An overworked employee covered in postit notes.
Michael Meier

Given the pace of life today, it’s increasingly common to feel overwhelmed by a blizzard of professional obligations. To-do lists grow despairingly long; calendars fill with meetings and calls. Even those with laser focus can struggle to keep up.

But some of us are more susceptible than others to getting swept up in this frenzied accumulation of tasks, struggling to set priorities or say no. By trying to do everything at once, some of us end up falling behind.

Carter Cast, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School, spent several years examining career derailment. In his new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made—and Unmade, he explores five common issues that impede career progress. Of the five, this is the issue people self-identify with most frequently.

“Careers can derail when people don’t deliver on promises,” Cast says. “This can be a real problem because fellow workers start to distance themselves when they think you can’t be counted on.”

Recognize this trait in yourself? Cast offers five recommendations on how to get organized and get ahead.

Be Clear on What’s Expected of You

Many employees, at least on paper, have more responsibilities than any single person can realistically tackle. A sales executive may have a vast client portfolio. An HR executive may be charged with the growth and development of hundreds of employees. A compliance director might technically have oversight over dozens of complex vendor relationships.

For an extreme example, consider the high turnover rate among Chief Marketing Officers. In 2016, the average CMO tenure at top ad-spending firms was just 42 months. Given that CMOs are responsible for a broad range of specialties—from advertising to brand management to customer experience—they are always in danger of stretching themselves too thin.

“CMOs can find themselves in real trouble by trying to take on too much,” says Cast, who is a former CMO at eBay and online diamond seller Blue Nile. “They can end up not delivering on the most important aspects of their job and end up derailing.”

Cast recommends approaching each role with an eye toward delivering results. This means coming to a clear understanding of what the company actually expects from you, and when. And while this is good advice for just about anyone, those of us who overburden ourselves need to stay particularly focused on the prize.

“Being clear with your boss on what success looks like is really important for setting expectations and ensuring you’re aligned,” Cast says. “What are your goals and objectives for the year? What are the key initiatives that map to those objectives? What are the timelines for those initiatives, and what sort of resources will you need?”

If you don’t address these larger questions early on, you may end up trying to focus on the wrong—or too many—objectives.

“You can win the battle in getting a great big span of control,” Cast says, “but then lose the war because you have so much to do that you can’t possibly deliver on it.”

Understand Your Organization’s Workflow Process

If you are struggling to finish what you start, consider whether you are thinking deliberately about what each step in a task entails. Those who over-reach tend to be creative people with lots of ideas but an unstructured way of approaching them.

“Their eyes are typically bigger than their stomachs,” Cast says, “which is why they tend to overpromise and underdeliver.”

To counteract that tendency, Cast recommends understanding the workflow in an organization. Most companies have established ways to move projects from inception to completion—project roadmaps.

“Decide which tasks will really move the needle for your organization, and focus on those first. You can’t treat every message in your inbox equally.”

“You may need to tap someone who knows this—perhaps a product or project manager—to take you through the steps so you understand what it takes to complete an initiative well and on time,” Cast says. “If you can draw a Gantt chart or some other tool that shows the amount of work to be completed in a certain period of time in relation to the amount planned for that same period, you’re in good shape. If not, you need to ask more questions and gain a better understanding.”

“If you say you’ll launch a new food product by June, but you don’t expect FDA approval until late April, and you need that approval before ordering the packaging film, which takes three months to deliver, then you’re setting yourself up to fail,” Cast says. “You need to know every step in the product-launch process!”

Be Intentional about Prioritizing Your Work  

By a certain point in our careers, most of us are used to keeping lists that outline what we have on our plate for the day. But there is a difference between jotting down a few scattershot items and taking a more systematic approach to prioritizing that list.

“Decide which tasks will really move the needle for your organization, and focus on those first,” Cast says. “You can’t treat every message in your inbox equally.”

One key part of prioritizing is knowing when you work best. Cast suggests breaking your day into segments and tackling challenging work during times when you are sharpest and most productive. If your brain is most active between six and ten in the morning, for instance, that may not be the best time to respond to noncritical emails. Save those missives for a built-in time slot dedicated to administrative tasks.

Just as important is isolating yourself from distractions during your most productive segment of the day. This could mean turning off email alerts or keeping the phone at a safe distance.

“If you look at your phone after every ping, you put yourself in response mode, which is common,” Cast says. “It ends up becoming a major distraction. The tail ends up wagging the dog. Remember that, by and large, your inbox is composed of other people’s agendas, not yours. Try to first work on your big priorities, then respond to your inbox.”

Learn How to Say “No”  

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities, consider whether you are by nature a “pleaser,” as many high achievers are. Pleasers tend to take on more than they should—their default response is, “yes, why not?” But learning when to say “no,” and learning to do it tactfully, is critical for preserving valuable time and energy.

Of course, there is a reason that most of us are hesitant to say no: we want to foster relationships and stay as connected to others as possible. But guarding your time does not require disconnecting completely. Carter suggests turning requests into manageable “favors.”

For example, instead of sitting down for an hour-long conversation with a colleague about a project idea, you could take five minutes to share some ideas via email or over the phone. That way you maintain the relationship without sacrificing too much time.

“Entrepreneurs often struggle with this,” Carter says. “Especially if they become known, they’ll start getting all kinds of offers to be on panels and take non-essential meetings. All of a sudden, their time is not their own. They have to find ways to not lose their bearings and stay focused on the activities that will propel their startup forward.”

Look for Opportunities to Delegate  

In addition to learning how to say “no,” anyone struggling to cross critical items off of the to-do list needs to learn the art of delegating. Delegation doesn’t always come naturally to high achievers.

“We tend to think the best person to perform a given task is ourselves,” Cast says. We may also be under the mistaken impression that delegating is viewed as a sign of weakness.

Even in cases where you are the most qualified person to do the job, that does not mean you have to—or that you should.

“It’s easy to think that because you have a certain domain knowledge, you should perform every task in that area,” Cast says. “But if someone else can perform the task even 80 percent as effectively, and it’s not mission-critical, it might be a good idea to delegate.”

Apart from freeing up time to focus on more important tasks, delegating also helps others gain valuable experience and build new capabilities.

“In many cases, you have to learn to let go a bit,” Cast says. “Things won’t go exactly the way you’d like, but you have to move forward and avoid needless distractions.”