Winter 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Burnout Blues

Friday, December 15, 2017

How to manage the forces that have you feeling overextended.

Do you feel exhausted before you even get to work? Have less patience with co-workers? See no end to your to-do list? Experience little joy or interest in your work? You're not alone.


At some point in your career, you will feel overwhelmed and overworked. According to Rand Corporation's American Working Conditions Survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents say their jobs force them to work at high speeds and under tight deadlines, and nearly half say they take some work home with them. But after working hard to reach the senior level of leadership and responsibility, you may find it hard to tell your boss or team that you have too much to do. After all, it was your ambition and willingness to commit that got you to the executive ranks. So you suck it up until you experience full burnout, or you blame yourself—and think that you aren't working hard enough or as efficiently as you could.

Before you give in to the exhaustion and stress and seek a new position at another organization, try these strategies for managing the heavy workload.

Where does the time go?

Many financial advisers will tell you that to develop a suitable budget you should track where you spend money. You start by dividing your budget into key categories: fixed bills, regular bills, and discretionary funds. Next, you should track where you spend your money. It adds up fast, and chances are your budget projections won't match your true spending habits.

You should conduct this same exercise to track your workload. First, detail any high-profile projects that have specific deadlines, followed by responsibilities that you must do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Then list duties such as impromptu staff meetings and answering email, tasks that aren't set on the calendar but you know you must perform.

Once you have those estimates, you will need to track where your time really goes. Did a major project take longer than expected? How much time do you really spend in meetings, on calls, or responding to email and texts? If you're like most people, you will find that where you thought your time went is quite different from where you spend key hours in the day. What's more, it's easy to see where the responsibilities are stacking up and how the weight has become detrimental to your performance.

No doubt, asking you to track your time probably seems like just another item on your growing to-do list. In the long run, though, it will help you know whether one project, responsibility, task, or co-worker is dominating your time. With this knowledge, you will be better equipped to manage your workload.

Prioritize for premium impact

Oftentimes, everything that you do seems critical. So as you start to prioritize your responsibilities, assess the impact each obligation has on the organization's mission and bottom line. You also want to identify what is urgent and what is important. For example, work that involves external clients probably takes precedence, especially if it has a deadline looming.

And at the senior level, it's not only important to rank and arrange your activities by deadlines and resource constraints, you also need to keep in mind the stakeholders involved. Ask yourself, "Who else cares about this project?" Is it someone powerful? Is it someone who has authority over your budget and goals? Is it a complainer who has sway with others? While you don't want your decision to be driven solely by other people, you need to consider their potential influence—in the immediate future and later in your career.

Finally, weigh your own career goals as you arrange your workload. For instance, you may want to keep doing work for your mentors and advocates. Also, when you're juggling a lot of balls, it's easy to start looking at all of them as equal burdens, says executive coach Scott Eblin. But he reminds leaders to consider the personal benefits when prioritizing: "What are the good things that could result from doing a fabulous job with this particular ball?"

To delete or to delegate

If you really dig in to your prioritization effort, you likely will unearth tasks that you simply need to delete. "These are things that don't add value for you, or for the organization," says Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. For instance, your scrub list might include meetings that you're invited to as a courtesy. She explains that to identify opportunities to delete, ask if the task is still relevant to your performance, how you are using these outputs, and what is the impact if you stopped doing it?

Granted, giving up certain responsibilities may be hard to do, especially if you've become the go-to person for projects. Even worse, how do you respond when your boss gives you another project? Can you really ask for help or even say no? In many cases, it is OK to cry uncle. If you've tracked your time, you can accurately discuss what you already have on your plate and ask the boss to make the final decision on what to push back.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is co-founder of SixFigureStart, a career coaching firm. She writes in a Forbes article "From an information standpoint, your boss knows more about priorities so is in a better position to decide this. On a practical level, having your boss decide helps to shield you from fallout if something gets dropped."

But you can't just say no to your boss, albeit politely but firmly, and move on with your workday. The ability to say no gets even harder when you are the boss. Instead, be prepared to delegate responsibilities to other members of the team. "Think of people in your group for whom this assignment would be a stretch role or a chance for increased visibility," notes Ceniza-Levine. "When delegating a task means you develop someone else or give them an opportunity to shine, it is a win-win for both of you."


Systemize the small stuff

With the big picture prioritized, it's time to organize the little things—email, phone calls, reports, and meetings—that quickly take over your day. One strategy is to set aside a specific time to manage these everyday tasks. Establish a routine and stick to it. For example, maybe you only check email in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day. The rest of the time, shut down your Outlook. That sounds impossible, but if something is really urgent, the client or co-worker will call or stop by your office for a direct discussion.

It also can be a good idea to prepare daily to-do lists. You can do this first thing in the morning or at the end of the previous day. Each day, identify the two or three tasks that are the most crucial to complete, and put those at the top of your list.

It's important to be specific about the individual tasks. Kristie Notto, host of the "Be Legendary" podcast and author of Ignite Your Impact, suggests categorizing items and then breaking them into bigger chunks so they are less intimidating. Rather than "update budget," maybe the task is "review monthly expenses."

You also should get in the habit of setting time limits for certain tasks. For example, maybe you should dedicate 30 minutes to budgeting—and only 30 minutes.

Just get to it

You've cleaned out the dead wood and organized the remaining priorities. Your to-do list is in hand and you have time set aside for every task. Now it's time to buckle down and tackle your biggest responsibility first. That is the golden rule of time management. If you accomplish that, your day is already a success.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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