I've been through some really busy periods when I'm juggling lots of work commitments or when I'm studying for exams around work and sometimes you just get a little bit behind where you want to be and it can feel like an uphill struggle to get back on track and things can seem overwhelming. I've personally applied these principles to help me get back on track if I've fallen behind and you should be able to apply them to pretty much anything. So let's get into things starting out with the first thing that I do if I find myself behind.
Be Kind To Yourself
A few years into medical school I was running a business and also revising for clinical exams. Trying to juggle this and sports and social commitments meant that I fell behind some of my friends when preparing for exams. They were all like tow or three modules further through their revision and had spent way longer in the library. Now at the time I found this pretty stressful and if you've fallen behind you might be feeling pretty anxious too and so my first top tip is a fairly simple one you can apply right now which is to acknowledge that you're behind but don't beat yourself up about it. By comparing yourself to your peers or overthinking things you're actually putting more pressure on yourself and building things up into this bigger issue than it needs to be. Having the insight that you need to get back on track is important but making yourself feel worse is counter-intuitive. Now if I find that I'm a bit behind in my work I simply acknowledge this and try not to add any emotion to the fact that I'm behind. Instead I attack the problem head on by using some of the next few tips I'm going to discuss.
Make a Prioritised To-Do List
The first practical thing that I'll do is to jump into Evernote or my diary or my revision timetable or whatever I'm using as a task manager or to-do list. I'll basically write out the key tasks that need doing that I'm behind on and add them into a prioritised to-do list. Just offloading tasks you're worrying about into a to-do list is simple but it helps to get the work that needs doing out of your head and into a list that can be broken down by subheadings and basically ordered and prioritized into bite-size chunks.
Rather than just listing out every task that needs doing order and prioritize your to-do list with the most vital and impactful things at the top and the least important things at the end. When i started to prioritise my to-do list in my diary rather than just try to get through a randomly ordered list of tasks it was an absolute game changer so spending some time ordering that list is a vital step.
Specifically for studying if I'm behind in my exam preparation or if I'm getting new material on a weekly basis when I'm already slightly behind I'll try and group things together in my task manager and group similar topics together by order of importance. For example if I'm behind on going over lectures or maybe I've missed some lectures for whatever reason I'll try and group these together in my task manager and then prioritise lectures or topics by how well I already know something and how likely it is to come up at an exam.
If I'm behind more generally in work that needs to be done by a specific deadline and it's just kind of hanging over me I'll do two things here in terms of task management. Firstly I prioritise things based on importance and deadlines and secondly I'll try and prioritise the easier and quicker tasks first so that I can tick these off, get them done and get me into that flow state of getting things done.
Cut Down Your To-Do List and Focus
Now if you're really behind you might have lots and lots of tasks to do and so my next tip is to be pretty brutal and to challenge yourself to cut down your to-do list into only the most essential elements which are going to have the most impact at getting you back on track.
I would often think that I needed to spend an equal amount of time learning about all parts of the medical syllabus when preparing for medical exams when in reality there were some areas that I already knew pretty well which I could spend less time on and other areas that were high yield and which I perhaps didn't know as well. If you are studying another helpful tip here is to remember that not every lecture, workshop or clinical experience is absolutely essential. I remember having some fairly random lectures on topics that in hindsight were never going to be tested on the exam but at the time I still felt like I needed to cover them.
Similarly in a work environment if you have a long to-do list of things you need to complete in addition to prioritising them by importance it's important that you ask yourself are these tasks things that I absolutely need to do that only I can do. If someone has asked you to do work or maybe you've even set yourself a task or a goal really question how important it is and how long you need to spend on it. If it's actually not that vital then cut it out of your to-do list and be as brutal as possible to help you save time and focus on a hyper prioritised set of tasks in your task manager.
My next tip is really to re-evaluate the work and effort that needs doing. A lot of the time if I got behind in something it was actually because I had made more work for myself or was assuming that I needed to do more than I actually had to. A good example of this is the person who simply lists out every single part of their syllabus from A to Z and assumes they need to read through every lecture slide and basically just spend time studying rather than actually focusing on understanding and learning key topics that come up regularly in exams.
In practical terms this is where using evidence-based study techniques like active recall are really helpful or using proven time-saving techniques to write out essays or complete tasks. For example rather than reading through all of your lecture notes which is super time consuming I would have my notes and a textbook as reference materials for reading around a topic to aid my understanding but the majority of my time would be spent actually doing practice questions. More specifically I would use online question banks and past papers with pre-existing questions created. This was really useful when I was studying for postgraduate surgical exams around my day job and oncalls as a surgeon and if I found myself spending too long reading around a topic I would challenge myself to get back into doing questions and testing my knowledge to keep me efficient and ensure that I covered the high yield topics and those which I found the most challenging.
Optimise Your Calendar and Daily Planner
Now that you have prioritised it's time to actually organise your time to get these tasks done. I usually have a single task that I focus on each day and if I'm behind in some work I'll plan out a few catch up days where I'm focusing on the tasks I've prioritised as the most important to help get me back on track. I'll usually use time blocking to block out some time in my diary and set myself a deadline to get all the work done to get me back on track.
Part of time management when getting back on track is also prioritising catch-up work over less essential things in your diary. This might mean being a bit more stoic and sacrificing some social arrangements or working a bit later or over a weekend. For me I sometimes will cancel some meetings and switch up my gym rest day so that I can focus on catching up as a priority. This helps to alleviate any anxiety associated with being behind as you are attacking the problem head on and if you are efficient with how you are working you might even be able to get ahead of work.
Don't Be A Perfectionist
This bonus final tip is for those of you like me who have a bit of a perfectionist tendency and feel like you need to cover everything in detail if you're studying or you need to get that work looking absolutely perfect before you submit it or finish it. If you are behind perfectionism is a form of procrastination and you need to really focus on getting those tasks completed. It is more than likely that work or studying that you think isn't quite up to your high perfectionist standard is actually more than acceptable and is really good. This is certainly true for studying where you really want to be getting through key concepts rather than overlearning every-single topic in detail. The same goes for work often something that is good enough and is submitted quickly is better than something that is over-engineered and has taken much longer to put together. For me this was more of a mindset change than anything and when I realised that if I just focused on getting the task done and really backing my process and ability to do things well it meant I could get things completed much more quickly rather than spending ages trying to get things perfect.