What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do

The problem with being overwhelmed is that you don't exactly have time to figure out how to get un-overwhelmed.  In times when you feel like you are under siege from all the tasks and requests you need to address, a technique from battlefield medicine might come in handy.    Triage is a process for quickly prioritizing when there is not much time to gather information.  It ensures that limited resources are used where they can make the most impact.  As a manager, you need to ensure that your limited resources of time and decision-making are used where they matter most.  This process can be done in 10 minutes, and while it's not thorough or perfect, it can be an important first step in getting out of overwhelmed mode so that you can evaluate things in a more thoughtful way.

Triage for managers

In battlefield or emergency room triage,  patients are sorted into three categories: 

  • those who are likely to live, regardless of treatment
  • those who are likely to die, regardless of treatment
  • those whose outcome depends on treatment received in the near future

You can use a similar approach to triage your tasks and projects, using today as your frame of reference:

  • Which tasks or projects will be okay, even if you don't take any action on them today?
  • Which tasks or projects will not be solved or finished, regardless of what actions you take today?
  • Which tasks or projects can be moved forward by taking action on them today?

You can do this by making three lists, by writing each item on an index cards and putting the cards into piles, tagging your projects in your task management system, or even by sorting your e-mails into folders (but only if e-mails are an important reference of your tasks - don't get trapped in your inbox!).  What matters is that whatever approach you use covers all the key tasks and projects on your plate, and that it is easy to quickly use to sort everything.  Speed is the goal here.

Prioritize each of today's actions by who needs it: employees, then boss, then you.

For the third category, the most likely prospects will be things for which your employees need a response, decision, or action from you.  If you don't have a comprehensive way of identifying those items, you can just mentally run down your list of employees and think whether there is anything each person is waiting on you to address.  The biggest ROI for your time will be moving your employees forward, because often the "action" required is just a decision or answer from you, and then the employee will carry out the work.  For your own projects, there is usually a lot more involved.  So, start with your employees first, then consider any tasks or projects your boss is waiting on, then focus on your own work.  

It may seem counterintuitive to put other people's projects and tasks first when you're so behind, but this is what will buy you time.  The last thing you need right now is to have your employees e-mail you yet again regarding the project they asked you about last week, or to have your boss pop into your office while you're trying to crank through something.  Think of it as evacuating the most critical patients from the battlefield.  Once they're off getting helped by someone else, there is more time to deal with less serious injuries. 

Deal with the "terminal" cases that can't be helped today.

With the items that end up in the second category, you can take several approaches.  You can either send a quick note to the relevant stakeholder(s) letting them know that the project is on hold, you can delegate it to someone else, or you can just decide not to think about it for today.  That may feel irresponsible, but if you're not able to do anything about it anyway, spending any time or energy worrying about it is just a waste.  Again, triage is not a long-term approach: it's just to get you through the chaos of the current moment.   Once you clear things out a bit, you'll have greater capacity to deal with everything in a more measured way.  

Use reverse triage to safely put things on hold.

Another ER technique you may want to consider is "reverse triage."  When there is a major event, such as an earthquake or epidemic, and hospitals suddenly need space for the influx of patients, they use reverse triage to determine which patients can be discharged first to make room for the incoming people.  You can use this when an urgent, large project is suddenly dropped on your team or a crisis arises.  We tend to do this intuitively, but it might be worth getting your team in front of a whiteboard for 15 minutes to actually write down the things that are not going to be addressed during the crisis period.  

This accomplishes two helpful objectives: it explicitly gives team members permission to not think about those items, thus saving their limited time and energy for more critical things, and it provides a checklist of things to go back to once the crisis is over.  Often, the team is so relieved to be out of crisis mode and somewhat mentally exhausted, so it can be hard to remember what needs to be done to get back to normalcy.

Deal with the root problem once you're in control.

The triage approach is not meant to be an ongoing approach.  Once the dust settles, make sure to set aside time to figure out what led to the chaos and whether there are any actions you can take now to prevent similar situations from arising in the future.  If nothing else, figure out what approach to tracking tasks and projects will help you identify looming crises so that you can respond even more quickly in the future.  Hopefully, you won't often find yourself in the position of having to do triage, but it's good to be ready just in case.

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