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 behaviorpatterns 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Organizational Change:
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our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
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- Reactance and Micromanagement
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or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain
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- Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict
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replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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