Managing workload is a constant part of life as an employee or on your own. Often we march along in the day-to-day without pausing to be deliberate about workload and choices we might have around it. It is worthwhile to take stock regularly to evaluate whether you can improve your approach.
Consider the following to assess your workload management strategy:
1. First, are you working on priority items, according to your boss, organization, and self? Or are mundane tasks or daily incomings eating up too many hours? For example, would you benefit from aiming for some boundaries on what to take on, what level of effort to devote, when to turn off the work phone?
2. When you are swamped, do you plow through the work as well as you can, or seek input on priorities, and make the case to punt or resource another way the noncritical work?
3. Are there shortcuts available that may produce better results, such as third-party vendors, repurposing previous work products, or narrowing the scope to essentials only? Partnering with other organizations so that your piece of the output is less but the overall result is more?
4. Do you leverage horizontal resources, such as functional providers in communications, information technology, human resources, or whatever may be helpful to short-circuit your processes and produce quality outcomes?
When you have too much work
If you are in a situation where you are continually overworked, have communicated clearly that it is too much for one human to do, and yet not gotten relief, it is time to explore other opportunities. We may all have times when a certain project or even several projects back to back require extreme efforts for a period of time. And in these times, you may need to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes. But if the baseline is that you are expected to work around the clock without any relief in sight and you have market value to go elsewhere, do it. One of our experts recalls a miserable holiday break spent in an office building in New York, with no heat, combing through documents with gloves and a coat on. There was a warehouse full of boxes of records that had to be catalogued by a legal deadline. Support staff team members were all unavailable for various reasons. Bosses offered no relief or plan to change staffing loads. She got it done- and left that job within a year.
When you don’t have enough work
If you do not have enough workload, are bored, or are not getting the kind of exposure and growth you want, be careful what you wish for and how! Do not frame the question to sound as though you have nothing to do. Express interest in areas where you have skills to contribute. Ensure that there is support for you to take on new assignments—jumping in on others’ work can backfire quickly if you are not officially part of the team as you may appear to be stepping on toes and be seen as a threat or duplicating work. Use the downtime well—it will almost certainly not last forever. Learn more, engage new and existing contacts. Do one-day shadows and rotations in other divisions. Do some online training. If it is relevant in your line of work, go out and try your hardest to bring in business.
Choose extra work strategically
Should you jump in on extra work? This is something that generally more junior people do often, and more senior people avoid. Do not offer to do all the extra work. Jumping in as a team player is good, but being the grunt workhorse or “go-to gal” is not. Push back on noncritical tasks, especially those that are administrative in nature.
For items that are clearly not your job or your boss’s priorities, try letting them not get done, or wait to see if others do them. Do not volunteer too often for routine duties like generic weekly reports that no one—or someone else—is credited for. Not every task will give you great exposure and some mundane work just must be done, but if you are always busy with administrative-like duties, you will not be able to take on the better opportunities. It is a vicious cycle—people come to expect and rely on the person who will do all the undesirable tasks, and the person becomes stuck in that role. No one wants to promote a workhorse, and the workhorse does not get to demonstrate leadership abilities.
Be deliberate in how you respond to people, and how you use your time. It is amazing how others jump in when there is a void. And conversely, how much others will pass off to someone willing to take it.
Consciously hold back on the little stuff. Try letting an email with a low priority request sit for a few hours or a day or two—often the person will figure it out some other way. Obvious exceptions are if it comes from your boss or a higher level. But in some jobs you could spend all your time just answering requests from other people who will take credit for the final products they are putting together, and never have much to show for your own labors.