Dealing with short term urgent tasks

There are times when you feel overwhelmed with tasks; everything is urgent.  So what do you do? How do you choose what task to work on? You could choose the task with the nearest deadline, the one you like the best or the one you are being nagged to complete the most.

I’ve just finished a busy time at work and I’ve frequently felt overwhelmed with my urgent tasks as we approached the end of the financial year. Most days my AutoFocus system works wonderfully, but at times times my mind is so preoccupied with urgent tasks the thought of using that list just adds to my bewilderment.

Identifying the key tasks

When I start feeling overwhelmed (it could be first thing in the morning or at any time during the day) I put aside my task list and get another piece of paper. I spend sometime capturing the worries in my head and writing them as tasks. This means giving them an action word such as read, write, talk, so when I reach the action I know exactly what I need to do with no need for further analysis. It also helps to identify all the tasks that are concerning me. For instance, instead of adding blog to my list I would have:

  • write post
  • review comments
  • move database tables to new host

You could make this a closed list, so after the initial brainstorm you don’t add any further tasks. However, at times like this I often find I don’t always capture all the tasks in one go, so I tend to leave the list open. But you shouldn’t add all your tasks to it; this is a method to reduce pressure in your head so it is important to keep the list to the absolutely key items. If you think of items that can wait until tomorrow or aren’t causing you worry add them to your usual list.

Working on the tasks

It doesn’t matter where you start on the list. I usually start at the top because its ‘normal’ and because I’ve usually put the tasks I’m most concerned about at the top. But there is no reason not to start in the middle or the bottom.

Pick the first task and work on it until you come to a natural break point, you start worrying about other things, you get bored or interrupted. It doesn’t matter how long you work on the task as long as you make progress. This maybe as small as finding a telephone number or bigger like writing the first draft of a document. However,  the key thing is not to keep working on it until its finished. When you’re energy and progress start falling you want to stop as you are getting less return for your time.

Of course, if you finish it that’s great. That’s one thing done and you can cross it off the list. Otherwise put a mark next the task and move to the next one.

I usually work through the list top to bottom, but just as you can start in the middle you can pick any task that doesn’t have a mark next to  it.

You work through the list making progress on each item without spending a lot of time on each one. At the end of the first rotation you list could look like this with a few tasks crossed off.

  • confirm deliverables           l
  • review case studies      l
  • call advsior     l
  • write report     l
  • prepare presentation     l
  • review budget     l

The second rotation works in the same way. You pick up each task from where you left it previously and again only work on it until your progress and energy start reducing.

After the 2nd rotation your list could look like this, with a few more completed tasks.

  • confirm deliverables           ll
  • review case studies      ll
  • call advsior     l
  • write report     ll
  • prepare presentation     ll
  • review budget     ll

You continue in this way until all the tasks are finished, or you reach the end of the day.

Why this works

The first reason this is successful is it enables you to focus on the tasks that are worrying you. It also enables you to work pro-actively on tasks, enabling you to progress all the urgent tasks instead of working on one to completion and having to start another one from scratch and having to complete it urgently meaning the stress continues until all the tasks are completed in turn.

This also works by taking into account diminishing returns. Moving to another task,  prevents stalling on a progress and ensures you make the most of the time available.

Example of my list

As I mentioned, I’ve been very busy over the last few weeks and have used this method most days and here is an example of my list from Monday 29th March.

Example of an urgent task list

I would recommend only using this technique when you have a large number of urgent tasks because it is a very focussed approach. If you like the technique and would like to use it every day I would recommend reading Get everything done and still have time to play which includes an explanation of using a similar method that is flexible enough to cover all incoming work.


  1. Gary says

    A well written article, thanks Kate.

    I’ve not got the persistence to stick to writing lists. I’ve now got a whiteboard next to my desk, so I’m hoping the physical act of actually writing the list (who doesn’t like writing on whiteboards?!) will motivate me to keep the list done, and checked off etc.

    • says

      Thanks Gary.

      If you haven’t already noticed, I love lists. I agree everyone likes whiteboards, but I never know how to use them for productivity. I’ve tried and not succeeded, so I recently got rid of my whiteboard. You will have to share how you use it and how if it works.

  2. Gary says

    At the moment, I’ve got a list of projects at various stages (long-term stuff) with a few notes about each (like hourly rate I’m charging for that job etc).

    On the left, and for 60% of the board, I’ve got a list of daily chores. I’ve got some magnetic things that stick to the board, and use a green one next to the task I’ll do first, then an orange thing for the next one, and a red thing for the 3rd item. That way, I know what’s coming up, even if I get bored or complete the current task.
    Once a job is done, I simply give it a tick. I can see how well I’ve done throughout the day by the number of ticks.
    I’ve even been known to add a task that I’ve completed to the bottom of the list and immediately tick it, just to keep my motivation up.
    Each day, I rub out the ticked items, and add on any new ones for the next day. If I complete a whole list for a day, and there’s nothing else urgent, then I give myself to do whatever I want, as a bonus.

  3. says

    Hehe, my biggest problem is overcoming the inertia to start something big. I’ve got 3 novel-length ideas that want filling out and several short-stories that want editing, but I just haven’t made a plan for the work yet.

    • says

      I understand the problem with big tasks. I tend to use the little and often approach, but I’m starting to realise that I use it as an excuse to progress slowly.


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