The Worst Mistake You Can Make When Overloaded

When there is too much to do, things fall through the cracks, delays become epidemic, and stress spirals out of control. If others are involved, discord brews and respect erodes. The result is rarely pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When there is too much to do, there are only six possibilities. The good news is that five of them are effective. The bad news is that most people choose the sixth.

Here are the five effective ways of dealing with overload:

  1. Accomplish more
  2. Delegate/outsource
  3. Cut corners
  4. Postpone
  5. Abandon

What is #6?

The sixth choice, the only ineffective option, is not consciously selecting one of the five. Every one of the five is a valid option that can be managed for good results. But too often, people choose #6 by not deciding. And by not making the tough decision, they are leaving this decision to chance. The wrong things will fall through the cracks. The wrong corners will be cut. Whim, luck, and personal interests take control. The easy will triumph over the difficult, the tactical over the strategic, and the urgent over the important.

What Will Help Me Accomplish More?

One of the most common questions clients ask me, no matter the project, involves personal productivity. How do you know if someone could accomplish more? The answer is simple. They can.

But they won’t automatically accomplish more just because you pile more on or ramp up the pressure. Nor will you accomplish more under those conditions.

Whether you are trying to accomplish more or you want your employees to accomplish more, here are some tips:

  1. Be clear about your objectives – Where are you leaping to solutions without finding root cause? When are you talking without an endpoint in mind? Are you getting important results or just staying busy?
  2. Provide/get feedback – We often need external input to see the opportunities for improvement. How am I doing? Is there a faster method? Where am I wasting time?
  3. Take a time out – Reflect on your own process, picture yourself doing your work, and track your own time. It is easy to get so caught up in the daily grind that we don’t see opportunities to accomplish more.
  4. Change your approach to tasks that slow you down – Where are the decisions you are slow to make, the times when you hesitate, when you over think the situation, when you are reluctant to pull the trigger, the activities that always look like mountains? Find out what is really slowing you down. Break big objectives into concrete, bite size next steps.
  5. Reconsider the things you enjoy doing – Where does that enjoyment lead to perfection, unnecessary enhancements, and puttering?
  6. Find the tasks that should be easier – Where are you reinventing the wheel where a recipe, template, or standard procedure could make the task a snap?
  7. Check your focus – Are you distracting yourself or letting others distract you unnecessarily?
  8. Don’t over plan – Planning is an important tool, but not an outcome. When perfect plans become the objective themselves, they cross the line into fiction, give the illusion of control, suck up vast amounts of time, and provide little actual value. Plan the familiar just enough to manage the interdependencies and plan the unfamiliar with the focus on learning and removing barriers as soon as possible.

What Should I Be Delegating or Outsourcing?

Individuals and organizations of all types are often slow to delegate or outsource. In many cases, it’s a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. In other cases, it is simply the result of not taking the time to think through the possibilities, implications, and trustworthy alternatives. To get you started, identify activities that:

  1. Drain energy, things that simply aren’t a good fit for the current resource
  2. Are peripheral to your main focus and capabilities
  3. Are performed infrequently, and therefore, probably inefficiently and ineffectively
  4. Mastering will not increase your value to your customers
  5. Are preventing you from doing the things that only you can do or that you must do well

Isn’t Cutting Corners Bad?

“Cutting corners” has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. Shoddy need not be the result. “Good enough” really might be good enough. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is simply not good business thinking. Cutting corners is about making conscious decisions about how much time something deserves and how well it must be done.

Obviously, you must meet customer expectations. But, don’t gold-plate your products. Engineers, for example, are notorious for providing cool features the customers don’t care about. Craftsmen love polishing to perfection. Some people will rewrite documents and emails until the cows come home. In many, many cases, 80% is good enough. That extra 20% is usually visible only to you.

Before you start your next task, make a conscious decision about how well it must be done and how much time and effort it deserves.

How Do I Decide What To Postpone?

The perennial winners in the fight over time are usually the urgent, the customers, and the squeaky wheels. But urgent does not mean important, customers are not all created equal, and squeaky wheels do not have to be fixed.

Here is where priorities are critical. And if you have too many priorities, you simply don’t have priorities.

  • What accomplishments would have the most positive impact on your future?
  • If you can complete only three things, what must those be?
  • Which customers are most important?
  • What is urgent but not important?

What Should I Abandon?

Again, priorities are critical, but here are the two most important questions to consider:

  • What are you doing that provides little return on investment now and/or in the future?
  • What are you doing that contributes least to outcomes for which customers are willing to pay?

The former, may send you back to your strategic drawing board. The latter may be as simple as:

  • Are you reading and responding to emails that should just be deleted?
  • Are you filing or saving things for later that you will never get to?
  • Are you getting those unimportant ducks in a row before starting important tasks?

Choosing among the five effective methods for managing overload is not always easy, but that is what management is all about, whether we are talking about managing others or managing ourselves. Not making the decision, not choosing one of the five, is both risky and stressful.