and for all?
STEP ONE — DRAW A LINE. Say to yourself “Everything that comes in from now on I will deal with immediately. And I will tackle the backlog bit by bit.” Ring fence the backlogs so that they don’t get any bigger.
STEP TWO — CLEAR INCOMING MATERIAL DAILY. The best way to deal with incoming paper, emails, phone calls, etc. is to have a check list which you go through several times a day. So I have a list which comprises about five items and I go through it checking each one off. I do this three times a day — first thing, after lunch and early evening. Because this keeps me right on top of all incoming material, I can sometimes get through the list in as little as ten minutes. More often it takes me an hour or more — but I don’t have any backlogs. The rest of my time is free to get on with creative work.
STEP THREE — REDUCE THE INCOMING VOLUME. One of the reasons backlogs build up in the first place is because we attract far too much inessential stuff. Chuck junk mail in the trash without even opening it. Cancel subscriptions for newsletters you don’t read (you DO read mine!). Don’t write off for things you don’t need. Keep asking yourself “Why am I receiving this?”.
STEP FOUR — GET RID OF THE BACKLOGS BIT BY BIT. If you do steps one and two correctly, your backlogs can now only get smaller. Don’t try to get rid of the lot in one go. Keep chipping away at them. With emails, try clearing one day at a time, starting with the oldest. With paper, try clearing it one subject at a time — such as all bank statements, then all bills, then all client letters and so forth.