Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 13;   March 31, 2021:

Way Too Much to Do


You're good at your job — when you have enough time to do it. The problem is that so much comes your way that you can't possibly attend to it all. Some things inevitably are missed or get short shrift. If you don't change something soon, trouble is sure to arrive.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. In an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Evanston, Illinois, on August 19, 1954, President Eisenhower quoted an unnamed former college president as having said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." [Eisenhower 1954] . This idea has since been elaborated as the "Eisenhower Matrix," and propagated by others, including Stephen Covey in his book, First Things First. Photo available at the United States Library of Congress.

If you're feeling overloaded, you probably are. Finding a way out of this condition will be easier if you recognize and accept how connected you are to the people around you. With regard to being overloaded at work, that connection expresses itself in two ways. First, you probably aren't alone in feeling overloaded. It's likely that others feel overloaded, too, and it's possible that everyone you know feels overloaded. Second, you can't fix the situation by yourself. When you eventually do find a path to a more reasonable workload, and then reflect back on how you found that path, you'll probably notice that many people contributed to the changes that made your workload more reasonable.

So there are these two sides to this connectedness. You're connected to others in that there are probably others who feel overloaded. And you're connected to others in that the change in your workload, when it comes, will have resulted from your own actions and the actions of many others.

Until that day arrives, there are three sets of insights that can lighten the load if earnestly applied.

The overload might be a symptom of something deeper
Although you might have some degree of control over the decisions and behavior of others, you probably have far more control over your own decisions and behavior. Be certain that you aren't contributing to your overload in ways that might not be obvious in the moment. What feels like overload might actually be the consequence of other counter-effective behavior.
For example, a pattern of deferring unpleasant tasks can create overload because tasks deferred can eventually become both urgent and important. [Nelson 1983] When that happens, you have little choice but to address those tasks immediately. And if that happens at a time when you're heavily loaded, you can experience overload. But if you had addressed the unpleasant task earlier, an overload situation might not have arisen. What feels like an overload might actually be the result of procrastination.
Other What feels like overload
might actually be the
consequence of other
counter-effective behavior
patterns can also masquerade as overload. For example, perfectionism and micromanaging can create enormous amounts of unnecessary load. And engaging in bullying can create a need to spend time concealing one's nefarious and abusive activities.
Saying "no" can work if it's caring and respectful
In some situations, a firm and respectful "No" is all that's required to prevent additional tasks being added to your load. There are four traps to avoid when you say "no." Here are four guidelines for avoiding those four traps.
  • Demonstrate sincere concern and respect. Don't be cavalier. Offer to work out a solution that might not create overload for you, by adjusting timing, or the nature of the task, or how much of the responsibility would be yours.
  • If you predicted the problem that now appears to be headed in your direction, avoid saying "I told you so." That will only enhance the probability of toxic conflict. Instead, try to motivate an inquiry into the methods previously used to resolve similar issues.
  • Deliver your "No" by declining first, then explaining why you must decline. A common alternative pattern that creates difficulty is a chain of reasons why you must decline, leading up to "No." That pattern creates trouble because the requestor can see the "No" coming well in advance of its arrival. When the "No" finally arrives, the requestor is ready with refutations of your reasons or a rejection of your "No." Delivering your "No" first creates the possibility for it to take root before the requestor can reject it.
  • Take responsibility for your own "No." Avoid blaming someone else for the "fact" that you must decline the request. For example, it's a bad idea to assert without evidence that some other party has already claimed your time, or to claim that your honoring the request wouldn't be helpful because of some other blocking phenomenon. These third-party excuses are effective only if they're factual. Use them with extreme care.
Know the difference between urgency and importance
Humans tend to assess the priority of issues on the basis of their urgency and importance. When presented with two tasks of equal urgency, our choice is usually easy and sensible — we choose the more important one. And between two tasks of equal importance, we sensibly choose the more urgent one. But in other cases, humans tend to exhibit what has come to be called the mere urgency effect. [Zhu 2018] We tend to make choices biased in favor of urgency.
Because of the mere urgency effect, when deciding whether to accept a request, or to suggest an alternative, or to decline, we're more likely to accept if the request is presented as urgent, even if the task in question is unimportant. And when we must decide whether to ask another to accept the request, or just do it ourselves without asking anyone else, we're more likely to assign the task to ourselves if we regard the task as urgent, even if it's unimportant.
In these and many other scenarios, the mere urgency effect biases our choices in favor of increasing our workloads. To limit this effect, we must find a way to contemplate the importance of the request presented to us. That can be difficult when the urgency of the request seems to forbid careful contemplation. One tactic that might help: In each case, until demonstrated otherwise, regard urgency as a technique requestors might use to prevent our assessing the importance of their requests.

If you're overloaded at work, other people probably do play a role. But there are steps to take before trying to change the organization or its people. Careful thought about your own overload situation can provide insight as to its causes. Almost certainly some of the causes are within your power to address. Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Perils of Reverse Scheduling  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!


[Eisenhower 1954]
Dwight D. Eisenhower. "Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches," August 19, 1954. Available here. Back
[Nelson 1983]
Bryce Nelson. "Deep-Seated Causes Found for Tendency to Delay," The New York Times, April 12, 1983, p. C1. Available here. Back
[Zhu 2018]
Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, and Christopher K. Hsee. "The mere urgency effect," Journal of Consumer Research 45:3 (2018), 673-690. Available here. Retrieved 12 March 2021. Back

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