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The ABCs of an Overwhelming Workload By: Nicole Chamblin


How do you prioritize your work when everything is a priority? A few years ago, I attended a conference where the keynote speaker, Dan Thurmon, used a juggling routine to illustrate a very important lesson. Usually he juggles sharp objects and names them as he tosses them the air: Career, Health, Family, Education, etc. As he juggled, he taught us that we juggle in our day-to-day, trying to catch everything at once. At any given time, you can only manage (or have your hands on) maybe two big things at a time. When we try to catch it all together, we end up feeling what he called "off-balance” and "off-purpose.” The trick is to be intentional and throw some things higher than others so we can catch the important things—ending up off-balance, but on-purpose.

As Steven Covey said, "don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities.” Using the juggling analogy, "how can you be deliberate about what you throw up into the air so you can be focused on the things that you are catching in your hands?” For example, at different points in life, you might decide that you have to focus on your career, so starting a family would have to wait; or you might decide that you need to go back to school, so you have to cut back on community work.  You need to be purposeful about what you’re going to be off-balance about. Give yourself permission to throw some things up in the air. It will help reduce your stress levels.

A proven method for prioritizing your workload is the ABCDE Prioritization Method, taught by Brian Tracey in his book Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.

The name of Brian Tracey’s book was inspired by this Mark Twain quote: "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Eating a live frog refers to completing a task that is challenging to get it out of the way so that the rest of the day can be more productive.

With the ABCDE method, you prioritize your work according to the severity of the consequence for not doing the task:
  • A - something important that you have to do that has serious consequences
  • B - a task that you should do as it has some consequences
  • C - a task that would be nice to do, has few, if any, consequences
  • D - something that can be delegated 
  • E - something that can be eliminated
If you get in the habit of evaluating your priorities and commitments with this method, figuring out your next step becomes easier.

The ABCDE Method in Action

When it comes to priorities, you are typically dealing with how long things take, who you have to work with or keep informed, and what tasks get your attention first. Here are some things to keep in mind as you apply the ABCDE method:
  • Spend the appropriate amount of time in something according to its priority. Don’t give A-level attention to a C-level task.
  • Create a daily list of A-level tasks and tackle those first. Each time an "emergency” or "urgent” request comes up, evaluate it against the A-level tasks on your list.
  • Schedule time to begin working on the B-level tasks before they become urgent. Work them into your schedule before their deadlines.
  • Look for things you can eliminate and get off your list. If a task keeps getting rated a C-level (nice to do/no consequence) task, consider if it’s worth your energy to keep it on your list. 
  • Leverage your team and delegate those tasks that don’t absolutely require your attention. Maybe you can assign a B-level task to someone to get the ball rolling. Or you can have them evaluate the C list and inform the decision on whether they should be dropped. Delegation will let you extend your efforts from what you can do to what you can control.
  • Be sure to set aside time in your calendar for your A-level work by applying the 80/20 Rule. In the 80/20 Rule, 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results. Set aside 20% of your day, roughly 90 minutes, and use that time to focus on your A-level priorities. Consider blocking a standing appointment on your calendar 3 times per week.
  • There are times when what’s considered a priority is out of your control and you end up juggling more things than you’d like. Our brains like things easy. While we try to convince ourselves that we can handle multitasking efficiently (we really can’t), our brains are designed to seek completion. So if we keep a long priority list, we increase our stress by trying to keep track of all these things. Create a Someday/Maybe list and park all those C-level, "nice to do” tasks there so they are less of a distraction.

As your priorities change, evaluate the risk level. Be intentional about when you’ll get the work done.

How do you prioritize an overwhelming workload? Pick your biggest A-level task and eat that frog first!

Ask a Mentor

Mentors are a great resource – use their knowledge and experience!  At your next meeting, ask your mentor how they manage their time to get the best return on investment, or increase their efficiency tackling multiple priorities and competing demands.  Some ideas to get the conversation started:

  • What are your most important priorities for the next 30 days?
  • How would you structure your ideal day to make room for focus time?
  • What tasks present the best opportunity for you to delegate to someone else?
  • How can you be more strategic in the way you invest your time?
  • How do your behavioral preferences impact the way you use your time?
  • Think of an experience when your projects and deadlines flowed. What lessons can you take from that and how can you achieve more of that in your current schedule? 
About the Author
NICOLE CHAMBLIN, MA, RCC®, CPBA® CTPC® is a productivity coach and trainer who leverages over 20 years of experience in helping professionals connect with their vision, communicate their goals and collaborate more productively. Nicole is a Results Certified Coach® Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst®, and Certified Team Performance Coach®. A speaker, author and passionate trainer, she loves teaching ways to more effectively manage goals, set priorities, kick self-defeating behaviors and improve teamwork.