BLOG

Navigating the Storm: How to Triage Your “Crazy” Workload Effectively

June 24, 2024
curved line

In today's accelerated work environment, it seems everyone is caught in a constant whirlwind of tasks. Talk to any project manager, Product Owner, or busy professional and you’ll hear a common refrain — they are swamped. As responsibilities are merged, rarely with a clear direction on where to cut, being overwhelmed is a natural result. But at what cost? The expectation to take on more than is manageable results not just in long hours, but in inefficiency, frustration, burnout, and a pervasive sense of insecurity. Could the answer lie not in a new productivity fad, but in disciplined application of what we already know?

Let's start by looking at where we need teams to work well under stress. Emergency rooms across the globe are oases of control under stress. Borrowing from their wisdom offers a striking parallel to handling the onslaught of everyday workplace demands. Here, we explore the transformation from a 'crazy busy' existence to one characterized by calm preparedness, all through the disciplined application of prioritization practices we already know, and may already be using. And maybe a little magic sauce from the original gangster of continuous improvement, Lean.

Understanding the Power of Triage

[TED Talk - An ER doctor on triaging your crazy busy life]

How is it that some individuals, spotlighted in Darria Long's impactful TED talk, manage highly variable and stressful work while retaining composure and even pursue a variety of interests? The secret lies in their mindset and preparation for whatever lies ahead.  

Start With Your Mindset

We know that our mindset plays a significant role in how we work. Dr. Long defines her mindset as one of preparedness and anticipation. Ready for the shift ahead rather than too busy to consider new work. The simple shift from a 'crazy busy' mindset to a 'ready' mindset changes how we respond to new work coming in, from an interruption to an opportunity.

Triage and Prioritization

The second step is relentless triage. View your tasks as a spectrum running from critical to non-urgent. Just as Dr. Long outlines, prioritize with unequivocal, non-negotiable criteria. Is it life-threatening, dangerous, routine, or deferrable? When tasks are strictly categorized, the question of 'what next?' answers itself.

Rules and Frameworks

A deep understanding of your workload is essential for effective triage. It isn't an art in which intuition and experience vie with perceived urgency and political persuasion. Create a clear delineation grounded in predefined rules. Does your team know these rules? Are they shared and agreed upon? What targeted questions can you ask to clearly categorize work? Establishing this understanding turns stressful and unpredictable decision-making into seamless choreography, even amidst the red (critical) tasks.

Label the Black

And then there’s the black category — tasks that have reached their endpoint and no longer add value. While most of us aren't dealing with life and death situations like those in the emergency room, our attachment to past projects can parallel the difficulty medical professionals face in declaring a case beyond help. Learning to identify, and more importantly release, these zombie projects can liberate the team from demoralizing and ultimately wasted work.

Simplifying Workflow

Many teams pride themselves in their problem-solving skills. Every new task is an opportunity to innovate and revise how things are done. Yet so many tasks that come our way are repetitive or similar to other problems we have seen. Why re-invent the wheel? Simplify wherever we can. Recognizing patterns within the work chaos allows us to minimize the energy, cognitive load, and time we spend completing the work.  

Defining Standardized Work

This is where we steal the practice of standardized work from Lean. In Lean manufacturing a major guiding principle is to standardize work wherever possible. This reduces variability and increases quality of the output. It also reduces the cognitive load and stress of completing common tasks. Take time to understand your work and document or automate repetitive tasks. Figure out if you can automate some or all of the work, or set up standard procedures to quickly and consistently address the work.  

Resolving Incidents vs. Solving Problems

Or we can separate the work between immediate resolutions from long-term fixes. If you are familiar with ITSM (IT Service Management), think the separation between incident management and problem management. You might resolve an incident and remove its imminent threat, without addressing the underlying problem. Preventing its recurrence requires different approaches and measures, adding depth to the triage process. In many teams, we confuse the two, missing the opportunity to swiftly resolve a red (critical) incident today, turning it into a green (routine) problem we can address at a future, quieter time.

The Transition to a 'Ready' Mindset

The metamorphosis from feeling perpetually behind to a state of readiness requires an investment in understanding your work. Dedicating time to parse out work types, to establish triage rules, to standardize responses, and to clarify resolution procedures can fundamentally alter a team's dynamic.  

It definitely takes time to do and discipline to keep to. However, it also has some pedigree. We rely on emergency rooms when we are at our most stressed - someone we love is in pain and needs help. So often the calm 'ready' attitude we encounter walking into the emergency room immediately transfers to us.  

Imagine your team had the same impact on those depending on your work. It is possible. It just takes a little effort and discipline to be ready.

Creating a 'ready' mindset starts with a decision to change. Once the desire is there, follow the following steps:  

  • Analyze your work and define work types, clarifying questions, and triage rules for effective and quick prioritization.
  • Identify common tasks and define the minimum required actions to mitigate immediate issues and set a clear endpoint for the common tasks.
  • Practice and role-play. Make the work types, triage rules and standard work visible. Role-play and slow walk the team through the steps until they are responding with confidence.  

And reach out for a guiding hand - at IncrementOne we have helped may teams create a 'ready' mindset.  

Remember, in the throes of a 'crazy busy' lifestyle, the key to shifting to a 'ready' mindset isn't just hard work — it's about adaptive systems and forgiving discipline. By adopting the principles of triage and setting out clear, actionable plans, teams can evolve from a reactive stance to one of strategic readiness.  

And it's adaptive - it'll change as you learn more and your tasks evolve. Which is where the forgiving discipline comes in. Yes, being disciplined is important. And it's also hard. So be forgiving on yourself and your team. When you slip, that's ok. Pat yourself on the back and return to 'ready' mode. It's not about being hard on yourself to be disciplined. It's about consistently asking one critical question: Are we prepared for whatever walks through the door next?

Subscriber Exclusives
Elevate YOUR agile game week by week. Join the community and get early access to our blog, newsletter, and special pricing!

In today's accelerated work environment, it seems everyone is caught in a constant whirlwind of tasks. Talk to any project manager, Product Owner, or busy professional and you’ll hear a common refrain — they are swamped. As responsibilities are merged, rarely with a clear direction on where to cut, being overwhelmed is a natural result. But at what cost? The expectation to take on more than is manageable results not just in long hours, but in inefficiency, frustration, burnout, and a pervasive sense of insecurity. Could the answer lie not in a new productivity fad, but in disciplined application of what we already know?

Let's start by looking at where we need teams to work well under stress. Emergency rooms across the globe are oases of control under stress. Borrowing from their wisdom offers a striking parallel to handling the onslaught of everyday workplace demands. Here, we explore the transformation from a 'crazy busy' existence to one characterized by calm preparedness, all through the disciplined application of prioritization practices we already know, and may already be using. And maybe a little magic sauce from the original gangster of continuous improvement, Lean.

Understanding the Power of Triage

[TED Talk - An ER doctor on triaging your crazy busy life]

How is it that some individuals, spotlighted in Darria Long's impactful TED talk, manage highly variable and stressful work while retaining composure and even pursue a variety of interests? The secret lies in their mindset and preparation for whatever lies ahead.  

Start With Your Mindset

We know that our mindset plays a significant role in how we work. Dr. Long defines her mindset as one of preparedness and anticipation. Ready for the shift ahead rather than too busy to consider new work. The simple shift from a 'crazy busy' mindset to a 'ready' mindset changes how we respond to new work coming in, from an interruption to an opportunity.

Triage and Prioritization

The second step is relentless triage. View your tasks as a spectrum running from critical to non-urgent. Just as Dr. Long outlines, prioritize with unequivocal, non-negotiable criteria. Is it life-threatening, dangerous, routine, or deferrable? When tasks are strictly categorized, the question of 'what next?' answers itself.

Rules and Frameworks

A deep understanding of your workload is essential for effective triage. It isn't an art in which intuition and experience vie with perceived urgency and political persuasion. Create a clear delineation grounded in predefined rules. Does your team know these rules? Are they shared and agreed upon? What targeted questions can you ask to clearly categorize work? Establishing this understanding turns stressful and unpredictable decision-making into seamless choreography, even amidst the red (critical) tasks.

Label the Black

And then there’s the black category — tasks that have reached their endpoint and no longer add value. While most of us aren't dealing with life and death situations like those in the emergency room, our attachment to past projects can parallel the difficulty medical professionals face in declaring a case beyond help. Learning to identify, and more importantly release, these zombie projects can liberate the team from demoralizing and ultimately wasted work.

Simplifying Workflow

Many teams pride themselves in their problem-solving skills. Every new task is an opportunity to innovate and revise how things are done. Yet so many tasks that come our way are repetitive or similar to other problems we have seen. Why re-invent the wheel? Simplify wherever we can. Recognizing patterns within the work chaos allows us to minimize the energy, cognitive load, and time we spend completing the work.  

Defining Standardized Work

This is where we steal the practice of standardized work from Lean. In Lean manufacturing a major guiding principle is to standardize work wherever possible. This reduces variability and increases quality of the output. It also reduces the cognitive load and stress of completing common tasks. Take time to understand your work and document or automate repetitive tasks. Figure out if you can automate some or all of the work, or set up standard procedures to quickly and consistently address the work.  

Resolving Incidents vs. Solving Problems

Or we can separate the work between immediate resolutions from long-term fixes. If you are familiar with ITSM (IT Service Management), think the separation between incident management and problem management. You might resolve an incident and remove its imminent threat, without addressing the underlying problem. Preventing its recurrence requires different approaches and measures, adding depth to the triage process. In many teams, we confuse the two, missing the opportunity to swiftly resolve a red (critical) incident today, turning it into a green (routine) problem we can address at a future, quieter time.

The Transition to a 'Ready' Mindset

The metamorphosis from feeling perpetually behind to a state of readiness requires an investment in understanding your work. Dedicating time to parse out work types, to establish triage rules, to standardize responses, and to clarify resolution procedures can fundamentally alter a team's dynamic.  

It definitely takes time to do and discipline to keep to. However, it also has some pedigree. We rely on emergency rooms when we are at our most stressed - someone we love is in pain and needs help. So often the calm 'ready' attitude we encounter walking into the emergency room immediately transfers to us.  

Imagine your team had the same impact on those depending on your work. It is possible. It just takes a little effort and discipline to be ready.

Creating a 'ready' mindset starts with a decision to change. Once the desire is there, follow the following steps:  

  • Analyze your work and define work types, clarifying questions, and triage rules for effective and quick prioritization.
  • Identify common tasks and define the minimum required actions to mitigate immediate issues and set a clear endpoint for the common tasks.
  • Practice and role-play. Make the work types, triage rules and standard work visible. Role-play and slow walk the team through the steps until they are responding with confidence.  

And reach out for a guiding hand - at IncrementOne we have helped may teams create a 'ready' mindset.  

Remember, in the throes of a 'crazy busy' lifestyle, the key to shifting to a 'ready' mindset isn't just hard work — it's about adaptive systems and forgiving discipline. By adopting the principles of triage and setting out clear, actionable plans, teams can evolve from a reactive stance to one of strategic readiness.  

And it's adaptive - it'll change as you learn more and your tasks evolve. Which is where the forgiving discipline comes in. Yes, being disciplined is important. And it's also hard. So be forgiving on yourself and your team. When you slip, that's ok. Pat yourself on the back and return to 'ready' mode. It's not about being hard on yourself to be disciplined. It's about consistently asking one critical question: Are we prepared for whatever walks through the door next?

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?