Effective strategies to cope with an overwhelming workload
I was a workaholic. I worked approximately 70 hours a week, leaving little time to spend with my family, see my friends or pursue any of my interests. Why did I do it? I guess for many of the same reasons as anyone reading this article.
I was brought up in a working-class family where education and achievement were hugely important. I was usually second or third in my primary school class but my father's response was always "Why were you not first?" I never felt good enough.
I did reasonably well academically and eventually achieved my goal of becoming a senior manager in an organisation that I felt proud to work for. However, my feelings of inadequacy never quite left me and I felt that I had to work harder and better than anyone else. I was always that enthusiastic person agreeing to take on additional work, getting involved in new projects, attending lots of meetings, wanting to be in control and, therefore, finding it difficult to delegate.
It was hardly surprising that there were times when I felt overwhelmed.
I worked in the public sector where the only constant was change. I can hardly remember a year where there was not a restructuring; new ways of working, new policies and procedures to be followed. And then came the cuts. Fewer people to provide the ever-improving services we were striving to achieve.
Does any of this sound familiar? I was fortunate. In my continuing battle to improve myself, I attended a leadership course. As part of the course, I was allocated a coach who helped me to recognise that I could achieve the results I wanted without working ridiculous hours and to enable me, at a crucial time in my life, to free up time to spend with my family.
Years later, I can look back on this coaching as a turning point in my life. I am sure the coaching I received was instrumental in my decision to later retrain and become a career/business/life coach myself.
So, what strategies did I use following my coaching to help me manage my workload more effectively? And which I have since used to help clients in a similar position?
Pareto’s Principle - the 80/20 rule
In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto created a mathematical formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country, observing that 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. This later became known as Pareto's principle, that 20% of our output is responsible for 80% of results.
You can apply this rule to almost anything. In the workplace, identify and focus on the 20% of things that really matter. Make a list of them. Those 20% produce 80% of your results. If something has to be delayed or left undone make sure it is not part of the 20%.
Learn to delegate
How can staff develop and grow if they are not given responsibility? Learn to delegate effectively, giving clear and concise instructions. Agree on deadlines and provide support if needed. Don't forget to provide feedback.
Learn to say no
Do you really need to go to that meeting? Can you ask someone else to go instead? Be more in control and don't always allow others to make demands on your time.
How much time have you spent searching for a document either on your computer or on your desk? Have you missed an important meeting because you haven't put the date in your calendar?
Spend some time organising these files, tidying your office, and keeping your calendar up to date. Working in a tidy, organised office, you will save time and help you feel less overwhelmed.
Keep to-do lists
List tasks according to importance and/or urgency so you can plan your day and focus on priorities. Remember the 20/80 rule!
Be realistic about deadlines
Look at your to-do list, estimate how much time each task will take to complete, and be realistic about what you are able to achieve in a given day/week.
Don't be a slave to email
Do you have your email switched on beside you and look at it every time you hear an email arrive? Don't! Switch off the alert and only check it two or three times during the day.
Ask for help when you need it
Don't allow things to get out of control. Most managers would rather know there was a problem sooner rather than later when it may then be harder to resolve. Make a clear list of the issues, possible suggestions, and be prepared to work together on a solution.
Try to limit multi-tasking
As a woman, I struggled with this! However, by not giving each task your undivided attention, mistakes are more likely to happen and tasks are not properly completed.
In case you are wondering, yes, I did reduce the hours I worked following my initial coaching. I don't think I ever achieved my contracted 35 hours a week but I certainly drastically reduced my hours. I never received any complaints that I was working less effectively and I was able to introduce some balance into my life.
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