How To Stop Work Overload With a Few Simple Boundaries
Why is it that when your friends, family, and significant other tell you, “You need to stop working so much!”—you hesitate? On the one hand, you know they have a point. It’s unsustainable to pull 12-to-14-hour days on a consistent basis, and you feel burnt-out and cranky. But when it comes to actually setting boundaries, you stall and tell yourself and others, “It’s just a busy time. It will get better soon…”
But, it doesn’t. And you find yourself wedged between the fact that you can’t seem to get everything done and the feeling that maybe the problem isn’t the situation—it’s you. You feel guilty that everyone else seems to complete everything, but you can’t. You worry that if you ask for help or say, “No,” to anything that everyone will discover you’re an imposter who doesn’t add enough value.
Although those fears are understandable, they aren’t necessary valid. As a time coach, I’ve found that one of the biggest keys to achieving balance is to start objectively evaluating the fact-based aspects of your schedule, rather than letting a vague sense of fear drive your decisions. No matter how valuable a team member you may be, no one can fit 100 hours of work into 40 hours a week, or even 60 hours. You can start to make changes once you have confidence that the expectations of yourself and others really are unreasonable and that you can set boundaries in a respectful, constructive manner.
Here are five steps to gain that confidence, which you can apply on an individual level or a group level if you have responsibility for managing the expectations of your team:
Step 1: Develop a Time Budget
People who manage their finances well follow a few consistent principles. For one, they spend only what they have, so they avoid unnecessary debt and the corresponding stress and cost. They also make sure that they allocate their money correctly, so that they have sufficient funds for everything they need to buy. Finally, they cut costs where they can, without a significant negative impact, and make sure to put money into investments where they have a good probability of a return. The same principles apply with effective time investment. To have a clear sense of what you can reasonably handle, you should start out by calculating how many hours you have to “spend” each week. If you tend toward over-allocating time toward work, you can do the calculations in reverse. For example:
Hours/Day to Work = 24 – (Number of Hours of Sleep) – (Commute) – (Personal Commitments) – (Exercise) – (Self Care)
By “personal commitments,” I’m referring to items in your schedule that are an essential part of you feeling fulfilled. These vary from person to person but could include family time, volunteer responsibilities, social activities, or personal passions like playing the piano. Also, eating, showering, and getting ready fall under “self care.” Once you have a sense of your daily time budget, you can calculate your weekly time budget by adding up the totals for each day. For some people, each day will look similar. For others, their personal commitments create large variations in their day-to-day time budget.
Once you understand the size of your time budget, then you can evaluate the different time costs during your workday. For example, you have “maintenance” activities like answering e-mail or planning, “execution” activities like attending meetings or completing a report, and “development” activities like networking or marketing. I recommend making a list of all the different elements of your workday and then either writing down an initial time estimate or percentage for each one.
For instance, 20% of my workday consists of answering e-mail, 50% of project work, and 30% of development activities. Make sure to not only consider the cost for a particular item but also the associated costs. For instance, a one-hour meeting could come with the related expenses of 15 minutes of travel time each way, 30 minutes of prep, and 15 minutes of follow up. That means that the total expense comes to 2.25 hours. So if you work a 9-hour day and want to spend no more than 50% of your time in meetings, then that limits you to an average of two meetings per day and ten meetings per week.
Step 2: Make Cuts Where You Can
After developing a time budget, you’ll typically find that you really did expect more of yourself than you could possibly fit into the hours in a day. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to go running to your manager yet. Instead, you need to take a very careful look at how you spend your time and cut where you can, first.
One of the readers of my book took this advice to heart when she faced a major time crunch at work. Instead of trying to fight the reality of her time budget, she took this action:
“I was (once again) up against way too many competing projects with the same deadline and then trying to juggle other on-going & long-term projects too, which was causing lots of stress! So, I thought about what was causing the stress and tried to tackle things I had control of without just defaulting to working a lot of overtime. For example, I contacted one of the project managers with the longer-term project to see if it was possible to ‘pause’ my effort on his project over a two-week period, and he agreed with some negotiations. So that was about 24 hours saved over the two weeks. Then I attacked a few other aspects of the problem by recruiting some more part-time help from another department, adjusting the scope of one project, gaining an extension on another project, etc., etc. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and a victim of the circumstances, I felt SO powerful!”
You may need to take such extreme measures in times of work crisis, or you may take more subtle measures, such as taking yourself out of nonessential meetings, asking your colleagues to review items with you during one-on-one meetings instead of sending you 50 e-mails throughout the week, stepping off of a committee, turning off your e-mail pop-up, or spending less time on items where spending more time to get them perfect doesn’t add value. Challenge your assumptions on what you should do and how long you should spend on different activities. If possible, only commit to putting tasks on your weekly to-do list if you have space to fit them into your schedule.
Step 3: Compare Expected Versus Actual
Once you’ve started to come to terms with the fact that time is limited and you’ve taken advantage of the quick wins, you’ll need to further refine your estimates to compare expected versus actual time allotments. For instance, maybe you think that e-mail should only take one hour out of your day. But when you actually look at the time you spend, you find that it always takes two. (Any sort of tracking will do, but if you want to be precise, tools like RescueTime can help you to know exactly how you spend time on your computer.) When faced with the reality of the situation, you’ll need to see if you can take time-cutting measures like writing more succinct responses, using tools like TypeIt4Me or asking for different e-mail strategies at work. If none of those reduce the time allocation, then instead of fighting the reality, you’ll need to increase your budget in that area.
Using the 80/20 rule can also help you make everything fit within your time budget. But this will require you to more fully embrace the facts that you can’t do everything and you can’t please everyone. For instance, as you start to look at the value from different activities, you may find that declining meetings that people would like you to attend, but that keep you from your highest priority tasks, is the correct answer. Or you may discover that you need to spend less time than you might have thought to make the correct amount of impact.
For example, showing up for 30-45 minutes at your company happy hour may have almost as much impact as staying for two hours. By cutting out earlier, you can have time to invest an hour in exercise or finishing a proposal, which will have a dramatic return on the time investment. Although some of these choices may make people uncomfortable — especially you — the short-term discomfort caused by changing your natural default response will have a big pay-off in the long term.
Step 4: Ask For Direction
If you’ve followed the above three steps and still can’t seem to accomplish everything you need to do, it’s time to take courage and ask for help. You can do so in a clear, objective way as outlined below. But before you do, bolster your confidence by looking over the facts of your time budget once more and reminding yourself that you have no reason to feel guilty or like a failure. No one can do the impossible, so the fact that you’re over your time budget isn’t a judgment about you, but a sign that you need to adjust your overall environment.
Here’s how to approach time budget negotiations with your manager and/or people who try to put more items into your schedule:
• Gather Your Facts: Have a concise list of projects and a rough estimate of how long the various tasks take you to do. (If you’ve followed the above three steps, you should already have this on hand.)
• Develop a Visual: This could look as simple as printing out your weekly calendar after having filled in both meetings and times for tasks, or as complex as displaying a full-scale project plan. The form matters less than the goal of showing the incongruence between the available time and the requested activities.
• Present the Information: Instead of seeing this as a battle between you and the people desiring work from you, approach these expectations negotiations as strategic sessions where you are working together to maximize the value you can contribute. Maybe a task could be demoted in priority, be delegated, or be simplified so that you can have more time to focus on the highest priority tasks. When done in this manner, asking for direction with setting priorities doesn’t have to come across as disrespectful or insubordinate, but as a joint effort to work within the reality of your time limitations.
Step 5: Keep Rebalancing
Due to the dynamic nature of life and work, you can’t simply set your schedule and then leave it for the next 10 years. Typically on a daily or weekly (or at the very least a monthly) basis, you will need to balance and rebalance your schedule. This means that if you had an under-allocation of time toward a particular activity one week, like processing e-mail, you will need to spend more time on it the following week. Or maybe one week you need to completely focus on presentation prep, so the next week you catch up on meetings. The realistic goal is to have the correct allocation of time within your workweek—and between your work and non-work time—average out correctly.
As a final word of encouragement—and warning—practicing what I’ve outlined will not only leave you healthier and happier, but also more humble. When you start to embrace your limits, you’ll need to admit that you aren’t perfect and can’t do everything, especially all at once. If you have always been the go-to perfectionist on the team, this adjustment in your behavior could leave you feeling a bit at a loss in terms of your identity. You’ll need to redefine who you are such as “the person who remains calm and delivers on-time, quality work” instead of “the stressed-out team member who meets ridiculously short deadlines and never says, No.” This transition will take time but will ultimately empower you to enjoy the journey and make life more pleasant for those around you too.
Image via Jukree Boonprasit (Shutterstock).
This article was originally posted on LifeHacker