A few weeks ago I found myself in a situation I’d been in many times before. I’d made too many promises to too many people, I had multiple, impending deadlines colliding, and I was feeling too frazzled to even start. I’d taken on too much.
Taking on too much doesn’t benefit anyone. You risk any number of the following situations; making avoidable mistakes, under-delivering on work, missing deadlines, and letting down your team. Not to mention personal exhaustion.
The trouble is, it’s both addictive and self-fulfilling. It feels good to say ‘yes’ – to show dedication, diligence, and dependability to your manager and peers. Do it enough, and people will come to expect it of you. But do it for a sustained period and it will stop you in your tracks – more often than not at the very moment when you need to be on top-form.
It’s not just you, it’s not just me; it’s part of our living and working culture. As our Co-Founder and Head of Customer, Tim Mullen puts it:
Extreme success is a social currency. We know we need to ‘innovate or die’. We need to chase hyper-growth (not normal growth) to be deemed successful. No sleep and working 70+ hours a week are a badge of honor.
And it affects people at all levels and stages of their career.
Today, managers are trained to spot the signs of burnout among their employees but CEOs and senior leaders are also at risk. High-profile cases of executive burnout including Arianna Huffington and António Horta-Osório tell us as much.
Given the cultural context, acknowledging that you’re in above your head is not easy. This is usually the point when fear kicks in. Fear that you’ll be seen as lazy or incapable – which can be pretty hard to face, particularly if you’re high achiever. Which you probably are given the situation.
But admitting that you’ve taken on too much has real positive outcomes and benefits for those around you. It gives your managers and peers the opportunity to step in, to re-delegate tasks and prevent damage. In the long term, it also helps leaders identify gaps in resources and make adjustments to support the team.
Here are three behaviors you and your team can practice to break the cycle of too much:
Make it OK to say ‘no’
“The right ‘no’ at the right time can change the course of history.”
– Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism.
OK, so saying no to a new project or shorter deadline probably isn’t going to change the course of history but it could be the difference between you burning out and not. Saying yes over and over again is usually what gets us to too much in the first place.
Minimalist blogger, Leo Babauta summarizes what’s going on in our minds at these decision points:
Saying Yes is easy, because current self thinks that future self can handle it, no problem. But then future self becomes current self, and suddenly has to pay up for all the obligations placed upon him by all the optimistic past selves.
Saying ‘no’ shows self-awareness and maturity. The next time you feel yourself reaching for the reluctant ‘yes’, have the courage to say ‘no’ – with confidence and grace. And the next time one of your team declines a request, thank them for it so that they know that it’s OK to say ‘no’.
Learn to ask for help
Letting go and asking for help is also not easy.
You may think that no one else can do the job as well as you or you might not want to inconvenience someone with your workload. But you’ll probably find that the person on the other end is both more than capable and willing to help you out.
As a leader, encourage your team to look out for each other and jump in if they see someone struggling. They’re probably already doing it without realizing it but calling it out will help everyone become aware and over time, will to build an empathetic and supportive team culture.
Observe your limits
Many of us go to work five days out of seven. Even if we work part-time, we’re still doing two, three or four days. We spend a fair proportion of our waking hours at work. But despite this, we are really bad at estimating how much we’re able to get done in a normal working day.
In our team, we use Jell to track and share our daily plans and achievements. When we first started using it I wildly overestimated how much I could get done in a day. Every evening I ended up with less than half of my to-do items crossed off:
Whether you use software or a pen and paper, writing down your daily to-dos and then checking off how much you actually achieved will help you learn what’s realistic given your particular role and working context. This will help you build greater awareness of your personal capacity.
Do it as a team, and you’ll all get better at balancing workload amongst each other and prioritizing which activities are essential in helping you reach your objectives, and which are too much.