How To Get Ahead When You Fall Behind

It doesn’t feel great when we miss a deadline or have tasks left on our todo list. It creates stress. But falling behind isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a sign that things need to change. Falling behind signals an opportunity to step back, to re-evaluate how we spend our time, manage our energy, and figure out what’s most important.

When we’re behind we try and catch up, squeezing more into our days in the hope we’ll gain the ground we’ve lost. We start spending extra time at work to catch up. The list of todo’s keep piling up. More and more of what we hoped to accomplish doesn’t get done. We fall further and further behind. We start sacrificing our ability to be there for others, our work-life balance, and we start feeling less able to tackle challenges at work.

Falling into a spiral of negativity when you're constantly behind.

The problem is that you think you’re behind. But in reality, you’re not. Why do you think your behind? You’re keeping an invisible tally in your head of the things you didn’t get done. Each time you don’t get something checked off your list, you give yourself a negative point. Each time something comes up that wasn’t on the list… a negative point. You start the day thinking about what didn’t get done yesterday… negative point. Day-in and day-out, negative point… negative point. negative point. They add up and not in a good way.

Yes, you do get stuff done, good work. But overall it feels like you’re not making enough progress. The negative points out-weigh the positive. The scale in your mind shifts towards negativity. Diminishing your mental well-being the longer the scale tips towards negativity.

If this feels familiar, I have good news. A simple shift in mindset is all it takes—don’t track negative points. Start every day from 0 and focus on the best path forward. Everything you do is a positive point, an incremental step forward. It sounds easy, but making the transition to this mindset can be difficult and you might not have the tools to get started.

How are you spending your time?

If you want to accomplish more, audit your time. Figure out how many hours you actually have in your day. Hint: It’s a lot less than you think. When you account for all the meetings, add time for meeting prep and debriefs, time wasted shifting focus, and random distractions you’ll find that you’ve been setting unrealistic expectations about what you can achieve.

Here are some guidelines I keep in mind when auditing my time:

  • Take 20% off the top because no one is 100% productive for 8 hours a day.
  • Most tasks take an hour, nothing takes less than 15 minutes.
  • A half-hour meeting needs some prep and post-meeting planning time, add 15 minutes for every meeting.
  • Every time you switch tasks add 10 minutes to account for the mental shift.
  • Account for everything.

Are you feeling energized?

We get more done in the same amount of time if we have the energy to do it. When we are low on energy, everything is more difficult. If the task you just finished leaves you feeling excited or the time flew unexpectedly, it adds to your energy. If you had a meeting and it left you feeling drained, it takes away from your energy.

When we’re intentional with your energy we can keep plenty in reserve. By proactively scheduling activities into your day that fill you up, you’ll have an abundance of energy. If you start the day with low energy take something that energy-draining off that day’s list and put something that will recharge you in place instead.

Some tips to manage your energy:

  • Keep a list of people, subjects, experiences, and activities that fill you up
  • Figure out how big the energy lift/drain is. A coffee with a friend might be a +1, a trip to a spa could be a +20. A 1:1 with your manager could be a -10 (I hope not).
  • Plan 1 to 2 things that fill you up every day and keep your energy reserves topped up.
  • Minimize, or stop, spending time in energy-draining activities.
  • Think of ways to give energy-draining activities a positive charge. Like changing the scenery of a meeting, or using a different mindset when approaching the task.

Do you know where you’re headed?

Figuring out what’s important is another area to getting ahead when you’re behind. Take some time to figure out where you want to be, why you want to be there, and a bunch of different things you could be doing to get there. Write down your values so you know what you stand for. It helps you find a path to take in the present to make a brighter future. Doing this work will help you figure out what goes on your list every day.

When you commit something to your list recognize that you are saying no to a hundred other things like a less valuable task, feeling bad about not having more on your list, or worrying about what didn’t get done yesterday.

Feeling behind sucks and we put pressure on ourselves catchup. Managing our time, energy, and priorities are just as important as treating every day like a fresh start.

Written by

I help businesses build, lead, and manage design teams.

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