Are you getting assigned too much at work/school?

As the idiom goes, many of us feel like we are drinking from a firehose at work or at school. In other words, we feel so overwhelmed with tasks that keep getting assigned back-to-back to us and we struggle to keep up. As a coping mechanism, it is tempting to create more time by sleeping less, reducing leisure, and multitasking. However, it has been well documented that such tactics actually reduce creativity, productivity, and objectivity. That results in further exacerbating the situation which amounts to more overwhelm and possibly burnout. The point of this article is to consider ways to get over this condition which unfortunately seems to be fairly common.

Why does it happen even in extremely caring and nurturing work-environments? In other words, what is driving the phenomenon of piling task upon task? Many times, the person or persons assigning the task: may not know how much time each task actually takes; may not know what other tasks we are working on or responsibilities we have; may not realize we would take a lot longer to do certain tasks; or may not have communicated the motivation (and other aspects) behind the task. I am guilty of this many times with my students both in the classroom as well as research. I am also guilty of over-delegating tasks to my coworkers.

What can those of us that give out or delegate tasks do? First thing is to monitor ourselves. Then it would be good to feel the pulse of the people we assign things to. If it seems like there is overwhelm, we could offer help. This needs to be done carefully. For example, we should not take the most fun and interesting part of the task and give the boring busywork to others. Also, we should ask in a manner that would make it empowering for one to ask for help. Many times we just say, “if there is any way I can help, please do not hesitate to reach out”, that frequently does not cut it. Lastly, and most importantly we need to find ways to hire new people or reduce the tasks.

For the remainder, we switch to the perspective of the one drinking from the idiomatic firehose. A big mistake some of us make is to improperly classify the tasks in the classic buckets: urgent and important; not urgent but important; urgent but not important; not urgent and not important. One reason for improperly classifying is that the tasks have different time scales (like saying, “okay I will skip going to the gym today as I can always go tomorrow”). Another reason is that we tend to be tempted to use the wonderful policy called shortest-processing-time-first (SPTF). We sometimes deceive ourselves to think SPTF tasks are important, even if they are not urgent.

One of the main concerns is not having full information to estimate the time a task would take. It is well known that we typically grossly under-estimate the time we take to do most tasks. So if we have the luxury to say “no” to unimportant and not urgent tasks, we should. But I am going to assume that after saying no to some tasks, we are still left with a huge number of important tasks, whether urgent or not. A critical mistake many of us make (mostly out of selflessness than ignorance) is we prioritize tasks that do not count toward our own growth. For example, we feel that we have been busy all year but have nothing significant to put down in the annual report.

Let us go back to the firehose analogy, say we really do not have the luxury to prioritize, everything is highest priority and we are just overwhelmed. What are some options for us?

Seek out

Some of us may not feel comfortable bringing up the overwhelm directly to the person assigning us tasks. An alternative is to discreetly mention to a colleague or a peer. It would do two things: it would enable us to form a support group; it would also find its way to the appropriate person(s) so the firehose nozzle is turned down. If the overwhelm periods happen during certain times of the year, it could help to journal what strategies worked so that they could be used next time.

Communicate

We could arrange for a meeting with the one giving us a majority of the tasks (usually a supervisor). At the meeting we could show a list of tasks we have and our estimate of the time it would take for each task. We could also list tasks that were not assigned by the supervisor. Then among the highest priority tasks, we could ask the supervisor in what order they would recommend performing them. Also, over time as tasks get done, we could inform the supervisors and share the updated list, say, weekly.

Comedy

This might sound silly but finding things to laugh, celebrate, and enjoy outside of work does improve creativity, productivity, and objectivity. No wonder they all rhyme with witty! There are plenty of funny podcasts, videos, shows, and books out there. One can weave them into routine activities like cooking, exercising, or dish washing. We could also sign up for fun events organized at the workplace. As they say, laughter is the best medicine.

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