Your day was already jam-packed with meetings and deadlines. Then you woke up to 250 emails—four of them with urgent tasks that will eat up most of your day. Traffic on the way to the office delays you an extra hour, and by the time you arrive, your voicemail is overflowing. You push a few things off your plate until tomorrow, but tomorrow was already over-scheduled, and the problem is, everything needs to get done today.
How do you cope when you’re swamped far beyond the usual crazy-busy state of the average small-business owner? In this situation, the brain’s natural reaction is to go into panic mode. Logical thought shuts down as our mind spins in circles, unable to decide what to do next. To get a grip, try triage.
Triage is a system used by medical personnel to assess the severity of patients’ illnesses or injuries, dictating the order in which they’ll be treated. In an emergency, doctors and nurses face the same situation you do—everything needs attention now—but with literally life-and-death consequences. (Realizing your situation isn’t quite as serious as being surrounded by a roomful of burn victims is the first step to calming down.)
Here’s my take on triage tactics that can work for small-business owners:
1. Take a deep breath. As you think about everything that has to get done today, you can’t focus. You may literally find yourself spinning in circles, not knowing where to start. When you find yourself in this state, stand up, close your eyes, and take several deep breaths. Tell yourself you’ll get through this, and then grab a pen, paper and your calendar and start making lists. I swear my business runs on Sharpies and Post-It notes.
2. Assess. What absolutely, positively has to get done today, and what can be postponed? We often freak out when we see a packed calendar, while in reality, some of the items aren’t set in stone. If you planned to use today to start a project due next month but several clients just asked for proposals that you need to deliver tomorrow, move the project with the longer deadline further out. Cancel all nonessential meetings and appointments. Don’t worry about reading your email newsletters. Try to create as much breathing room as you can.
3. Prioritize. If there’s any chance you’ll drop the ball with one of your clients, you’ve got to get brutally honest with your priorities. Choose your method, then dig in: You may want to prioritize based on revenue (the best-paying job gets top priority), client relationships (your biggest client, your oldest client or the new client you want to impress gets your time and attention first), or some other factor that makes sense to you. For instance, if you have a client who pays you a lot but only uses your services occasionally, they may fall lower on the priority scale than someone who pays less but is a regular customer.
4. Negotiate. Sometimes you can buy extra time if you have understanding clients. This should only be a last-ditch tactic, but if you’re absolutely stuck, ask if it’s possible to get an extension on a deadline or a delivery date, or to reschedule a meeting. If the client is reluctant or you get the slightest sense you’re imposing, don’t push it. There are plenty of times when it’s no problem to change a date or deadline, but you’ll never know until you ask.
5. Delegate. As entrepreneurs, we often find ourselves overwhelmed because we simply take on too much. As you’re prioritizing your tasks, also consider what could be handed off to someone else on your team. (Triage nurses don’t actually treat the patients—they hand them off to someone else to take care of.) If the situation warrants it, you might want to outsource to independent contractors to get the job done. Even though you’ll make a little less, paying someone to do the job is likely well worth it if it means the difference between disappointing a client—and possibly losing their future business—and keeping them as a customer. Just make sure you won’t spend more time explaining to and managing the person you’re delegating to than you would doing the work yourself.
When the dust settles at the end of the day (which will probably be dawn the next morning), take some time to review your upcoming calendar and reschedule things you put off so nothing permanently falls through the cracks. And take steps to help make overload less likely to happen in the future—and to make dealing with it easier the next time it does. Try:
- Building “buffer time” into each day. If you’re not scheduled to the very last second, you’ll be better able to handle last-minute crises without throwing off your whole day.
- Delegating. As I mentioned, this is a key part of the triage process. If you don’t typically delegate, develop a plan for doing so. Start with small projects and build up. By delegating when you're not in crisis mode, you’ll ease your workload and be less likely to need triage in the future.
- Creating a village. Have a stable of reliable contractors, freelancers or others you can outsource to at a moment’s notice so you’re not caught high and dry when you really need help.
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