When Work Takes Over – How To Prioritise Your Workload


I’m working like a mad thing.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great. It’ll help pay the bills, but it’s come at a time when I really needed to slow down a bit and give the new puppies lots of attention (they’re fine by the way, full of fun and up to mischief and certainly not being ignored).

Minnie and Daisy asleep

I’ve decided that it’s Sod’s Law. Just when you need to say no to work it comes in droves. And normally I would say no, but the jobs that have come my way over the last month have been too interesting to pass up.

So here I am, furiously tapping away at my laptop the night before this post is due to go live.

computer keyboard

To give you an idea of how manic it is, this is currently my workload:

My OU Design Thinking course,

a very large family history book,

a memoir (just finished this morning),

an academic paper,

a FutureLearn GDPR course (OK, not exactly work, but it’s important for my business and my role as secretary for our local theatre … it’s CPD which is vital but very, very boring),

a guidebook editorial redesign that’s in the very early stages,

some pro bono work for last year’s creative writing course (we’re creating an anthology),

and my own biographical research (that has, understandably, had to take a back seat).

Add to this house training two 15-week-old puppies and all the usual everyday stuff like shopping, cooking and driving, and you can see why I’m knackered. Thank God I’m not doing panto this year. I am helping out front of house for a couple of nights though so, although I get none of the stress and the full-on six weeks of alternating fun and hell, I do get some of the fun.

cluttered freelance editor desk

The one thing I am managing to do through all this chaos is to keep myself grounded and keep my work consistent and high quality. It’s not easy, but prioritising my workload is more important than ever. As a freelancer I know that overwhelming yourself is counter-productive.

Here’s how I prioritise my workload, and it could work for you too:

  • I remember to take regular breaks – when you have a shed-load of work to get through, not taking breaks can be a bit stupid. Really. I pop on a pot of coffee first thing (after running around the garden and the local streets with two enthusiastic early-morning-loving puppies), then for the rest of the day I drink huge amounts of strong tea, taking breaks at semi-regular intervals when work reaches a natural pause. I take the pups out for a walk at lunchtime and take a proper hour for lunch. I also take an extra break if I feel that my concentration is waning.
  • I tackle the real brain-work during the morning. With coffee in-hand I know my brain works better before lunch so this is the time I set aside for all the editing that requires complete concentration.
  • I work on the more mechanical side of editing on an afternoon, or do the quicker tasks that can be completed in less time. This isn’t to say my brain isn’t working, it just works better on certain types of things during the afternoon. For example I’ll work on the full-on family history, which includes tracking historical figures, timescales and name changes, in the morning, but I’ll work on the memoir or the guidebook in the afternoon. If I did it the other way around I know I’d get bogged down and restless by 3pm. But if I’m doing research I actually work better after dinner (or tea if you’re like me and Northern). For some reason my research brain is fired up on an evening, and I have been known to work well into the night following leads down multiple rabbit holes.
  • When work is taking over more than I’d like I schedule my coursework, and non-paying work, for the weekend. This way I know that I have a full two days to settle down and get stuff done. Sometimes it’s not possible, and I have to do this on an evening, but the weekends are generally kept free of paid work.
  • I also remind myself that this too will pass. Being freelance it’s often feast or famine, so I knuckle down and get the work done, organised in the most productive way I can.
  • I do not beat myself up for taking time out. I’ve been freelancing since 2001, so I’m pretty good at reading the signs of when I need to step away from the computer. I know that if I need to take a day off it’s better to take that day and return to work fully refreshed, rather than persevere and put in sub-standard work. Stress, either from trying to work too hard or from beating yourself up, is no good for productivity. This is another reason why my working day tends to be no more than 4–5 hours a day of billable work. The human brain just can’t concentrate that long.
  • Finally I simplify whatever I can. When I have a lot of work to do I try to focus on one job at a time, and use lists to make sure I’m getting through the tasks needed in an ordered fashion. There’s no panic, just a methodical list-ticking kind of working day.

    (c) S Donaldson / NorthernEditorial.co.uk 2017 Brain3a

So, what I’m really saying is that work is slightly manic at the moment, so I cope by:

  1. Taking regular breaks
  2. Prioritising my work in a way that works for me (full-on concentration on a morning and less strenuous brainwork on an afternoon)
  3. Scheduling my voluntary work and coursework on a weekend or evening
  4. Reminding myself that this is temporary
  5. Allowing myself time off to recharge my batteries when needed
  6. Simplifying things as much as I can

I’ve leave you with a rather fabulous little TED talk I found which helped me realise that I’m doing things right. It’s 20 minutes long, but I’d recommend grabbing a coffee and watching. Marvin Chun explains why we can lack focus and gives us three tips on how to be more productive – simplify, relax and unitask.

 What Makes Some Brains More Focused Than Others? | Marvin Chun | TEDxKFAS






8 Comments on “When Work Takes Over – How To Prioritise Your Workload

  1. It’s great to hear you’re up to your ears in work, Sarah. 🙂 I’m in awe that in the midst of all this you still find time to blog — but am very grateful that you shared your “best practices” for keeping up. I will do my best to apply them (along with the three lessons in the video) and hopefully will soon be following in you focused and productive footsteps. Cheers!

    • Good luck!
      I’m looking forward to a concentrated few weeks of work then a well earned rest over the festive season.
      Now all I have to do is find time to sort out the Christmas presents!

  2. I’m glad you know how to prioritise workload! It’s amazing how you’re able to keep up with posting on your blog at the same time! Have you ever fallen into the brink of tears from work overload? If so, how did you get over it and get on with your work? Was it a quick get-back-up?

    Good luck with your projects!! I hope all goes well 🙂

    • I won’t lie … it isn’t easy.
      I’ve been on the brink of tears a couple of times over the years. When that happens I close down work and get out of the house. You won’t be productive in that state anyway, so I’ve found it best to take a break. Then, when you are calm make a list of what work you have, when the deadline is and how long the job is expected to take. When you do this you can stop the panic and look at it calmly and with detachment … then break down the jobs into manageable chunks, prioritise and set yourself a timetable.
      Even just going for a walk, a coffee or taking an hour out to catch up on your favourite tv programme will calm you down and help you to get back into the right frame of mind.
      Most of all, if you are overload be kind to yourself …we’ve all been there.

  3. Great stuff, Sara. Made me think about writing about the opposite issue, which is what I’m dealing with now: Nothing in the house to work on when I could use the billable hours. I think that your approach has some serious overlap, when you are overwhelmed and when you are underwhelmed.

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday when all is done (or at least most of it), and blessings to family and especially corgies (but with a special hug for Moss). 🙂

    • Aaaah my underwhelmed is more frequent than the overwhelmed 😉
      Have a wonderful holiday yourself … I’ll raise a glass your way xxx

  4. Pingback: Strategies for Work Underwhelm

  5. Pingback: Strategies for Workload Underwhelm

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