Time Management: Clearing the Backlog

This is an excerpt from the second edition of Cool-Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time, To order, please visit www.bristall.com/cooltime.htm.

Clearing the Backlog: Blitz, Erode and Plan

A backlog, by its very definition represents a doubling of workload, in that today’s tasks must be taken care of in addition to those tasks that still remain uncompleted from previous days.

It feels most desirable for anyone taking on new time management skills to clear the backlog and start from a clean slate. Perhaps this is the right way for you, but perhaps not.

Very often people take the blitz approach by committing to a wholesale clean-up. Perhaps they come in to the office on a Saturday to work a few hours and get all the outstanding stuff out of the way – basically an extended version of focus time, held outside of work hours. Other examples of this activity can include a tidying blitz of a house, room or yard. Basically do it all, and do it all now.

The key benefit of a blitz is that the backlog is quickly cleared. The drawback, though, is that a habit has not yet been established, which means that a new backlog might start almost immediately.

An alternative to the blitz technique is the erosion technique, in which a backlog is eliminated one piece at a time in parallel with current tasks. This of course depends on the urgency of the tasks in the backlog, but it helps develop a habit that will eliminate the development of further back logs. Some examples:

  • A backlog of already-read emails that need to be filed: each email that is read and processed from this point on is filed away, and at the same time, one email from the pile is also filed.
  • A messy office or room: each item that is used is put away immediately when finished with, and at the same time, one item from the pile is also put away.
  • A backlog of tasks: with each new task that is performed, a task from the pile is also performed.

Any way you look at it, clearing a backlog takes time, whether it is done as a blitz or an erosion. The two primary objectives are to eliminate the backlog and to prevent it growing again. If it threatens to do so, despite your best efforts, then it means there is simply too much work to be handled, and that is when delegation or negotiation of workload must take over.

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