We all have a tipping point where the volume of work in front of us moves from formidable to seemingly impossible. Formidable can be motivating. However, once the scales tip toward the seemingly impossible side for any significant duration, motivation and attitude fly out the window along with productivity.

There are myriad causes of overload ranging from lousy job design to a horribly flawed workplace system to incompetent managers. Deming warned us of all three. And while it’s convenient to blame the system or mentally wonder how your manager bluffed his way into his current role, often the real issue is staring back at you in the mirror.

4 Big Things You Do to Create Overload in Your Work Life

1. You Don’t Know How to Say “No”

I put this one at the top for a reason. Many well-intended individuals invite overload into their daily lives by merely agreeing to every request that comes their way. Your intentions might be right, but you are setting yourself up for both overload and a loss of credibility as you fail to deliver or deliver poor quality to individuals counting on you. It’s like trying to dig faster when you are in a hole collapsing all around you while it fills with water.

2. You are an Over-Eager Project Time Estimator

I love optimistic people. However, if you’re one of those individuals who believe you have the ability to bend the laws of physics to get things done in time-frames mere mortals would tremble, you are inviting overload into your life. Chronic under-estimators are continually scrambling to catch-up, never quite reaching the point where they don’t have to stretch themselves beyond their limits to even come close to meeting their over-eager promises.

3. You Won’t, or You Don’t Know How to Ask for Help

Whether you’re just stubborn or, you’re uncomfortable asking for help, taking it all on yourself is a guaranteed formula for stress leading to burnout. For those who are uncomfortable asking for help, the issue is often one of being fearful of portraying to the boss or peers that you can’t handle the work on your own.

4. You Missed the Day They Taught Prioritization

When it all feels like it needs to be done yesterday and your To-Do list starts shouting at you, you might be struggling with prioritization. These individuals appear as if they are being spun in a blender, moving chaotically from one thing to another and never really getting anywhere.

7 Ideas to Rein in Overload and Regain Control of Your Work Life

While the short form of fixing the issues within your control is to do the opposite of the four items above, I’ll offer a more holistic approach to solving your overload problem. I want you to tune in to yourself, your working style, and your sources of stress and strain and then begin a systematic process of adjusting your behaviors. It’s a great idea to recruit a swim buddy—someone who can observe you in action and off you frank feedback—for this process.

1. Invest Time and Energy Understanding Your Boss’s Priorities

Context is king and there’s no more important context in your work life than the issues keeping your boss awake at night!

It always surprises me how few people spend time tuning in to the boss’s needs. Chances are your boss is operating somewhere near the overworked and overwhelmed state and may welcome your closer involvement.

The better you understand your boss’s priorities and the areas she is feeling pressure, the better you can prioritize your activities. Your boss needs you to succeed, not flounder or fail.

Even if your boss is a bit standoffish, strive to understand better the organizational strategy and how your boss’s area fits in the big picture. The more you know about the performance indicators and priority initiatives she is accountable for the better you can align your efforts.

2. Use the Boss’s Priorities to Force Rank Yours

Not everything on your to-do list is a top priority. If you think that way, you’re going to spend a great deal of time in the overload zone. Based on the context you gain from working with your boss, force-rank your workload and sanity check them with the boss. It’s liberating when you’ve parsed a long to-do list down into a few to focus on and others to revisit after you’ve knocked out the priorities.

3. Help is Often Just a Few Persuasive Conversations Away

While I’m getting down to my deepest, darkest corporate secrets here, survival and success inside today’s organization is a function of how effective you are at getting others to help you. You need to develop as a negotiator and a persuader. Success involves engaging with individuals, recognizing their challenges, uncovering their interests and striving to help them, and then persuading them to help you where it is in their interests to do so.

Learning to use positive persuasion in the workplace and gain support for your initiatives or gain help when you need it must become a part of what you do every day. It becomes a style that focuses on creating value, not sloughing off work to others. By uncovering and appealing to shared interests, you often find all of the help you need to tackle the tasks in front of you.

4. Understand and Live the Principle of Reciprocity

One of the universal principles of persuasion suggests that if you do something for someone, they will feel obligated to do something for you. As I indicate in the challenging conversations point above, it’s imperative to gain support from others for those issues where shared interests exist.

A great way to gain support is to create a reciprocity deficit with critical peers and colleagues. Help them achieve their goals. Respond to their needs and then bank this reciprocity like currency until you need to draw it down.

5. Say “No” Often!

While flying in the face of the reciprocity point above, it’s important to recognize you don’t need to say “Yes” to every request to live by that principle. It’s imperative to recognize when you are not essential to an initiative, or when someone is just engaging in frivolous task dumping. Effectively, you need to say “yes” to those tasks and invitations that are strategic to you and your boss and “no” to those that are nice but not critical.

You can and should be empathetic to the issues of others and even go so far as to offer ideas on who might be a better source of help. Artful persuaders do this by uncovering the individual’s real interests and looking for intersection points with others.

6. Say “No” to Most Meeting Invites

Meeting mania is a way of life in many organizations. It’s perceived as a bigger mistake to leave people out than to include too many. As a result, meeting organizers regularly over-invite participants.

Armed with a clear list of priorities and a solid understanding of where you need to engage around shared interests, it becomes easy to filter out meetings that don’t fit. Always connect with the meeting organizer to confirm your hunch and make sure they are comfortable without you in attendance. After all, you want to be efficient, not a jerk.

With a bit of effort, you can find a healthy number of hours in every week to focus on your real priorities.

7. Fine-Tune Your Project Estimation Skills

Of the many reasons to keep a daily professional journal, one is to identify your commitments, time estimates, and actual time investment. Much like journaling food when you’re on a diet, and you can see how destructive that one donut is to your daily goals, tracking estimates and outcomes serves as a powerful continuous improvement tool.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Yes, some jobs are poorly designed, and some managers don’t care if they overload people. Those are relevant issues, but before tackling those tough topics, focus on yourself and what you control. I’m willing to wager a cup of coffee that renewed diligence on the ideas here will help you fight your way out of overload to a more manageable and motivating state of formidable when it comes to your to-do list.

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