We try our best to protect and prioritize our time at work, but it can be difficult to avoid the inevitable busywork that creeps onto our plates. Your time at work is valuable, and when you have goals to reach and deadlines to meet, those additional tasks can pile up and make your workload feel unmanageable.

If you feel mired in busywork that doesn’t help you move the needle, here’s how to clear the extra tasks from your plate:

Categorize each task into one of three piles

“Put tasks into three categories,” Mitchell Marks, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and professor at San Francisco State University College of Business, tells Thrive. The first one, he says, is a “Do it immediately” pile, for tasks that are quick and timely. Next comes the “Do it later” pile, Marks explains — “a pile for later action, with the projects you anticipate enjoying least on the top.” Finally, create a “Throw it out” pile, Marks says — and think about whether or not the task really needs to get done. “If an activity has been lingering on your desk for weeks or months, maybe it is not important enough to elbow its way into your schedule,” he says.  “Ask yourself if your career would suffer if you never get around to it. If not, put it in the round file trash can.”

Separate your work into time segments

Oftentimes, our to-do list seems daunting because we see it all as one big chunk of work. For work you must do, break it up into small pieces, Marks suggests. By parsing through your work and delegating an hour for each task, Marks says the work itself will suddenly feel more manageable, and we can decide what takes priority, and what can be moved off of our plate. “This overcomes the feeling of being overwhelmed,” he adds, “which makes the activity more difficult than it otherwise would be.”

Be OK with saying no

Finally, recognize when to decline a task — and give yourself permission to do so. In a new Harvard Business Review piece, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a Detroit-based time management coach and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, urges us to say no to the busywork that others ask of you when you don’t have the time. “Saying no makes the difference between a packed schedule and an open one,” she writes. “It makes the difference between working crazy hours and hitting deadlines without stress.” Saunders suggests identifying the time commitments that aren’t a good use of your day, and gracefully declining the requests that take time away from other projects that require your focus. “Saying no to time commitments that don’t align with your priorities or needs can lead to a small amount of initial discomfort,” she adds, “But save you hours of time in the end.”

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.