In the information age, when almost everyone in every office is a knowledge worker, we’re paid to process information. And since there’s an infinite amount of information, there’s an infinite amount of work. For everyone.
So your boss is probably giving you enough work every week to fill three weeks — if you let it. If you work a certain way, it could also fill only three days.
My point is that people who feel overworked in some respects choose to be overworked. Here are some choices to make instead.
1. Force your boss to prioritize.
Because processing information is not an objective task, you can do a good job or a bad job or any kind of job in between. Which is to say that you don’t have to do a great job with everything. You can’t, right? Because your boss is giving you too much work.
So you have some choices. First, you can try to force your boss to prioritize. Say to him or her, “If you want me to do project z perfectly, then you need to get projects w, x, and y off my plate.”
Maybe your boss will think project z is so important that he or she will clear your plate. But most likely, your boss will say, “Forget it. You need to do everything.” This is an open invitation to start experimenting with cutting corners.
2. If your boss won’t prioritize, do it yourself.
Please don’t tell me you don’t believe in cutting corners. It’s the layman’s term for prioritizing, and you probably perfected it as a way of life in college. In fact, cutting corners is what college teaches best.
Over the course of a semester, you were assigned sixteen 400-page books to read, plus you had to write papers about them. You also had to show up for classes to find out what was going to be on the tests. Of course, there was no way you could read all 6,400 pages you were assigned — that would be impossible in the allotted time.
So you figured out what you could skip. You determined that the best way to get out of the reading was to go to the lectures, because professors lecture about what interests them, and their tests reflect their interests.
Now back to your workplace, where you have too much work to do. Here’s how the losers handle it: They complain about being overworked. They keep accepting more work, and trying to do it perfectly, and complain. And their bosses keep dumping it on them and saying there’s nothing they can do about the workload. Meanwhile, neither of them is prioritizing, neither of them is taking responsibility for the situation, and each is blaming the other.
If you boss insists on giving you more work than you can do, you should start cutting corners. Do everything very quickly, and ignore the idea that it needs to be done perfectly — it can’t all be done perfectly. Your boss refuses to prioritize for you, so you’ll have to do everything as best as you can.
3. Get comfortable with ignoring some tasks.
For some of you, even doing things less than perfectly will take too much time. In this case, you’ll have to blow some stuff off. So experiment and see which things can fall through cracks without anyone noticing.
You already do this. Someone at work sends you an email demanding a response. But before you have time to reply, another recipient does so, so you just delete the original message. Try this approach with work you’re not a central force on and see what happens.
4. Stop complaining before it ruins your life.
I can already imagine the comments flying about this column. Some of you will say that you’d be fired for following the above advice. But what’s your choice? You’ve already told your boss you have more work than you can get done in a day, and he or she didn’t scale back. Do you want to continue to just complain about it every day? Probably not, because complaining is toxic.
Besides, do you really want to work 15 hour days to get extra work done for a company that doesn’t respect its employees’ time? Why should you give up your personal life because your boss can’t prioritize?
Instead, take control of your life and create a situation where you stop complaining about having too much work. If you’re fired for not doing all the work, you probably didn’t want to work at the company anyway. And if you’re not able to scale back, consider that you might over-identify with your job to the point that you’re working harder than you need to because you can’t imagine not being perfect.
5. Take responsibility for being overworked, then change it.
OK, suppose you love your work and you’re happy working 15-hour days. That’s fine. Just don’t complain about it.
What I’m saying is that if you complain about having too much work you should look in the mirror — it’s your own fault, and you can change the situation by drawing boundaries at work. Be an adult by taking responsibility for your time, and complain only when you have a solution.
Star performers don’t talk about being overworked, they talk about time management. The best time managers excel at it because they’re good at figuring out what they don’t have to do. The best time managers have the confidence to say, “I’ll still be a star even if I don’t do that task.”
This reminds me of Gina Trapani, who edits the Lifehacker blog. Gina and three other editors put out a publication that has more readers than just about every local newspaper in this country, and many national magazines. Surely she’s a very busy person. But her productivity tips belie a Zen-like balance in which she isolates the most important things and lets other things languish if need be.
Want an example? In order for Gina to blog every day, she has to keep up with hundreds of other bloggers so she knows who to link to. These blogs come to her via direct feed. What does she do when she’s falling behind and blog posts are piling up? She clears out her in-box and starts over. “If something’s really important,” she said at a panel I attended, “someone will email me about it.”
This is great advice from someone who’s succeeding in an area where most people would succumb to information overload. Clearly, the way to do good work is to know when it’s time to not do it.