Dealing with Work Overwhelm in 9 Steps

Dear Ellen,

I am completely overwhelmed at work. There just aren't enough hours in the day for me to handle my responsibilities. Often I work long past "quitting time" husband and kids are really starting to hate my Blackberry! I'm juggling my projects, quarterly and annual reports, and an at-capacity email inbox, while trying to be a good leader for my team. How can I get on track and get it all done?

Thank you,


Dear Suzanne,

This is a great question and one I hear a lot. I am hearing that your family is starting to voice their concerns about your availability, but when I ask clients about what effect this has on them, they share that it is costing them personally. They are less available at home, end up not exercising as much as they want, they don't sleep well and slowly but surely, they feel themselves sliding towards burnout. Getting a handle on this will provide you with energy, motivation, the ability to make better decisions, room for innovation, a more enjoyable lifestyle, patience and increased productivity. There is a lot to be gained!

I am a big fan of David Allen's book, "Getting Things Done".  I listened to one of his podcasts and was struck by these words  (paraphrased here): "Once you get a hold of everything you need to do and make room for it, you will always be fully present for whatever it is you are working on". In an ideal world, being in that space will give you a feeling of peace and focus

The reality is – you will likely always have more work on your plate than you can possibly get done in a single day.

Let's have a closer look at your feeling of overwhelm. We contribute to this ourselves and so do organizations. The first step is to figure out to what degree you contribute to this. We often think that we have to take all the work on ourselves or that we cannot say no.   

Julie Morgenstein, in her book, "Never Check Email in the Morning" outlines 9 competencies to master:

1. Embrace work/life balance

It's one thing to say it, but quite another to define it. Be precise about what activities you want to make room for. Define what you need and enjoy in the areas of physical health. Find out what 'escape activities" your enjoy. I once went through the exercise of doing one frivolous activity every day. These are the activities you do for pure joy, like walking your dog, reading a book, going for a skate, or getting a massage. It is equally important to identify the key people in your life–the ones who give you a sense of value, love and connection. Make room and invest in those relationships. Schedule connection time – routine makes it easier to stick to the plan.

2. Create an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Set yourself free from the belief that dictates "I have to get everything done – that is what they expect of me". Seek job security from "the inside out". Realize that you own your career. It will help you stop feeling like a victim and can start directing it the way you like.

3. Choose your most important tasks first

You cannot get everything done. Capture everything you need to get done in one central place, then choose your most important tasks and do those first. Every day I make my Most Important Task (MIT) list and it's limited to THREE items. It will provide clarity and focus on what you need to do. When faced with new tasks use the 4 D method: Delete, Delay, Delegate, Diminish (create short cuts).

4. Create the time to get things done

Focus on the most critical tasks first and make room for the MITs on your calendar. Stop multitasking, group similar tasks, and determine what your focus threshold is. This is the time you can ignore all distractions and concentrate fully on your work. For some this is 30 minutes, for others this can be 2 hours. This is the length of each block in your calendar. Be aware of your natural energy cycles and use this to plan your time. I focus best in the morning, for others it is later on in the day.

5. Control the Nibblers

Nibblers include things like procrastination (just get started for 15 minutes), meetings (make sure they are effective and understand what your role is), small interruptions, "got a minute?" (determine whose interruptions you will always make time for and defer everyone else to a better time), and perfectionism (instead of thinking, "perfect or nothing", learn to accept shades of grey).

6. Organize at the speed of change

Are you slowed down because you can't find things (redesign or tweak your system), other people can't find things (label your existing system) or you're out of storage space (weed out or add storage)?

7. Master delegation

This requires answering three questions: Time (there is not enough time to do things and I don't have time to explain and supervise), Tasks (which tasks to delegate), and Trust (it takes courage and diligence to build a relationship of trust to have some else do a task for you. Sharing the workload is one of your best uses of time.  Save your time for what you do best and those things that give you energy. Delegate the rest. Pick the right person for the job. Determine whether you need an expert, equal or beginner and match it to the task you are delegating.

8. Work well with others

These are the qualities that make it easy for someone to work with you: accessibility, reliability, adaptability, respectfulness, clarity, and fairness. Assess yourself in all of these areas. Build on your strong areas and reflect on the areas you need improvement in. Improve frustrating relationships by changing your own behaviour vs. feeling like a victim because of someone else's behaviour. Is your boss inaccessible? Trying making yourself more accessible and see what happens.

9. Leverage your value

So far we have discussed how to fix yourself. What if something is still wrong? It could be workload (keep a results-oriented log and discuss the right workload), company culture (build credibility, stay positive, or suggest the company review their core values), or company changes (don't look back, look forward and be willing to embrace new ideas)

Negotiate Change

If you have assessed the situation, perhaps it is time to negotiate change respectfully. Know what you need, ask for their reaction, tackle the obstacles and keep focused on the work.

Good luck,



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