Getting Back on an Even Keel: Eight Tips for Productively Playing Catch-Up

“Work, work, work, day after day/Fifty-hour week, forty-hour pay./No time to get over all this overtime./ Yeah, I’m always runnin’, and always runnin’ behind.” – Tracy Lawrence, American singer.

You’ve probably faced it after a vacation, a business trip, or sick leave: that pile of work sitting in your inboxes, waiting for your return. Ideally, your team should have taken care of it, but there’s always something waiting, even if it’s “just” a barrage of distracting questions.

While you’re always likely to face some turmoil after a work absence, there are ways to temper the inevitable game of catch-up. You may have tried some of these in the past, but probably not all of them; and if you’re new enough not to never have experienced a game of “catch-up”, do yourself a favor and try some of these tips next time you’re out of the office for more than a day. Some you’ll have to put into play before you even set foot out the door.

Let’s look at a few tips that will limit those catch-up blues.

  1. Get as far ahead as possible before you leave. Even if you have to put in a few hours of overtime before your absence, it’s better than putting in 12-hour days afterward until you catch up. An extra hour a day for a week can help you clear your desk and make some advance progress.

  2. Before you leave, delegate. Push every task you legitimately can off to someone else, whether an assistant or someone who should have been doing it in the first place.

  3. Have a trusted colleague take over core tasks while you’re gone. Offer to do the same for them when they’re away. Make sure your supervisor knows, and all your documentation is up-to-date and easy to read and understand.

  4. Set digital guardians before you leave. Use an email autoresponder to inform people you’re out, and to direct them to someone who can help if they can’t wait. Similarly, leave a voicemail reply letting callers know the dates when you’re out of office, and who can help them otherwise. Block out your away time on the corporate calendar software so no one can schedule you for anything, and they can all see how long you expect to be gone.

  5. After you return, set “office hours” if you can. Let everyone know you’re back, but in catch-up mode. Give them a few hours daily when they can ask questions, but spend the rest of the time under a “Do No Disturb” sign, so you can do both new work and anything you missed while you were away. That way, you’re not constantly distracted when you need to do your best work. Alternately, you can block off a day or two just for catching up.

  6. Purge your email. If your email box contains hundreds of messages when you get back, despite your best efforts, take a quick glance, isolate the ones that look especially important, and delete the rest. If you missed something significant, they’ll contact you again.

  7. Prioritize. Kick your low-priority and non-urgent tasks off your to-do lists for a while. You’ll still have some necessary daily tasks, but otherwise push less important items to the end of your to-do list and let them fall off if you must. Put off non-critical meetings. Refuse to accept new non-priority work just because you’re back.

  8. Delegate some more. If you still have too much catch-up work, you may be able to delegate it to others who are either not as busy, or for whom the work is a better fit. Draft an intern or administrative assistant if you can. If it’s something you can outsource, see if you can get the company to pay for it.

Back in the Saddle Again

You can do everything right before you leave, only to find those you trusted to handle your affairs didn’t. A colleague once paid someone to check on his cats while he was on a cruise, but they never showed. Luckily, cats are self-sufficient, so all was well. On the work side, discovering no one took care of your core work while you were gone can induce a sense of panic, but fortunately, undone tasks tend to be even more self-reliant than cats—and if they were do-or-die, someone would have done them. It may infuriate you that others thwarted your plans through their inattention, but following the other tips outlined here can offset their lack of responsibility. You’ll still have to hit the ground running, but you won’t have to run so hard to catch up that your legs fall off.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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  1. Great tips Laura,
    I travel once in a while to Germany and do as much as prep work before I leave.
    The “not to do list” (Warren Buffet) helps me also a great deal to not stress myself out or linger with a long to do list.
    My business is small and after 20 years in business I just close down for the time I am away. My answering system directs clients to book per email while I am away and that I call back once open again and give them a day later. So I have a day to settle back in an breath.

    Happy relaxed holidays Laura