Why We're All Deluged With Too Much Work - And What To Do About It

Why We're All Deluged With Too Much Work - And What To Do About It

09.11.14Ron Ashkenas

Why the deluge of work that feels so overwhelming? Three reasons stand out.

One of the most persistent challenges that managers face these days is “initiative overload” – having too many projects on the plate and not enough time to get them done. If you’ve ever found yourself working long days and weekends, and still not feeling caught up with your workload, then you know what I mean.  What’s worse is that there doesn’t seem to be any let up. It’s not as if we can get through a particular period of time and then things will calm down. In a conversation with a senior executive recently, I asked whether there was a season of the year that was quieter than others, when she could get away and not worry about work – and she sadly replied, “Not really.”

Why the deluge of work that feels so overwhelming? Three reasons stand out – as do some thoughts about how to better cope.

We all know that a big reason for this overload is the surge in expectations that’s tied to a technology-enabled and connected global economy. As email, texting, instant messaging, teleconferencing, and other electronic communications have become indispensable, people have grown conditioned to expect fast, if not instantaneous, responses to almost everything. For example, a recent study found that when consumers contact companies through social media, 42% expect a response in one hour or less, and 67% expect a response the same day. The same seems to be true with work assignments in companies: Customers and managers expect much more rapid turnaround times for getting things done. And as people try to work faster, they end up taking on more and more – and less gets finished.

Another factor that drives initiative overload is the inability, or fear, that many managers have of saying “no.” To “please” their bosses, most people don’t push back on new projects or assignments – even those that seem overwhelming, poorly structured, or have unrealistic time lines. And in recent years, this kind of behavior has been exacerbated by the economic climate and the focus on cost-cutting in many organizations. At a time when many people, including good performers and long-tenured employees, are losing their jobs, everybody wants to give the impression that they are essential. So the more work you take on, the better.

Third, people aren’t just more anxious about turning down or questioning assignments – there is actually more work to be done by fewer people. Most organizations that have cut costs and jobs have not simultaneously eliminated work or streamlined processes. Instead, they assume that the remaining people will pick up the slack, which results in even more overload. With fewer people available to tackle new initiatives, many of these, no matter how exciting and important they are, simply remain on to-do lists and never get done, creating even more frustration.

Given this situation, the response of many managers is to work harder and longer. That’s why work time bleeds more and more into family and vacation schedules, and why many people never feel a sense of accomplishment, that they have actually gotten something done and can now regroup. We’re all on the I Love Lucy assembly line, and we’re afraid that if we take a deep breath, the chocolates will start falling off.

There are, however, a few alternatives that might help you get off the assembly line – or at least slow it down.

First, don’t assume that the expectation to respond immediately to colleagues and customers applies all the time and is non-negotiable.  Sure, simple questions or requests for data can be answered right away; but for more complex or involved issues, let people know when you will be able to get back to them rather than allowing them to think that you’ve bumped their request to the top of your queue.  Creating these kinds of personal “service-level agreements” (as one client calls them) conveys immediacy, but doesn’t force you to drop everything whenever a new request comes over the transom.

Second, if you’re hesitant to say no to a new project, take a step back. Make a quick inventory of all the initiatives that you are working on, and do some back-of-the envelope analysis to note how long each will take, what the deadlines and milestones are, and what strategic impacts you expect. Then talk to your boss about timing and priorities – what’s realistic and important to get done, by when. Sharing the “data” and making your workload transparent should make it easier to push back – and buy you time to finish all the initiatives you’ve started. You might even suggest to your boss that you go through this exercise as a team, so that you can collectively assess the initiative inventory, identify redundancies, and make shared decisions about what does and doesn’t deserve someone’s time. In doing this, remember that initiatives keep coming, just like the chocolates in the assembly line, so you may have to revisit this exercise every month or two.

Finally, if your company has had significant downsizing but hasn’t proportionately streamlined or eliminated basic work, pull together your team (or encourage your boss to do so) to take a fresh look at the core work processes. For example, one downsized team realized that they were still putting just as much effort into small dollar amount transactions as larger ones – which was no longer realistic with fewer people.  They then devised a way of bundling the small transactions into batches, which freed up resources to work on the higher-value deals.

The key here is to realize that many organizations just assume that if you eliminate a few people from a team, the remaining members will pick up the increased workload naturally. But without some creative collective thinking, this usually means that at least some team members work harder or longer, which is neither fair nor sustainable. There is no standard or easy solution to this challenge, but ignoring it is a prescription for frustration and overwork.

In short, while initiative overload seems to be a fact of life these days in many organizations, it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of being a victim of the faster pace and the reduced resources, take the initiative to control your initiatives.

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