Busy Work: How to Manage a Heavy Workload

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Posted by Sally Hogshead on June 16, 2011
Busy Work: How to Manage a Heavy Workload

If you're like most people, things have been busy at work lately. And by "lately," I mean the past few years. We've had every bit of our scheduling fat stripped away. Conversations with friends become comparisons of how busy we are: "Hey, how are you?" "Busy. You?" "Busy." "I'd ask about it, but I'm too busy right now."

Sound familiar? "Busy" is the new "fine." With companies running so lean, it can feel impossible to get out from underneath a crushing to-do list. But your career shouldn't be a frantic scramble of catch-up, with zero time to stop and breathe. 

The reality is that we spend roughly 65 percent of our waking hours doing work. That's way too much time to spend doing anything that doesn't deserve your time and talents. Three declarations to keep in mind if you're feeling too busy (and let's face it, who isn't?):

Work should reward in direct proportion to its demands. Work can be very hard, no question. That's precisely why we must demand as much in return. I've had jobs that paid quite poorly and demanded enormous dedication. Yet the job was worth it because it compensated me in opportunity. The harder you work, the greater your right to love what you do. The reality is that a career is work, just like marriage and parenting. Yes, of course, a career worth loving brings joy, excitement, and fulfillment, but there will be days when your career feels like ditch-digging. And that's okay. Nothing worth a lifetime of time and talent will come easy.

The harder it feels to love what you do, the more urgent the need to change. When you're already too busy to keep up, stopping to evaluate your career can feel impossible. Who has time to contemplate when there's a skyscraper of emails stacking up in your inbox?

Yet it's exactly when you're feeling too overwhelmed to find new options that those options must be found. Set aside time to consider what you really want from your career.

The point of your career isn't to find easier work. It's to find work that's worth the effort. Work is hard-just like ice is cold and water is wet. Accept the fact and you can get on with the important and interesting work of creating your best life. Modern success isn't measured by a bank account, a business card, or any of the other brass rings. It's about choice. Success is about having control to decide what kind of life you want to live. For some people, that choice means having the financial option to retire early. For others it's about working with the most brilliant minds around. In my survey of 1,000 people around the country, it was mostly about having freedom and control to make choices: 32 percent said power meant freedom to say no and walk away, 36 percent said it was having complete control over their schedule.

But how, you ask? Excellent question. By focusing attention on your juiciest possibilities, you can accomplish your biggest goals, despite the fact that you're multitasking like a maniac during the rest of the day. Here are a few suggestions to that end:

  • Pick the cherries. Let's face it, your to-do list is unrealistically long, and you can't possibly get it all done. You have to choose what matters. Select the few key opportunities worth your full focus, those that deserve your absolute best.
  • Designate a holy time. Stake out a time of day that's sacred for work. For me, this is early morning. I focus on my "big idea" projects, and push to afternoon all the random web browsing, phone calls, errands, and bits that don't require such hardcore attention.
  • Carve out chunks to think. Athletes can't improve by concentrating only for 15 minutes at a time, and neither can you. Even though interruptions arrive every five minutes, you can't build momentum if you're all over the place. Give yourself time to warm up, push boundaries, and refine your thinking. How? Block out the world around you with those dorky looking (but fantastically effective!) noise-canceling headphones. Then lock in, focus, and crank like a mo' fo'. And of course, a shot of double espresso doesn't hurt.

Are there easier ways to do your job? Yes, probably. There are also lesser results, smaller goals, and lower standards.


MBA Jungle,Aug./Sept. 2007


Sally Hogshead, author of Radical Careering: 100 Truths to Jumpstart Your Life, speaks to groups around the country on leadership and innovation.

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