One day, a man set out to sell his wares at the market with his horse and donkey in tow. Despite having two beasts of burden, the man had piled and packed all of his wares onto the back of the donkey. The road was long and after some time, the donkey, his back breaking under such heavy cargo, turned to the horse and pleaded with him to take a share of his heavy load. The proud horse refused and the poor donkey, after staggering on a little further, fell down and died.
A little dramatic, I know. When I first heard this Aesop fable in elementary school, I was shocked by the violent ending and vowed to always help out a friend in need. As I have grown older and busier, diving into family life and creating my own startup JotForm, the image of the overloaded donkey has occasionally come to mind. With my new adult eyes, I see another lesson this fable inadvertently imparts: the dangers of overworking yourself.
Like many people, I thought that the pandemic-induced great migration to working from home would result in a new era of flexible work hours and increased productivity. For myself, and many of my employees, it was the first time working entirely remotely and I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
As the boundary between work and home slowly disappeared, so did my ability to disconnect. Soon I was juggling multiple projects, waking up earlier in an attempt to finally get my inbox clean and logging back on once my children were asleep. My phone was always vibrating, either to notify me of another email, text message, meeting, deadline or family commitment. I felt as if there simply weren’t enough hours in the day for all that I needed to get done.
I told myself this was par for the course when running your own company during a global pandemic, but it turns out I wasn’t alone. Just one month into the pandemic and surveys showed that 45% of employees reported feeling burned out from overloaded and long workdays.
The winds of change are blowing and my company is currently evaluating the overarching strategy for returning to work in the office, but there’s no guarantee that this will establish a better work/life balance. If you’re feeling overworked and overwhelmed, then you are most likely overloading your workday. Here are a few strategies I learned over the past year that helped me avoid overcommitting and overworking myself.
Stop trying to multitask.
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking does not help you become more productive and efficient, but in fact, does quite the opposite. Recent studies have shown that multitasking can actually cause us to make more mistakes, retain less information and actually lower our IQ. A shocking study by the University of London found that participating men experienced an IQ drop of 15 points when multitasking, leaving them with the average IQ of an eight-year-old boy. How is that possible?
Everything boils down to biology. The front part of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, kicks into gear anytime you need to pay attention. This part of your brain keeps you focused on a single objective and usually both sides of the prefrontal cortex are working together in harmony. Throw another task into the mix and the left and right sides suddenly have to begin working independently.
Switching between tasks causes our brain to have to shift gears, wasting time and energy that could be put to better use focusing on a single task. Multitasking can be a difficult habit to kick to the curb, but an easy place to start is to dedicate chunks of time to a certain task. For example, spend the first 20 minutes of your day checking your email, then move on to the next task for 20 minutes and so on.
If you have ever been to the emergency room for a non-life-threatening injury, then you know the wait can be painfully long. You also probably noticed that people coming in after you, usually in ambulances, seemed to jump the line and receive immediate care. It may seem unfair, but when hospital services are overloaded and there are more people needing care than available resources to care for them, a triage system is enacted, delegating services to those who need it most urgently. Without hospital triage, many lives would needlessly be lost.
Triage shows us that when resources are scarce, such as time or staff, delegation is of the utmost importance. When a new task comes along, ask yourself if it is in line with your major responsibilities. If the answer is no, then ask yourself if the task needs to be done at all or if maybe you aren’t the person best suited for such a job. If you are part of a team, delegate it to a fellow teammate or, if not, to a junior associate. It’s important to not do work that is inessential to your main duties. Delegating work will ensure that the right tasks go to the right people.
Identify low-value operations and spend less time on them.
Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks and activities as they are worth. Let me give you an example. I am the type of person who, when organizing bills and receipts for example, will run to the store to buy unnecessary supplies, color-code files and spend the following couple of weekends organizing everything. Unless I need to access these papers on a regular basis, such effort is completely unnecessary and a waste of my time. The bills and receipts are better off thrown into a shoebox to give to my accountant or open when tax season rolls around.
The key is to identify low-value operations, or any type of work that doesn’t advance your main work objectives. In my experience, these tasks are usually the easy and comforting ones, like reorganizing your workspace, because they require little or no thought at all. To do this, you will need to take a step back and evaluate how you spend your time on a daily basis. Each activity should be evaluated to see if it is adding value to your main work responsibilities. When a low-value operation is identified, redesign it so you spend as little time and energy as possible to complete it.
Stop saying yes when really you should say no.
Learning how to say no can be a tough skill to acquire. No one wants to upset or disappoint colleagues and bosses, or worse, turn down crucial career opportunities. In our current hyper-connected world, we are constantly being bombarded by requests from bosses, coworkers, external stakeholders, customers, family and friends. It’s impossible to say yes to everything and if you try and take on too many things, you waste time, energy, money and distract yourself from what is really important.
For anyone struggling with saying no, Bruce Tulgan outlines a three-part framework in the Harvard Business Review to help clarify when to say no and for the right reasons.
Step one is to assess the ask. Ask questions to get critical details about the request, determine the costs and benefits, and to clarify any details that might seem fuzzy.
Step two is to give a well-reasoned, thoughtful and well-delivered no. A bad no happens when you haven’t properly assessed the request, let personal biases influence your decision or simply say no because you are overcommitted to other things.
Step three is to give an effective yes if no is not the answer. Tulgan writes, “every good no makes room for a better yes-one that adds value, builds relationships, and enhances your reputation.” What makes an effective yes? Clear communication and a focused plan for execution.
The proud horse in Aesop’s fable had clearly learned how to say no, even when he should have given an effective yes. Sometimes help isn’t forthcoming, but what the donkey didn’t realize is that he could have shed some of his own load, and helped himself, before it all became too much.