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How big is your backlog and how do you keep it under control? Do you actually keep track and do all of it, or do you have a method of eliminating old but valid tasks such as declaring e-mail bankruptcy?

For example, at the moment, I don't have any critical tasks/items/events which require immediate action (I typically get about 5-10 of those per working day). But I do have 674 e-mails which require my action, 113 issues/tickets/tasks which require that I either do/solve/respond/delegate them.

That's a backlog which I would in the ideal world clear before doing anything else.

And then there's scheduled work which I don't count in the "backlog" category - 87 tasks that require more than half an hour of my work and can't be delegated, and about 1000 tasks which don't have any time constraints (yet), but someday I will either have to take action on, or find a way to delegate/avoid.

I can't afford to commit my whole workday to communication and no time to "real work" so I schedule my time appropriately (between 60:40 and 90:10 in favor of the inbox) and thus accumulate "communication backlog" or things I need to respond to. I don't like it, but it seems that I'm busier than I'd like to be and this backlog is obviously something that I try to handle in various ways (reduce the number of projects, delegate etc).

Please note that I'm not looking for advice how to handle my specific case; I'm trying to get a feel how many of you consider it "normal" to have a backlog (or how big of a backlog you consider normal), and what are your write-off strategies for things you simply don't have the time to do or deal with.

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I've recently employed a Getting Things Done system in my life. In doing so, I wiped out the "backlog" to which you refer to and it now, instead, resides in my system as things I know need to be done, but for which I have determined appropriate groupings as to when I'll get to them.

The constant "knowing" of what lurks and that you've accounted for is it the cornerstone of GTD. Sounds like something you might want to look into.

To expand a little bit, I have 0 emails in my inbox, but I have 110 "tasks" in my system, which come from emails, discussions with my boss(es), work/personal projects (short- and long-term), etc. Knowing what needs to be done makes it seem as if it isn't a backlog, but more of a list. I categorize things mostly by "when" (now, next, soon, later, someday, waiting) and then by project. I also categorize by "where" (online, work, home, etc). Doing so makes it not seem like a backlog, but something that I know I'm working on. I also don't allow a backlog to build up as things are processed during specific times and put into the system.

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+1! "To expand a little bit, I have 0 emails in my inbox,..." Inbox Zero is your friend and it plays very nicely with GTD! – Belisama Apr 8 '12 at 11:16

Doesn't it depend on your job and current position? In my case, my backlog is often "one month long" which means that I have not yet completed my tasks which should have been completed a month ago (this would be perfect).

For me, this is not a real problem since I am involved in long-term projects and the customers understand that not every problem can be solved within hours or days. In some cases I also communicate the delay in completing the tasks to the customers. But this is something I try to avoid since it also causes an huge overhead.

My backlog is, spoken in figures, about 8-15 mails and 1-3 projects long. I try to keep those numbers small, but I am not in a position where I may delegate stuff. So I have to increase my productivity in order to make everyone happy.

Hope this helps!

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I take a slightly more philosophical approach to your question and respond with two questions:

  • Are you comfortable with the size of your backlog?
  • Is your backlog growing, shrinking, or remaining fairly stable?

Backlog size

People have different tolerances for backlog. Some really struggle if there's more than a couple of projects on their plate and more than one or two next actions. A good action tracking system like GTD that enables them to unload the mental burden of tracking things should help, but fundamentally some people don't function well knowing there's a lot of things they could be doing. Others need a large backlog. For some, knowing how much there is to do keeps them motivated; others keep a large backlog to ensure a diversity of tasks, which increases the likelihood there's something productive to do regardless of mood.

The only good way I've found to determine how large of a backlog you can handle is to step back and determine if the current size of your backlog weighs on your mind and creates cognitive stress that is harming your productivity.

Backlog rate

Once you've assessed the size of your backlog, thinking about this straightforward. If your backlog is too big and growing then something is broken that time alone will not fix. You need to do an assessment of where you want to put your time and attention and fix the rate immediately, because waiting is only going to make the problem worse.

There are no easy solutions here, only simple ones.

If work is overloading you perhaps you can ask your manager for help, hire help if you're in that position, or decide what's not important enough to do and square your perceptions to that reality. I'm sure everything is going to end up in the "too important to ignore" bucket, but unless you're willing to sacrifice more personal time to make up the difference, then your unilateral declaration of everything as a priority is not going to get those things done any faster. At least this way the choice is conscious and deliberate.

If your backlog is constant, then you're okay as long as you're comfortable with the current size. If not then know you only have to make a small adjustment into the negative before you'll start to see and inexorable movement towards a happier place.

If your backlog is negative and you want a smaller backlog then congratulations. If not, then that's probably a pretty good indication that you're skating and might want to pick up something new to continue to challenge yourself.

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My backlog sounds like yours. I keep it organized into outlines and different categories. When you have a lot of backlog items, many of them fall into similar categories, and if you ever do pick one of them up after sitting for a while, you may want to pick up several closely related items at once. So for me, keeping the backlog sorted helps me manage it. Another thing you need to do with along-term backlog is to go through it a block at a time (or a category at a time) and review the items. You want to rewrite the items to reflect the modern reality, delete the items that are no longer issues, and review how they are organized.

Forcing yourself to think about your backlog items will help you psychologically.

1) You'll be able to delete the ones that are no longer relevant. This will make you feel less overwhelmed.

2) You'll have a better subconscious appraisal of how much pending work there is in your different "areas of concern".

I have found the biggest challenge for me is to spend time reviewing things that I know I am not going to actually "work" on. I do it sometimes, but not often enough. When I do spend time on reviewing long term items, I always feel better about the world when I'm done.

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