Sometimes it only takes something small to derail your progress at work. Maybe you lost a day due to illness, or a series of meetings caused you to lose time to perform your actual job.

No matter the reason, everyone has found themselves with a list of tasks that can't be finished, even if they put in extra hours. That's not always your fault. It's very possible that some tasks take longer than the person handing them out thought they would, or that delays cropped up that were beyond your control.

When you're behind, however, it's very important to have a plan. These three steps can help.

A person sits at a table piled with papers looking exasperated.

When you have too much to do, it's important to triage and start somewhere. Image source: Getty Images.

1. Triage

Go through the pile on your desk and figure out what's the most important to finish on a timely basis. If, for example, you owe your boss a research report for a meeting tomorrow, well, do that first.

Try to identify what needs to be done as soon as possible, and make a rough calendar for how you plan to tackle that work. If some tasks have non-negotiable deadlines, then those are to be prioritized (and those may be the ones you stay late working on).

2. Communicate

While it's tempting to not bring trouble on yourself by letting your boss and other stakeholders know you have fallen behind, that's a terrible idea. instead, it's very important that you loop everyone in and let them know what's going on.

Share your plan, ask for their input, and understand that people will be mad. But it's much better to have someone be angry that you are behind when there's still time to get some of the tasks done than to not consult anyone and make the wrong decisions about what to prioritize.

3. Ask for help

Everyone wants to be the hero who solves his or her own problems. That's not always possible, so swallow your pride and ask for help. When you tell your boss what is happening, be open to having things taken off your plate, or other people coming on board to help.

This is not the time to focus on pride, or even your career path. Put finishing the work above everything else and you will have a better chance at success.

Solve the problem

This situation happens, at some point, to most people. You don't control everything. My wife, for example, struggled to catch up at her workplace last week because it had been closed for two days during Hurricane Dorian. She had worked from home during the storm (which never really hit us hard), but because various stakeholders were not in the office during the off days, there was only so much she could do.

When things like that happen, be active in leading the solution. Share what happened, but don't focus on excuses. Focus on fixing the problem, cleaning out your inbox, and beating back the pile of work that threatens to overtake your desk.