How to Catch Up When You've Fallen Behind

Happens to the best of us—we bite of more than we can chew, and suddenly we're drowning in work. Today, Modern Mentor shares an action plan you can follow when it's time to declare to-do list bankruptcy!

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #692
The Quick And Dirty

Catching up when your to-do list has started to swallow you whole can be done when you follow this four-step plan:

  1. Ask for help
  2. Make a micro-list
  3. Keep others in the loop
  4. Do an after-action review
As a kid, I was totally charmed by old episodes of I Love Lucy. There’s this one classic clip in which she’s working at a chocolate factory—her job is to grab and box the candies as they come down the conveyor. Of course, something goes awry and the candies start flying at her faster than she can manage. Not wanting to seem incapable, she starts popping those candies into her mouth, down her shirt, and hilarity ensues.
It’s such a perfect metaphor for how we can experience work sometimes. We’re high-achieving, ambitious, striving people who want to seem like we can handle all the candy—no matter how fast it comes at us.
A colleague of mine recently asked if declaring “to-do-list bankruptcy” was a thing. I told him I was stealing that pearl for today’s episode. Because sometimes we all need to give ourselves permission to hit that “emergency” button on the conveyor of life!
Having limits is human. Let’s talk about what you can do when you realize yours have been pierced—that your list of projects, goals, tasks, objectives has overwhelmed you and you just need a minute.

1. Ask for help

Too commonly, we associate asking for help with revealing a personal weakness.
But if you watch that Lucy clip, you’ll see that the candy is just flying at her at a pace no human could manage. Chomping those chocolates may be the right choice when the goal is comedy. But had this been real life, the strategic choice would have been to ask someone to shut down the conveyor so she could catch her breath and start again.
If your to-do or to-achieve list is feeling overwhelming right now, recognize a long list is just a long list. It’s not a symbol of your personal failure. Your job is to keep those balls from hitting the floor.
Be strong and confident as you raise that red flag. This isn’t a moment for “Ugh—I’m so sorry, but I can’t handle everything.” Instead, try “I’m looking across everything upcoming and I’m taking accountability for ensuring nothing falls through the cracks. Can we talk about putting a project on pause or getting me an additional resource?”
It’s a strategic ask—not a fail. No shame required or permitted.

2. Make a micro-list

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time… goes the old aphorism.
Our to-do lists tend to be made up of elephants. Look at mine and you’ll see things like:
  • Design that executive offsite
  • Build that leadership program
  • Develop marketing collateral for the employee engagement workshop 
But each of those items on my list is really comprised of a thousand smaller—one might even say bite-sized—actions. When I find myself in seasons of overwhelm, I always break my big projects into a series of tiny increments. 
From, here, I challenge myself to spot and prioritize the tiniest bits of progress that will move me just forward enough on each so that nothing completely falls through the cracks.
For me, designing an executive offsite begins with identifying their key objectives. Building a leadership program begins with identifying a high-level content summary. And developing marketing collateral starts with identifying my target audience.
Objectives, summaries, and target audiences are much more digestible than the elephants.
This small shift allows us to make bits of progress on everything.
How might this serve your current situation? Do you need to build a quarterly budget? Can you start with identifying key line items or pulling the raw data? Maybe you need to craft a patient experience survey. Can you begin with just two or three patient interviews?
Give yourself permission to make a list of tiny steps you can take in a day. And then breathe.

3. Keep others in the loop

Feeling touched by overwhelm is OK. Allowing your overwhelm to touch others is not.
As you break your to-do’s into the tiniest bits and bites, ask yourself what the downstream impacts of any delays will be and get ahead of those.
If you’re going to be a little late completing that piece of sales collateral, is there a salesperson who is going to show up to a pitch empty-handed? If so, don’t let that salesperson be caught off guard. Offer them the courtesy of a heads up so they can make a contingency plan.
I sometimes use a designer to help spiff up my big client presentations. She recently reached out to let me know she was a little behind on one of our projects. Because she gave me ample warning, I was able to repurpose some of the visual elements from a previous presentation and customize those to suit a current client. I will absolutely continue to work with her because she’s human and we all fall behind sometimes. Being thoughtful and accountable about those impacts is what matters most.

4. Do an after-action review

I love clichés. Have you noticed? Here’s another: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
You let yourself take on too much. That’s OK—as long as you take the time to learn what might have caused this, so you don’t fall into the same trap next time.
Once you’ve got your to-do list back into a reasonable state, set aside some time to really think through what went wrong and what you can do differently next time. We call this an after-action review.
I’ll often do these with clients who have been in this very situation. Here are some of the insights I’ve seen them generate over the years:
  • I said yes to everything without checking my calendar first. Next time, before I say yes, I’ll consider how much time it will take, and book it into my calendar so I’m planning around it.
  • I didn’t ask enough questions before saying yes. I assumed certain things were already in place, and when I discovered they weren’t, it was too late. Next time I’ll ask questions instead of making assumptions.
  • I took things on that weren’t really in my zone of genius. In hindsight, I have colleagues who could have done these things twice as fast.  Next time I’ll send these projects their way—or at least ask for their help!
And there you have it. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, simply ask for help, break your to-do’s into tiny steps, and inform those who may feel the impact. Then once you catch your breath, determine what you learned and how you’ll avoid overwhelm next time.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.