Depending on which estimate you believe, there's currently a worldwide backlog of between 4m and 10m patent applications. That's 4m to 10m potentially revolutionary inventions, from life-saving drugs to solar-powered pencil sharpeners, piling up on patent examiners' desks. And the number is growing all the time. If the US patent office closed its doors tomorrow, it would take its staff two years to clear America's share of the backlog, and by the time they finished, a new one would have accumulated. As most of us know from our own backlogs – of email, of things to read, or sundry uncompleted tasks – this way of life is a vicious cycle, because backlogs generate overheads, which means less time to stay on top of incoming work: you have to run faster just to stand still. When you email someone to say you'll respond to their email properly later, that's more work. In September, the world's patent officials gathered in Geneva for a two-day symposium on dealing with the crisis; that was more work, too.
When it comes to personal backlogs, other factors conspire against our ever clearing the decks. Backlogged work is uniquely unappetising, because it feels mouldy and stale, so it invites procrastination, while new tasks seem fresh and unsullied by past efforts to be done with them. Time-management advice so rarely addresses backlogs that implementing a fancy new system is likely to make things worse; either that, or you resolve to put off getting organised until you have caught up, but then never do. Besides, there's some perverse but real comfort in being always behind. A line attributed to the book collector A Edward Newton pinpoints the yearnings that drive us to over-commit: "The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity."
One response is to admit defeat, as the lawyer and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig did in 2004 when he declared "email bankruptcy", sheepishly informing thousands of correspondents, via automated message, that their unanswered emails would be staying unanswered. Throwing up your hands like this can work: if you have been email-backlogged yourself, you'll know the phenomenon whereby supposedly urgent requests from colleagues, neglected for a day or six, have a curious way of resolving themselves without any action on your part. But if you're not going to give up, it's time to do what productivity expert Mark Forster calls "declaring a backlog". First isolate the backlogged work: move emails to a backlog folder; put papers in a box marked "backlog"; create a To Do list of backlogged tasks. (Think of this stage as like applying a tourniquet.) Next, get organised, setting up better systems for dealing with new stuff. Last, attack the backlog little and often, for example in 30 minutes at the start of each day.
This simple act has semi-magical effects. It turns a Sisyphean undertaking into a finite, addressable one. Somehow – though this might just be me – it freshens the tasks in question, removing their staleness. And it eliminates guilt: instead of psychically hauling a backlog around wherever you go, experiencing it as a personal failing, you externalise it, confront it and, bit by bit, deal with it. It's not exactly fun, but it works. Think about it this way: at least you are not a patent examiner. Unless, of course, you are, in which case please disregard that last part.