4 techniques to manage work overload
We all have stressful times in our lives when it seems like we have more to do than we can possibly get done. For many of us, it is often a combination of work-life and personal responsibilities that lead to overload. Early in my career, this seemed to happen to me on a monthly basis. Now, it happens to me a few times per year. Maybe it happens less frequently because I have learned to avoid getting into those situations or I have developed a higher tolerance for them.
However, a few weeks ago it happened: overload! I was working on a complex project with tight time frames. It was an important project for our company and our clients. I had many things I wanted to accomplish and had two email boxes, instant messaging, and my phone blowing up simultaneously. In these situations, my heart rate increases, my patience thins, and my ability to focus diminishes. It feels like I want to curl up into the fetal position, close my eyes, and hope it goes away. As tempting as it may be, I am pretty sure it is not a good option!
Over time, I have found some techniques that help me deal with these situations:
- Break the problem down into manageable pieces: At times, trying to solve a large or complex problem all at once is paralyzing. The task seems too large and it is hard to know what to do first. When working on a complex problem, it helps me to break it into stages, prioritizing what needs to happen first, second, third, etc. At that point, I can focus on just the first stage without the distraction of solving the whole problem at once. When the first stage is complete, I move on to the next. If I am working on a task that is not complex, but the amount of work seems overwhelming, I break it into bite-size pieces and set goals. For example, if I need to read 10 chapters of difficult material, I may set a goal to read two chapters because I know I can do that. Then I set a goal to read the next two. Pretty soon, I am on the last two chapters! Achieving each mini goal along the way is rewarding. It is a little like playing mind games with yourself, but for me, it seems to remove some of the stress that makes it difficult to focus.
- Lean on team members: There are times when you alone can’t complete a project. Particularly early in my career, I was hesitant to admit that I couldn’t do it alone and I didn’t want to burden others with my problems. While I am still trying to be better at this, I have learned that it is critical to reach out to team members because they are often better at many aspects of the job and they really want to help! In my overload situation from a few weeks ago, we had a large team of people who demonstrated incredible ingenuity, determination, and teamwork to help meet client needs. We are fortunate this is the norm at our company. Don’t hesitate to lean on your team!
- Step away: When I am in an overload situation, I find it difficult to focus and my productivity really decreases. It doesn’t make much sense to keep plugging away at a 50% productivity level. If I can step away for even 30 minutes to do something that clears my head, like a take a walk or get in a short workout, when I get back to the task at hand, my productivity is much improved.
- Daily reboot: Although it is probably not endorsed by our IT department, my go-to IT problem-solving method is to turn off the device and reboot. Clear all the clutter from the memory! I use a similar method to deal with overload. These overload situations tend to occur over a several-day period. Although I am not always successful, I try to make every day a fresh start. Waking up carrying the previous day’s baggage is mentally exhausting, so I try to forget the previous day’s struggles and look at the new day as an opportunity to make progress and have success. A tough day doesn’t necessarily need to become a tough week. I find the attitude with which I approach a situation has a big impact on results.
While I have not figured out a way to avoid every overload situation, and they are never easy, these are some of the ways I try to work through them. The good news is, if you successfully navigate an overload situation, it is a great feeling! You usually end up accomplishing a lot. Hopefully some of these methods help you the next time overload strikes.
Dave Seiler is chief operating officer of First Business Financial Services Inc., parent company of First Business Bank.
Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.