Despite Being Overworked, There’s a Reason Why We Take on More

Wouldn’t it be nice if your organization had something similar to a ‘disk full’ indicator like the one we have on our computers? It can indicate that when new priorities, objectives and projects are created, we need constantly to clear out some of the old to make room for the new.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While organizations have become very good at adding on initiatives and squeezing more productivity out of employees, a CEB workforce surveys show that 88% of staff believes their workload has noticeably increased in the past year to the point that they have far less discretionary capacity than they did several years ago. With little discretionary effort left and employee burnout happening an alarming rate, what really suffers (outside of poor, overworked employees) is execution. When more objectives are added to old objectives and more work is expected from the same resource base, things naturally start falling through the cracks and execution pretty much grinds to a halt.

According to a study cited in The Economist, 61% of strategies dramatically under-perform—not because of faulty ideas or poor planning, but as a result of fundamentally poor execution.

Organizations are experiencing is operational inertia. When new priorities or strategies get introduced, most organizations are failing to mobilize because prior tasks and processes used to execute the existing or current strategies have become “cemented in”. You get to a point where there’s no more discretionary capacity available unless you trade it off with something else. So what are we doing to indicate that our “disks are full” and we need to delete some tasks?

The unfortunate truth is that we really aren’t doing much. While we complain about being busier then ever, many of us (regardless of level in the organization), are reluctant to ever question the relevancy of our current tasks and purge some of them so that we can free up time for new priorities. Instead, we take on more. We pile it on, sacrificing our work/life balance in the process. In fact, it isn’t rare to hear individuals boast about how busy they are. They aren’t complaining, but are actually taking pride in the fact that they’re averaging 14-hour days and haven’t been on a real vacation for the past 3 years. How odd is that?

Greg McKeon, author of New York Times bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less says it is because we operate in a bubble. A bubble that is being fueled by a trinity of powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism. McKeon points out the result of these trends aren’t just information overload, but opinion overload.

We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and what everyone else has, therefore surmounting pressure and influence on what we “should” be doing to be successful. The answer is always “More”. We’ve been conditioned that more is always better. The bar that’s been set for us often means that we are expected to be supermen and superwomen who can get it all done. That is part of the reason why we back-door-brag about being busy and are scared to give up our old tasks: it’s code for being successful and important!

McKeon boils down a few excellent tactics to encourage people not to caught up in the “more bubble” and get more of what matters in our one precious life:

Schedule a personal quarterly offsite. Just as companies invest in quarterly offsite meetings to rise above day-to-day operations, so should you. In a fast-paced world, it is important to balance two mindsets and be able to dedicate time to think and reflect.

Rest well to excel. K. Anders Ericsson found in “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” that a significant difference between good performers and excellent performers was the number of hours they spent practicing. What few people realize is that the second most highly correlated factor distinguishing the good from the great is how much they sleep. As Ericsson pointed out, top-performing violinists slept more than less accomplished violinists: averaging 8.6 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

Add expiration dates on new activities. Traditions are great. However, not every new activity has to become a tradition.

Say no to a good opportunity every week. We get presented with good opportunities all the time. Good opportunities to learn. Good opportunities to progress. It’s always easy to take more things on at work and in your personal life. The important thing is to prioritize and when something doesn’t make sense or you can’t commit to doing your best, is being empowered to say “no”. It’s counter-intuitive to say no to good opportunities, but if we don’t do it then we won’t have the space to figure out what we really want to invest our time in.

So as you’re packing your laptop to take home with you so you can catch up on work during Thanksgiving weekend. Stop for a moment and reflect.

While we lack a “disk full” indicator, we must rely on good judgment and making the right choices. There are no winners when our “disks our full”. The company can’t execute and we cannot sustainably operate when the only choice is “more”.

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