The term ‘workload planning’ may not sound very exciting, but I’m talking about having a reasonable number of things on my to-do list on any given day — and there are few better ways to start a workday than that.

Over the last few years, my work has changed a lot. I’ve gone from being an individual contributor to also leading a team at work, and at home, I had my first child (now a toddler) and have a baby on the way. This level of change in life has required me to change my systems as well.

One of those changes was being more intentional about workload planning.

There are a lot of projects, people, and priorities that I need to be aware of on a daily basis. This leads to a lot of competing for the little time that I have while daycare is open and while my brain is in a functional state.

I’ve had busier months that have led to me feeling overwhelmed and I’ve been trying a variety of solutions to avoid that feeling. That feeling of being overwhelmed with everything, always behind, leaving people waiting for weeks or maybe even months, I hate that feeling.

So, what’s the best way to plan out my workload to get things done without carrying over a dozen tasks from one day to the next?

The answer: ruthless prioritization, and I mean ruthless.

This came up in a recent MakeWorkWork episode. During what Habbi dubbed my ‘Shark summer,’ I was hiring for a role, and we had 1,500 applications. I had to juggle replying to hundreds of candidate messages alongside my regular work. This was tough but got easier with time. (And, of course, it got easier when we hired for the role and were back up to a full team.)

Here are some of the things I started doing differently while my workload was heavier. I’ve kept up these habits and activities because my work does tend to fluctuate between busier periods depending on the projects I’m working on, and there have been excellent benefits to these systems.

Let’s get into it.

I take time to plan for my week on Sundays

I don’t know how I survived before I started my weekly planning routine.

The idea is that I take a few moments to reflect on how the previous week went and then use that knowledge and my upcoming calendar to plan out the upcoming week. I aim to have a high-level overview of everything I need to do the upcoming week — appointments, meetings, tasks. I take the time to really look over what I’m trying to get done to make sure that I am focused on the right priorities, that my calendar lines up properly, and that my tasks are spread out throughout the week.

Spreading my tasks out throughout the week is the piece that is especially helpful for workload planning. I used to schedule almost all of my tasks for the Monday of a week. It’s the day I have the fewest meetings so it felt like a good fit. Instead, I would start the week overwhelmed at what I couldn’t get done and end up dragging the tasks from one day to the next throughout the week.

My weekly planning takes as little as 10 minutes, but it’s always worth it.

→ Read more about how I set up my weekly planning.

I focus on three tasks per day

This was a small but mighty change — I only allow myself to have three top tasks as my priorities on any given day. I previously had multiple first, second, and third priority items. (My task manager, Todoist, allows me to mark those by color so I can easily see top-priority tasks.) Now, I have only one thing in priority one, two, and three. My whole goal every day is to get my first priority task done, and then, if that goes well, get my second priority task done and then my third priority task. Everything else is optional. I focus on the top three, and this has helped reduce the number of things on my to-do list and make the days feel less overwhelming.

Another method I’ve used with my tasks is assigning a timeframe to them and planning to do them in between meetings. Sometimes seeing that I’ve marked a task will likely only take me 15 minutes helps me figure out where I can best do that work throughout the day.

The other thing that this method helps with is highlighting nonessential tasks. If your todo list is stuffed with things that don’t really need to get done, but they probably will eventually, and you’re not doing them but moving them from day to day, that can also be overwhelming, and demotivational. I take a page out of one of my favorite books — Essentialism by Greg McKeown — and focus on only the essential tasks.

I have one list of projects and priorities

How do I decide if a task is essential? It needs to line up with a priority or a goal. (There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, this is a helpful filter.)

A change I made last year at work was setting up one list of projects I’m actively working on and connecting those to my priorities, which need to roll up into my team’s priorities, which roll up into company goals. I realized that I’m great at weekly and daily planning for my tasks, but I didn’t have one place where I could quickly glimpse my priorities and projects. We have a big list of priorities for our entire team, but I wanted something more focused on what I was working on, and that connected my projects to my priorities. This way, I can make sure I’m working towards what truly needs to be done rather than getting caught up in something that might not work towards a larger goal. My solution here was a page in Notion that displays a database of my priorities and a database of my projects. The two are connected — every project should be aligned to a priority; otherwise, why am I working on it?

For personal items, I do annual goal planning and try to keep my tasks related to the goals and habits I’m working on that year.

I keep on top of my inbox and notifications

Somehow, everything feels worse when my inbox is also overflowing. I have my assistant reviewing emails as I receive a huge number of emails from having an email address many people have, but I still get tons of emails. My assistant creates filters for people who email too often and where unsubscribing hasn’t worked to try and reduce the clutter long-term, and then overall, I just delete emails ruthlessly.

I used to reply to every email, but it was clear that that wasn’t sustainable. I’ve since come up with an email reply equation that I use. Overall, my email system is that I try and check email only a few times a day, once as a quick review for anything urgent in the mornings and then another time in the afternoon to get back to as many people as possible.

Similarly, I feel stressed out if I have a ton of notifications in Slack. I try to do one longer check of Slack in my morning to reply to anything immediately and then mark everything else for follow-up and work on it later in the day after my most important tasks are done.

I’m not always perfect at this, but I find that planning to stay on top of these things helps me get closer to this place, and if I can maintain a state where I am on top of email in general, everything feels easier.

I say no early and often

Finally, you can’t ruthlessly prioritize if you have a million ongoing projects and commitments. I needed to say no. I said no to every podcast interview request I got during my especially busy period (even though some of them were amazing). I said no to new projects that weren’t essential for working towards my goals, and I questioned recurring meetings to make sure I was saying no to too many meetings on my calendar. During the recent MakeWorkWork episode, Habbi asked me how I said no to people, and my response was, “I just say no.” I used to agonize over turning people down, but I’ve done it so many times now that it becomes easier with practice.

I recently came across this quote from James Clear that aligns with this overall way of thinking:

“Be ruthless about what you ignore. Time, energy, and resources are so precious. You have to be ferocious about cutting your priorities—more than you realize and certainly more than is comfortable. You can only deeply commit to a few things. One or two? Maybe three? Every pretty good, sorta nice, kinda fun thing you abandon is like shedding a weighted vest that lets you move at top speed. You were so busy focusing on how much you could carry, you never realized you could run this fast.” – James Clear

How others are workload planning

When I was most grappling with the question of how to better plan my workload, I took to Twitter and LinkedIn to see what advice others in my network had to offer. There was some great advice and it helped me sort through how other people were wrapping their heads around work and settle on all of the advice I mentioned above.

The 3-3-3 method

From my Buffer colleague Mike San Roman:

“Have you tried the 3-3-3 method?

  • Three hours to work on your most important project.
  • Three shorter (but urgent) tasks.
  • Three “maintenance” tasks (email, chores, self-improvement, etc.).”

Planning first thing on Monday

I am not the only one who figured out that weekly planning was a game changer. CMX founder and author of The Business of Belonging, David Spinks, shared:

“something that’s been helping me recently:

taking the first 30 minutes every Monday to plan out what I’m going to do each day of the week”

Tracking an accuracy score

Someone I admire when it comes to getting things done, Brittany Berger, who is a content marketing expert shared a unique approach I’d never heard of before:

“One thing that helps me plan mindfully is tracking my “accuracy score” – I enter how many tasks I planned for the day, and how many got done, and there’s a Notion formula to calculate the accuracy percentage. I find it helps in 2 ways…

First of all, my dopamine hungry brain wants to get a 100% so the mere existence of the fields makes me plan more mindfully and think “will I really be able to do all this?”

And second, I can look at the average number of tasks I actually get done per day & plan accordingly”

Writing a ‘not-to-do-list’

I loved this idea from Tracey Rawlinson, who is a freelance leadership writer:

“This may sound counter-productive, but write yourself a ‘not-to-do list.’ There’s something really empowering about giving yourself permission not to do everything that helps plan your workload better. It really works!”

Time budgeting

Tammy Bjelland, the founder of Workplaceless, had a mathematical approach to the problem that I’d love to try one day”

“I use what I call a “time budget“—it’s a not very pretty or sophisticated google sheet that tells me how much time there is left in the day vs how much work I have left to do (measured in time).”

There is no one right way

There are a lot of ways to do workload planning. I’m thrilled to have landed on one that works for me so that I can feel more on top of my work every week. This will likely shift over time, but it’s working for now.

I’d love to hear your own workload planning tips in the comments!

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