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Got Too Much Work? Here are 5 Tips to Tame the Overwhelm

burnout career coaching career management overwork stress management workload Apr 22, 2022

These days many of us are feeling overworked. 

It’s a condition of our times driven by an explosion of information, a proliferation of communication platforms, and the high number of job openings.

I remember how I felt when my department grew at one point. I inherited the internal communications team, but not the Senior Manager who’d been leading it. The fun part is that your boss expects you to be excited about all these new responsibilities—no matter the mathematical infeasibility of simply absorbing the work of a whole person.

Here’s a fascinating paradox. At the same time, people are complaining about being more overworked than ever, many organizations in the US are implementing or considering a four-day workweek. Europe is already ahead of us on this count. The state of California is actually pushing legislation to enshrine 32 hours/ 4 days as the official workweek. 

Research varies on the optimal number of hours of work that we should work, but every estimate I’ve seen is below 40 hours a week. Once you get into the high 30s, you’re actually wasting more time and accomplishing less than people working fewer hours!

So, during these increasingly complex times, what can we do when our workload swells beyond our capacity?

Here are 5 tips to help.

Get clear on your priorities. 

Your priorities, not someone else’s. I’m not talking about the goals that you plug into some HR portal or email to your boss. 

What is it you want to accomplish and why? Perhaps your number one priority is gaining the skills that will land you a different job. Maybe attending your daughter’s softball games on Wednesdays is at the top of the list. Or maybe you consciously decide it simply mirrors what your boss wants. 

Whatever those priorities, 1) make sure they are yours and 2) make sure they support a higher vision of the work and life you want for yourself.

Capture it all in a reliable system. 

For this, I recommend using a to-do app. My favorite is ClickUp. Whatever you use, there are two keys. 

1) Get it all down. You don’t want to trust that you will remember it all. In fact, it taxes your mind unnecessarily to try to remember all that you have to do. Capturing it in a system literally gets it off your mind.

2) A reliable system. To me, this means the system will prompt you about important things when you need to know about them. That’s what I love about ClickUp. Of course, it has the standard due date functionality, but for me, most of my project-oriented tasks have no due dates. They are more like “as soon as possible.” 

I carve out time every day for my project tasks. They live on separate project lists that I can also combine into a master list. The master list is prioritized, so when it comes time for project work, I just pick the tasks off the list by priority.

For me, a reliable system means that I always know that I’m working on the right thing at the right time. Don’t underestimate the value of that knowledge. A lot of energy is wasted when we worry that we’re not focused on the highest leverage thing in the moment.

Constrain yourself. 

When we have unlimited time to complete a task, many of us take unlimited time to finish it. Give yourself deadlines and time estimates. The beauty of time estimates is that you keep getting better at your forecasts. Some people swear by enforcing strict time limits. If you don’t give yourself slack, you will learn to accomplish the task in the allotted time which certainly amps up productivity and makes planning much more reliable.

Invest in systematizing. 

Make things easier for yourself by systematizing the task. For example, I like to batch certain tasks, like social media posts. I use a spreadsheet template where I have pre-defined what kinds of posts I’ll be posting to which platform. I fill the sheet out on Sundays, titling the posts, writing the post content, and finding hashtags. In the spreadsheet, I also include the thumbnail of any image, the file path to the image, and any links I’ll include in the post. When it comes time to post, I’ve already got everything pulled together.

A second strategy is to document complicated processes. In my case, it ensures I don’t make silly mistakes and will help when I hire a VA because everything will be clearly laid out.

Manage how you think about your work. 

If you do only one of these suggestions, make it this one.

How do you feel when you think “I have too much to do?”

Not so great, right? It’s not the amount of your work that has you down; it’s your characterizing the work as “too much.” That’s deflating.

A person who is craving work might look at your workload and think, “I’d love to have all that work to do!”

It’s not the quantity of the work, it’s your thought about it. You can change your thoughts. Try, “I wonder how much I can get done in the next hour.” Or, “I’m glad I’m in such demand,” or, “it feels good to be busy.” Try these out. They all feel better and when you’re feeling better, you’ll be more productive. 

There’s another aspect to how you might be thinking about the situation. When you have “too much to do” what does that even mean? Most of us mean that the quantity of the work won’t fit into our planned work hours. 

Yet, a lot of us probably don’t really have a handle on what we can accomplish in our planned hours. There’s a popular idea out there that says that most of us overestimate what we can do in a day yet underestimate what we can accomplish in a year. This suggests we just don’t have a good fix on what we can get done in any period of time. There’s obviously a lot of wiggle room here.

But, for the fun of it, let’s say that you do have a handle on how much you can do and the math just doesn’t work out. You’ve got 10 hours of work and 7 hours to do it.

Then you have a choice: expand your planned hours or renegotiate expectations (or both). 

I know, renegotiating expectations sounds painful. But unless you’re going to work the 10 hours, something’s not getting done. Somebody’s going to be disappointed. Often that person is ourselves, and trust me, we can be the hardest of hard-ass bosses to ourselves. 

Renegotiating sounds as much fun as getting a root canal, but let me invoke the perennial wisdom of Rush: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Meaning – something is not going to get done. You might as well admit it and choose what that thing is upfront. Once you’ve chosen what to let slip, you can give whoever’s impacted a head’s up.

You won’t want to do this. But making a deliberate, informed, conscious choice is far superior to the usual approach of letting the chips fall where they may.

When you follow this approach, you can stop telling yourself the lie “I have too much to do.” I mean, you can never really do more than the allotted time allows you to do right? So you always have as much work as you have time for. Now, clearly, you might have unmet expectations. What you have is too much expectation, not too much work. Get honest and manage those expectations as early as possible (preferably before you over-commit yourself!!)

Really, this all circles back to prioritizing. When you’re maniacal about prioritizing, you don’t set yourself for “too much work” or unmet expectations in the first place.

To recap, don’t tell yourself you have “too much work,” because 1) no good comes from this thought and 2) the trouble isn’t with work, it’s with expectations. “Work” is an amorphous blob. Expectations are something held by yourself or by others. Expectations can (must) be renegotiated.

These tips all work great in concert.

I’m even going to suggest that, if you have control over your work schedule, you give the reduced hours work week a try. You will need to engage in constraint to pull this off. You’ll want to adopt an experiment mindset — get curious about what is going to need to fall away to adhere to your new schedule.

Let me know how it goes!

I’m Dr. Kira Swanson and I’m a Life Coach for people who dread Monday. I work with corporate misfits who feel unfulfilled in their work. Together, we tune into what they really want, find new perspectives, and summon the courage to take bold action. Whether it’s striking out on their own, landing in a new job, or thriving right where they are, I help my clients to Love Monday.
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