A professor puts large rocks in a jar in front of his class and asks if the jar is full. His class says yes.
Then, he puts smaller pebbles in the jar and shakes it until the pebbles are distributed among the rocks. Again, the class says the jar is full.
Then, he pours sand into the jar, filling it to the top. It appears filled to capacity until the professor pours in a bottle of water. The professor asks his class if he had poured in the sand first, would there have been room for any of the bigger rocks?
This metaphor is an old story made classic by Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. The rocks are the big, important tasks that impact your growth. The pebbles are the smaller tasks of lesser significance, but still necessary. The sand is non-essential tasks. The water is distractions.
In order to do the important, critical work, you have to prioritize it. If you fill your time with the less significant tasks, it becomes nearly impossible to fit in the higher priority items.
It sounds simple enough: Categorize your work by importance, then do the big stuff first.
But it’s not that easy. Smaller tasks can be less stressful and have a quicker payoff than working toward a long-term strategic goal. The busier you are, the harder it can be to prioritize your work. But, that is exactly when it is most critical.
Whether you’re at an early stage startup with a skeleton crew or part of a bigger team, responsibility creep can expand the scope of your job. Sometimes, that can be a good thing. Taking on more responsibilities can be a good way to learn new skills and show that you’re ready for a formal promotion. But much of the time, an expanded role occurs out of necessity, due to resource constraints, a reorganization, or skills gaps on the team.
Being overburdened at work has become the new normal. Over half of companies struggle with overwhelmed employees. American workers have longer hours, fewer vacation days, and a later retirement than other similarly wealthy countries. Millennials, now the largest percentage of the workforce, believe that they should be working all the time. Burnout seems inevitable.
With a finite amount of time and resources, we have to consider what work has the highest impact. Low value work bogs down our days and can get in the way of growth and progress. By getting rid of low-value work, you can spend more time on the things that matter, leading to increased productivity and better outcomes for you and your company.
How to assess what is low value vs. high value
On the day-to-day, we’re so busy that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. In order to determine the impact of my work at JotForm, I ask myself some questions to better understand the value of individual tasks.
- Do my customers care about this? Delivering a product that meets my customers’ needs and exceeds their expectations is a core function of most jobs, especially if you’re an entrepreneur. If I’m doing work that doesn’t impact the customer, whether directly or indirectly, it’s probably not the best use of my time.
- Do my colleagues care about this? As a leader and manager, it is my responsibility to set up an environment in which my team can thrive. If my work makes my employees happy, it can pay dividends down the line.
- What am I avoiding? If I’m avoiding a task, it’s probably for a reason. Sometimes it’s because it doesn’t play to my natural strengths, or it’s time-consuming or stressful, but often, it’s because it doesn’t feel high value enough to take time away from other things I care about.
I work smarter by automating what I can, delegating what makes sense, and prioritizing everything else. Once I’ve determined what I need to take off my plate, I have to set boundaries and expectations.
It’s not always easy to say “no” — you want to be seen as a team player and maintain good relationships with your colleagues — but nobody wins if the quantity of your commitments diminishes the quality of your work. If you need to say no, do so with clarity and kindness.
How to set boundaries
For successful, productive people, it can feel nearly impossible to set and maintain boundaries with work. We want to be seen as collaborative, hard workers, which can often mean working over the weekend and checking email in the carpool line. We’re afraid of the optics or the conflict that comes from setting boundaries. But, setting boundaries is critical to avoiding burnout and creating a sustainable work life.
Boundaries are a healthy part of any relationship. By being specific about the boundaries you are setting and the change you’re hoping to make, you are setting expectations that will be beneficial to both parties.
First, talk to your manager. Aside from wanting happy, healthy employees, employers have a financial incentive to care about your workload. Burnout has very real costs, from healthcare spending to salary loss from disengaged employees to an increased employee turnover rate. You and your boss should stay on the same side of the problem. Come prepared with a list of everything you’re working on and ask for help prioritizing.
While meetings like this can be stressful, it’s far better to be proactive in asking for help than for the conversation to be forced by a slip-up. Multitasking is hard to avoid when you have too much work, but it makes you worse at your job. Feeling overwhelmed can impact your cognitive functioning, making you easily distracted, confused, and forgetful. The stakes are too high to say “yes” to everything. Taking on responsibilities outside of your core job function dilutes your overall impact, even if you are technically doing more work.
A good time to reassess your workload is during a moment of change, whether that’s at the start of a new job, while new work is being added, or when you’ve just had a moment of success. These moments can help you see your work at a ten thousand foot view, showing you what is critical to your job and what is low value. By bringing recommendations on what you should drop to your manager during a transition period, you both have more leverage to make a change.