How To Clear Any Backlog

by Brian Cormack Carr on January 17, 2011 · 4 comments



Do you ever get bogged down in a backlog? A sink piled high with dirty dishes? An overflowing laundry basket or ironing pile? A garden that needs to be mowed, pruned, weeded, and watered – all at the same time (yesterday)?

The biggest problem with a backlog is that it never conveniently stops growing long enough for us to sort it out properly. Even as we plough through it, more clothes, dishes, or weeds are piling up behind.

Many of us will have returned to work after the Christmas and New Year break to significant backlogs of work (particularly email).  I certainly did, because I took an extra week off in order to have some additional time back up in Scotland with my family.  My wonderful PA had been keeping on top of things for me, but there was still a lot for me to go through when I returned.

I used to struggle with getting to grips with a backlog like this, constantly fretting that I’d miss a vital new email whilst clearing the old, or vice versa – and in fact, that’s often exactly what happened. That is, until I came across this rather wonderful technique from time-management coach Mark Forster, who advises dealing with a backlog of any type in three simple stages:

1. Isolate the backlog
2. Get the system for new stuff right
3. Get rid of the backlog

Step 1, isolate the backlog, means getting the entire backlog out of the way so that it isn’t muddled up with your incoming material. So in the case of emails, when I got back to work I moved all the emails I was going to deal with into a separate folder called – originally enough – “backlog”. That emptied my inbox in one fell swoop, and instantly relieved some of my tension.  It also meant my backlog couldn’t keep getting bigger, since nothing new was coming into the backlog folder.

Then it’s time for step 2, get the system for new stuff right – because if you don’t, you’re just leaving yourself in the market for more backlogs. Let’s stick with the  email experience, and consider your situation on your first day back at work. Having moved the contents of your inbox into your “backlog” folder, you’re now left with a lovely empty inbox, which obviously won’t stay empty for long, because new emails will no doubt start coming into it almost immediately. That’s fine, however, since you’ve implemented a clear system for dealing with those new emails.  Apart from a cursory scan of today’s incoming emails to identify and deal with any “emergency” items (and in reality, most of us receive very few of those) – you’ll set them aside to action tomorrow. But what about all the emails that will arrive in your inbox tomorrow? You’ll apply the same principle, and action them the day after. It’s another Mark Forster tip – “do it tomorrow” – and is the cornerstone of the system he outlines in his book of the same name (which I highly recommend).

It’s a remarkably effective way of dealing with incoming data. It works because it restricts you to only ever dealing with a single day’s worth of incoming material (yesterday’s) in a single day (today), whereas most of us try to plough through far more than a day’s worth of material in a single day, and wonder why we’re running just to stand still! I apply the same principle to my paper inbox, which is why backlogs only usually build up when I’m on holiday (until I started using this system, it used to be that they’d often build up even whilst I was at work).

Finally comes step 3, deal with the backlog. You can either do this in one fell swoop by allocating a significant period of time to it (I pre-booked a slot in my diary on my first day back at work to do this), or you can do it in “chunks”, say for 30 minutes at the start of each day, until the backlog is cleared.   Your first chunk of time could be used to quickly scan through the backlog to pick out any urgent items (if it’s your ironing pile, it’ll be the shirt you need to wear that day!).

So there you have it – try it the next time you’re faced with a leaning tower of paperwork, or anything else for that matter, and see how you get on…and let me know!

© Brian Cormack Carr, 2011

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Thanks for visiting! You can find more of my writing in my Amazon bestselling self-help guides How To Find Your Vital Vocation and Real Food Revival Plan both of which are available worldwide in e-book and paperback formats. Find out more here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris November 28, 2013 at 11:19 pm

So you’re saying we should let the backlog continue to pile up (in my case that means living without clean dishes or clothes) for however long it takes to get a new system figured out (which, in my case, will take a long time since I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, and had at least two serious misconceptions about them until yesterday)? This may work for things like e-mail, but it sounds to me like a terrible idea around the house.


Brian Cormack Carr November 29, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Nope – because letting the backlog continue to pile up would mean not following Step 1 above, which is “isolate the backlog”. The point here is to stop new things piling up and adding to the backlog by separating it off from everything else. Then we work through it until it’s gone (Step 3) whilst handling new incoming material in a more effective way. In the case of Mark Foster’s system, that means using the “do it tomorrow” system so we never have to deal with more than a day’s worth of material in a single day. Of course, if at any point we stop following that system, it’s not going to work – but that’s true of any system; it’s only useful if we actually use it. Thanks for commenting Chris!


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