In our lives, we face small problems and big problems. Small problems can be easily dealt with: if you’ve got some sort of productivity system already in place, a minor issue is nothing more than a bump in the road. But what about the big problems? What about the stuff that throws off weeks, rather than days? Or the stuff that takes you away from your system for a month? We’re talking about the major illness, out of the office for a month level of stuff happening.

Coming back from just a few days outside of your normal routine is tough. But once you’re measuring the time you’ve been out of things in weeks, it can seem absolutely impossible to get back into gear. I think it may even be worse if you used to have a system like GTD in place. I know that I’ve looked at a month’s worth of mail and paperwork before and wondered how the heck I was going to get all of that processed into tasks I could actually get my head around, especially since now that I was back on the job the boss expected me to get some ‘real’ work done. There are a number of approaches you can take, though:

  1. Ignore the Entire Pile — For a long time, I was an advocate of ignoring everything that had built up during a long absence. I would file everything in the trash bin, send out word that I’d ‘lost’ everything and ask people to resend items. I could usually get back into the swing of things as things came in at a more regular pace, rather than appearing in a pile on my desk. Just like with email bankruptcy, you might wonder if you’ll miss anything important, but other people are surprisingly diligent about whatever they find important. There are some problems with this system, of course: you might irritate a whole list of people (some of whom may not have previously realized you were gone). And you can run into major problems with anything in that stack that was time sensitive.
  2. Just Get Started — Everyone hates the platitudes along the lines of ‘if you just get started, it will be over before you know it.’ Straightening out your paper mail from a month out of commission certainly feels like it can take forever, let alone thinking about your email and other online accounts and those face-to-face meetings scheduled immediately after your return. Diving in to the pile is awful, but it really can be the fastest way get through the pile. It’s worth picking out a plan of attack, first, though: are you just going to start at the top and work your way downward? Or are you going to go with a ‘first in, first out’ approach? No matter which you choose, set your course and follow through.
  3. Process in Parts — There is a compromise available, of course. Rather than just diving in, you can sort and throw as much away as possible. Then, you handle what actually needs your attention. This solution is probably the most practical of those available. But even with this approach, catching up can take a while and can get frustrating.

There are a few ways to make playing catch up a little easier, at least on your mental health. They can work with any approach you take — and if you think of any more tips, please add them in the comments.

  • Get back in your routine as soon as possible — even if you barely remember it. If your routine calls for only 30 minutes of processing email, that’s okay. You can get through your email in 30 minute chunks, and you can always schedule an appointment with your email.
  • Touch base on projects before you get into catching up. There may be something that actually needs to be done before you become immersed in your email — and it may not even be mentioned in your email inbox if no one knows you’re back.
  • Let people know that you’re catching up. Ask them to let you know if there’s something actually urgent in your pile of paperwork.
  • Start with what you think is important. I know I just suggested asking people to let you know what they think is important — but you may not agree with their estimation of the situation.
  • Start with something pleasant, and end with something pleasant as well. It’s pretty likely that somebody got irritated about something in your office. Your mother might need her VCR reprogrammed or a client may be unhappy at your absence. Don’t make that unpleasant stuff the first or last thing you handle in a day — or you might not be up to Day 2.
  • Avoid scheduling anything for your first day back. You may not have control over your own calendar, if anyone’s been waiting to see you, but put people off long enough for you to reorient yourself. Depending on the nature of your return, you may be able to get away with telling people that you’ll be back the day after you’ll really return.
  • Decide what it really means for you to catch up. You probably can get away with not reading every newsletter that made it into you inbox — and there may be a few tasks you can ignore equally easily.

Remember, it took time to get behind. It’s definitely going to take time to catch back up.

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