When Work Bogs You Down, Set Priorities


There are so many reasons for people to feel overwhelmed at work that we hardly need the newest and very powerful reason--this unfriendly economy. Companies are laying off workers, and they're not replacing them. They're even dragging their feet about replacing those who leave for other reasons. So guess who's picking up the slack.

This e-mail from one overburdened worker probably sums up the feelings of many: "When they laid off half the work force in my company and kept only a handful of us around, my workload suddenly tripled--maybe even quadrupled. . . .So where did my life go? Eighteen-hour days. Hardly any sleep. Angst that the whole division will be wiped out or, worse, sold. Too much e-mail. Too much phone mail. Too many customers to keep up with. Know any good headhunters?"

The workplace expert's traditional response to such a complaint is the good old three Ps: Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Be ruthless about it, says Stever Robbins, a leadership coach in Cambridge, Mass. Focus on doing those things that are both "urgent and important."

That means activity that relates directly to company goals and that will make your day run more smoothly tomorrow. That does not mean, he says, attending to what seems merely urgent, such as finessing the fonts of tomorrow's PowerPoint presentation. Be satisfied with bare-bones type, he says.

It doesn't mean hopping to meet a request from the prospect who has been stringing you along for six years and still hasn't bought anything.

Enlist the help of your manager, but don't expect him or her to re-engineer your workload for you. Bosses are knee-deep in their own worries. Stay on a conversational and positive note, Robbins says, telling your boss something like: "I can do only three of these 15 things. Here are the three I think should be top priority, and here are the ones I'll work on next if I have time." Suggest ways to handle the remaining tasks.

Judy Cohen, manager of e-search and recruitment for Lloyd Staffing in Melville, N.Y., is one employee who has picked up some work from a departed colleague. She says she's inherited job research orders in a new discipline: architecture.

"These days it's get a job, fill it . . . all the fluff we would normally do (i.e., conference calls, meetings, strategizing) needs to be put to one side in these times," she said in an e-mail.

The traditional approaches of prioritizing, slicing away the nonessentials and appealing to your boss for help will take you only so far, especially if you have one of those bosses who delights in watching you squirm. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, it may be time to consider making a move, but be forewarned: The "overworked" phenomenon is not unique to your company.

A study by the New York nonprofit Families and Work Institute found that 28% of 1,000 respondents felt overwhelmed by their workloads "often" or "very often" in the last three months. (See http://www.familiesandwork.org for other survey findings.)

The ultimate solution may just lie in making your own internal adjustment. "Decide for yourself the level of commitment you are willing to make," Robbins says. Accept that you may be in a no-win position and decide to take care of yourself by "setting mental limits on your time."

This boils down to establishing personal boundaries and not allowing them to be eroded. With so many people in the same boat, you won't stand out as unusual, he says.

As for those feelings of letting the boss down, look at it this way, Robbins says: "We may like each other, we may respect each other, but we're not family. We just work together. Family is who you go home to at night." So it's ultimately up to you to save enough of yourself for the people who count most in your life.

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