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5 Steps to Deal With Being Overloaded at Work

There's no app or life hack that will let you fit 25 hours of work into a 24 hour day. Here's what to do when there's too much on your plate.

By
Stever Robbins
Episode #554
overworked

Today we’re talking being overloaded at work. Because sometimes you just have too much to do.

Grandma Cuddles’s controller Chip was ferklempt. Even though he’s usually an overachiever, he’s feeling like there’s just too much on his plate.

Grandma’s latest business is a golf course. The kiddies just love to play in the sand trap. When a member accidentally hits a ball into the sand, they kids bring it right back to the clubhouse. They build strong running muscles, dexterity in avoiding golf clubs, and valuable sales skills from upselling billionaire customers like Jeffrey Epstein on vacation packages. 

Chip has to track each pre-schooler’s expenses individually, so all costs can be allocated precisely to each little tyke. After all, Grandma thinks every youngster must learn to carry their own weight for society. That leaves Chip to create profitability measures on a per-child basis. 

He also has a task list that’s a hundred pages long. He’s constantly thinking about creating tracking systems, balancing accounts, thinking about the company direction, and a dozen other things. He’s also keenly aware that it’s been ages since he’s replenished his psyche with a trip back to nature.

Chips is going crazy, and the reason is that he’s not just busy, he’s fundamentally overcommitted. That means he has 25 hours’ worth of work but only 24 hours in which to do it. 

1. Admit the truth

The first step of dealing with overcommitment is to admit you’re overcommitted. This isn’t easy. We’ve been brainwashed by our corporate overlords to think that no matter how much we have to do, there’s some productivity trick, some app, or some lifehack that will let us do it all. 

There’s only so much you can do in a day, and no matter how hard you try, no matter how smart you work, you can’t do more than that.

No. That’s not true. There’s only so much you can do in a day, and no matter how hard you try, no matter how smart you work, you can’t do more than that. 

So stop trying. 

2. Get the big picture

Get your hands around your overwhelm by taking a step back and getting the big picture. Grab a piece of paper and list your major commitments. Don’t write down tasks; write down projects. Chip’s list is:

  1. Preparing tax forms to submit for insurance claims
  2. Helping Cuddles set strategy (she’s angling for the contract running the day spa at Mar-a-Lago)
  3. Renovating the office
  4. Consolidating employee expense reports, and finally
  5. Making time to walk on the beach, both for life balance and to find a good place to bury the evidence.

calendar

Write your projcets by hand, on paper. Engaging your body gives you a feeling of control.

With the whole list in one place, it’s less intimidating. There are only five major areas to be dealt with. They’re big, but there are only five.

3. Look for delegation opportunities

The first answer to dealing with that task list is to delegate. We’ve covered that before in the episode on delegating wisely. Chip can free some time by delegating the expense reports to one of the company’s bookkeepers. But sometimes that won’t work. Cuddles can’t afford any more staff. And there are some accounts that Chip just isn’t comfortable trusting to a subordinate. They have to be handled in person, and plane flights to the Cayman Islands are expensive.

4. Drop non-interrupting projects

You might think you can just do less on every project. Chip can decide to give each of his projects one-fifth less time. If he cuts corners everywhere, it’s possible he can squeeze everything into his workday. But there’s a minimum acceptable quality level. If office renovations use cardboard instead of a real ceiling, it will get awfully cold in the winter. And cardboard doesn’t have the strength to support any kind of hooks. At Grandma Cuddles, that’s an important consideration.

If you can’t reduce quality, all that’s left is to stop stuff. You’re trying to do 25 hours’ worth of work in 24 hours. You can’t. There’s no system to make that happen. There’s no life hack. There’s no app for that. So you need to face up to the fact that something needs to give. Choose one or more projects to drop for now, to return your workload to a manageable level.

You’re trying to do 25 hours’ worth of work in 24 hours. You can’t. There’s no system to make that happen. There’s no life hack. There’s no app for that.

Keep projects that force themselves on you. Some projects force you to pay attention. Once workmen are installing new high-efficiency drains in the office, they’ll be in and out a lot. They’ll interrupt whatever you’re doing. Since you can’t drop the project once it’s started, office reconstruction is a keeper. 

Keep projects when other people depend on you. Since Grandma Cuddles depends on Chip to help set strategy, he can’t drop that project without disappointing Cuddles. And as we all know, Grandma doesn’t deal well with disappointment.

Keep projects that are tied to the calendar. Expense reports and tax forms are tied to the fiscal year. Even if they get dropped, they’ll have to be done sooner or later, and delays will incur fees. Worst case, Grandma might have to release her taxes, and she says that’s absolutely, utterly zapreshchennyy. (Apparently that’s Russian for “forbidden.”)

Walking on the beach is the project that has to stop. Other people don’t depend on it, it isn’t tied to the calendar, and Putin won’t get upset. Chip decides to drop “walking on the beach” from his projects.

5. Set a time to revisit paused projects

But it’s scary just to drop an important project altogether. Not only does it seem final, but Chip needs the self-care aspects of walking on the beach. He’ll eventually go crazier without it. So don’t drop the project, just put it into suspended animation, like Walt Disney’s head.

Don’t drop the project, just put it into suspended animation, like Walt Disney’s head.

Stop doing it for now, and the projects that are left will eventually get done. Tax forms will get filed. Expense reports will get assembled. Then there will be time for that walk on the beach.

So choose a date when you’ll reconsider the projects you’ve suspended. Add an appointment with yourself on that date. During that appointment, look at all your current projects and the projects you’ve paused. Then choose again which to stop, which to pause, which to keep, and which to reactivate. 

Chip decides that he wants to revisit beach frolics in six weeks. By then, the accounting systems will be tracking every pre-schooler as closely as Mark Zuckerberg tracks you and me. Taxes will be forged … I mean, filed. Expense reports will get done. And Chip will have the time to resurrect the beach project, where he’ll find not only inner peace, but a safe hiding place for that strange metal footlocker from Grandma’s playroom.

If you’re overloaded, you can do the same: consolidate your project list on a piece of paper. Decide which to keep and which to drop, based on time sensitivity and coordination with other people. Also decide which projects to pause, and make sure you schedule a time to revisit and reactivate them so they don’t disappear forever. 

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I’m Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re an executive, entrepreneur, or sales professional and you want a partner to help you get even better at what you do, hire me as your coach. Learn more at SteverRobbins.com. Subscribe to get productivity tips delivered to your inbox. And don't forget to listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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