Let’s be honest — if the solution to a bottomless workload was only a matter of delegating, setting boundaries, and the pomodoro method, it would be a lot easier to address head-on.
If you’re doing everything you can and still struggling under the weight of a crushing to-do list, you’re not alone! In fact, being overwhelmed at work has all but become the norm these days — and so a plethora of quick-fix, “life-changing” productivity hacks and burnout “self-help” content has boomed, too. We’re all desperate for the key to optimizing ourselves for our employers, and nothing seems to be working.
But here’s the thing: In many cases, the stress bogging people down is part of a larger problem — our (currently magnified) cultural approach to work. And if that’s true in your workplace, all the surface-level productivity “hacks” (aka shortcuts) in the world are only ever going to be, at best, a cheap band-aid. As human beings, we are not machines, and we need to stop treating ourselves as though we are.
With that in mind, we still believe that, short of leaving your job (or giving up on hope of living without burnout), there are still a few non-hack-y, actionable ways to help minimize the demands and neverending to-do lists that threaten to drown your every work hour. Here are some ideas that may help lighten the load.
Note: We know some of these recommendations might not apply to all industries. Essential workers, emergency personnel, and others may not be in a position to reconfigure their workflow, and that’s a different cultural problem entirely.
OK, yes, easier said than done. But if you’ve ever had an amazing idea in the shower, you know that sometimes all it takes to realign yourself with your brain is pumping the brakes — hard. Countless researchers have suggested in the past few years that boredom — that is, having those head-empty, just-vibes moments free from stimuli — is the key to getting right with our brains, not only emotionally, but also when it comes to problem-solving.
So if you’re spinning on the hamster wheel right now (we can’t see your 45 browser tabs open, but we know they’re there), the first thing to do, as soon as you can, is simply stop. Step away from your desk, take a lunch break, move your body. Give yourself a moment to breathe and think.
2. Acknowledge the myth
Not to go all woo-woo on you, but if you’ve ever thought about picking up a mantra, here’s one to consider: I can do anything, but not everything.
Remember that old David Foster Wallace joke about fish not knowing what water is, because it’s their entire world? Intellectually, you might know that you’re a human being operating in a machine that wants you to be a robot. But it’s easy to lose track of that fact when you’re in the thick of meetings and back-to-back project deadlines. That ~perfectly efficient~ version of yourself? The one who checks every box by the end of every day? She’s a myth, and she’s keeping you down.
No matter how smart or productive you think you’re “supposed” to be, everyone’s daily bandwidth is limited, and your job isn’t designed to meet your needs, so there will always be a gap between you and total efficiency. Regular reminders of this can help you get from an “I’m never going to get on top of this to-do list” mindset to a “this to-do list is just a tool and it works for me” mindset.
When you’re drowning in work, especially if you have a plethora of timely, competing things on your plate at once, the most immediate thing you can do is speak up. You do nobody — not you, not your boss, not your team — any favors by trying to silently juggle too many balls … and then dropping something important. Or by working a million hours and driving yourself into the ground.
Don’t martyr yourself. Go to your boss and tell them what’s going on. Ask them to help you figure out what you (or your team, if you manage others) should work on first. It’s their job to help you make those kinds of tradeoffs, based on your department and company goals.
“Hey [manager’s name], I took a step back to look at what’s currently on my plate and realized that I’m overextended for the coming week. I’ve got [this project that’s due on this day and is important because abc reasons], but also [this other project due on that day that’s important because xyz reasons]. I’m hoping you can help me figure out which one to prioritize.”
If they say “both” (🥴), try to brainstorm together on ways to lighten the load. Maybe another team member can step in and help. Maybe they can help you clear your calendar of meetings for the week. Or maybe the size of one of your projects can get scaled back.
Also worth noting: The ability to prioritize at work is actually a really valuable skill — one that’s not as easy to develop as it sounds. Good managers will appreciate transparency.
4. Look for ways to realign
Next, once you’ve got your immediate deadlines sorted out, spend some time paying closer attention to your lived, day-to-day work reality.
When are you at your most productive? Can you ensure you always (or at least most of the time) have that time block meeting-free?
Is there a time of day when your brain is usually Jell-O? Can you shift your hours earlier or later to accommodate that dip, or maybe tackle your simplest tasks during that time?
Can you move any of your meetings so that they’re batched together, leaving you more uninterrupted stretches of time to focus?
Do you have a day or two a week that are relatively light on meetings? Can you block off a few hours in your calendar as a “critical meetings only” event, to make sure you get some uninterrupted focus time every week?
Note: these aren’t productivity hacks! Working with more self-knowledge and self-compassion is working smarter. Knowing your own strengths and needs and letting them guide you is a part of self-care, as much at work as in the rest of your life, and hacks are basically the opposite of that.
The way your brain works is simply the way your brain works. There’s no software update that can magically upgrade your operating system (and even if there was, would that really be a good thing?).
5. Meet your own needs — but first, identify them
“This will take me an hour to complete.”
*three hours later*
“This took me three hours to complete.”
If that scenario sounds even a little familiar, your expectations for yourself might not be entirely realistic. They’re probably based on what you imagine some external standard defines as “reasonable”: this task should take me an hour, you might find yourself thinking, so if I take longer than that, that means I’m falling behind.
Ironically, that kind of magical thinking might actually be making things worse for you, productivity-wise. Think about it: If you tell yourself — and your boss — that a task will require less bandwidth than is actually realistic, that means you’ll start getting more tasks long before you’re able to complete the current one, and your to-do list will back up fast. More tasks could mean more stress, which means more time wasted worrying and getting down on yourself.
So spend time — a week, maybe two — noticing and documenting how long you’re spending on things. Put it all in a list or a spreadsheet. Include your tasks and projects, but also include how much time you spend in meetings, answering emails, organizing documents, and other “admin” parts of your job. If it turns out your responsibilities add up to an unreasonable number of hours a week, it’s time to have a larger conversation — which is when having it all written down will really help.
6. Ask for help
Coming to terms with your own limits can be a harrowing experience, but it does come with a bonus perk: the knowledge that your boss isn’t a robot, either. Once you’ve got a sense of how much time you spend on various tasks, as well as when you’re best equipped to tackle them, it’s time to communicate to work out a schedule and set of priorities that works for them and you.
Armed with your list of responsibilities and workloads, ask your manager to help you prioritize what needs to come first (again, according to both team and company-wide goals) and, if possible, how you might offload tasks or get more resources to help. Here’s a quick script to help you get started:
“Hey [manager’s name], would we be able to carve out a few minutes this week to check in about my workload and expectations? I just want to make sure we’re on the same page so that I’m prioritizing my work according to what’s most urgent for you, and you have a concrete sense of what’s on my plate and how I’m spending my time.”
Realistically, not every manager is going to be super understanding, so you might get some pushback, and some of it might be unreasonable. But luckily, you now have a detailed understanding of how long things take for you — your bandwidth is what it is. There’s no gray area for magical thinking on this anymore, for you or for your manager.
7. Offer alternatives, within reason
Say you and your boss hit a snag in your conversation: your plate is full, but there’s another project they need you to take on. But you expected this! Stay positive but firm: if you have five apples for sale, and a customer wants six apples, there’s only so much you can do to appease that customer.
Still, you both share an ultimate goal: they want to buy your apples, and you want them to buy your apples. Your manager does need you at the top of your game, so asking too much of you hurts them in the long run, too. That’s why it’s good to come to the table with a solution-oriented strategy, to make it clear that your priorities are aligned with theirs.
This goes for times when other coworkers or managers need things from you, too. As tempting as it might be (especially if you’re moving fast or feel overextended) to draw a line in the sand and just say no, try to take a moment to think: Are there a few possible compromises to offer or brainstorm on with them? Here’s what you might say instead:
“Hi [name of person], thanks for looping me in on this! Unfortunately, this is a really busy week, and I’ve got a lot of competing priorities. Would it work if [ ...I got this back to you on this later date instead? ...we broke this project into smaller pieces? ...we used this other thing as a temporary solution? etc.]”
If they don’t have room to budge, you can come together to take the question to your manager, or their manager — ask someone higher up and closer to the company’s top goals to help you prioritize.
Presenting solutions while protecting your own boundaries is hard, and it takes practice. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to emphasize that you’re working with time and bandwidth constraints that — alas! — just can’t be helped. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So how can you both find a solution that works with the finite resources you do have?
Just because it’s expected, doesn’t mean it’s feasible
We’re currently living through an era when everyone’s relationship to work is changing dramatically, across pretty much every industry you can think of. That means that a bummer “job norm” that might have seemed set in stone a year or two ago — low hourly wages, no working remotely — could very well be up in the air right now. And while that may seem scary at first, it’s the perfect opportunity to rethink your own professional expectations for yourself.
The system itself is in flux — so you might actually be in a better position than ever to draw your own boundaries and redefine what a healthy and reasonable workload will look like in the years ahead.
At the end of the day, the problem of too much work is never going to be fixed by “doing” more. Letting go of that notion — and looking for ways to address the root problem instead — is powerful, and it has the potential to free us from the battle against “just one more thing.”
We’re rooting for you — you’ve got this.
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