Reduce stress and get more done by pushing work into queues
Cognitive overload plagues startups. People frequently bombard you with problems, ideas, questions, complaints, and requests. You have many more problems to solve than you do with resources at your disposal. This describes every role at most startups and leads to a feeling of chaos and disorganisation, making burnout a matter of when not if.
One tactic that works for individuals and teams is to centralise requests and ideas into queues1, which you later prioritise, schedule, and complete. This is a simple and old idea. Customer support teams usually work out of support queues, and many engineering teams maintain backlogs, so to many, this may seem like a painfully obvious suggestion. But it is a powerful and underrated principle for personal productivity and business operations that applies to all teams.
The mechanics of an inbound work queue
Some requests are easy to action at the moment, but many tasks require a good amount of focus to tackle. A queue can be where you keep these inbound requests and other work.
- When you receive a request or have an idea, resist the urge to action it immediately (unless it is truly trivial) and instead put it in the queue.
- Next, establish a habit of regularly tidying up and prioritising this inbox. This is where you consider the urgency of each task based on expected outcomes.
- Lastly, you need a ritual to schedule prioritised work from your queue. This could be as simple as moving things to your to-do list (later, we’ll discuss more complex mechanisms for teams).
When you centralise your work into an inbox, you decouple the request from the response. This has positive effects:
- Reduce busy work and deliver outcomes. You can prioritise your work based on expected impact or urgency rather than when it was brought to your attention. This empowers you to be more intentional about your work and should deliver better outcomes.
- Reduce noise and maintain focus. When you remove the need to tackle requests immediately, you dramatically reduce the cognitive load of new requests.
- Provide a holistic view of your work. Most of us receive requests from several people and systems (e.g., Slack, email, action items from meetings). When you keep all substantial requests in a single backlog, you can work with more clarity.
My personal inbox lives inside my to-do app2. My inbox contains action items from meetings, complex requests delivered via Slack or email, new ideas, and more. I reprioritise my inbox every Monday and schedule some tasks for the week.
Practical examples for teams
Teams should funnel all inbound work (that they can’t immediately tackle) into a shared backlog. If you receive many requests, create a simple request form that your colleagues or customers can use to easily push work into your inbox3.
Here are some practical examples of what might live in team backlogs:
- Support teams: customer tickets, internal escalations, and quality assurance requests from Product. Support teams should receive all inbound work into their help desk software and frequently reprioritise and allocate tickets.
- Product development teams: ideas, feature requests, product feedback, bugs, incident reports, and escalated support tickets. This work usually lives inside an issue tracker (like Jira).
- Marketing teams: landing page requests, case study opportunities from customer success, website issues,
- Operations teams: operational ideas or complaints, requests for access to systems or data.
- IT teams: hardware and software support requests, cybersecurity incident reports.
While the fewer, the better, sometimes, it makes sense for a team to have multiple queues for a team. For example, a product team might capture customer feedback in a dedicated inbox because the volume of feedback received would clog up their primary work queue. Whenever you split inbound work into a separate backlog, it’s critical to also establish inbox review and maintenance rituals. Every backlog needs regular attention, though the frequency for each may vary (you might review your core inbox every week while you review your backlog of customer feedback once a month or quarter).
Pushing requests into an inbox for later processing is a very old idea, but Getting Things Done, developed by David Allen, is the most well-known framework that employs this concept. ↩︎
I use Things by Cultured Code as my to-do app. Things is designed around the idea of a centralised inbox for tasks, though you can use just about any to-do app in this way. ↩︎
Most help desk and many issue tracking softwares allow you to receive requests via a form. Zapier is another solution for this. ↩︎
8 May, 2023
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