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Calm in the Chaos - Tips for a Better Life

Escaping the Overworked and Overwhelmed Cycle

We’ve all been there: Working long hours, we feel we can never catch up, much less get ahead. In our jobs, this is often the norm. But is the norm actually a “normal” amount of work?
computer screen reading "Do More" for overwork and overwhelm

Calm in the Chaos - Tips for a Better Life

Escaping the Overworked and Overwhelmed Cycle

We’ve all been there: Working long hours, we feel we can never catch up, much less get ahead. In our jobs, this is often the norm. But is the norm actually a “normal” amount of work?

by Jamie Spannhake

August 21, 2021

computer screen reading "Do More" for overwork and overwhelm

In this COVID-19 environment, amid the “Great Resignation,” professionals and other workers who remain on the job often have more responsibilities and work than before the pandemic. So how do you know if you are overworked by your supervisor? And, if you are being asked to do the impossible, do you feel you still need to try because there’s nothing else to do about it?

There might be a better way. If you find yourself overworked and overwhelmed, here are questions to ask yourself and steps to take.

1. Is the Overwork Situation Acute (Temporary) or Chronic (Long-term)?

An acute situation comes on suddenly and doesn’t last long. The acute workload could, for example, involve responding to a temporary restraining order unexpectedly filed against your client. Chronic situations come on more gradually and last a long time. For example, you have a reasonable workload with seven clients, but then you take on two more, which makes you feel stressed. Two weeks later, another assignment is handed to you and the overwhelm and dread set in, with no end in sight.

If your long hours are chronic, you will need to take some action to change things. If the problem is acute, you can decide to push through, or you can make some changes to help you weather the excess workload. (How to make those changes is explored below.)

2. What’s Not Getting Done?

Look at your professional and personal life. What really important items are sitting unaddressed on the “to-do” list? Are there invoices that have not been reviewed and sent to clients? Is there a status update for a big client with no pressing deadline but that really should have gone out two weeks ago? Have you missed dinner with your family too many nights in a row? When was the last time you exercised or got a full eight hours of sleep?

Some things on our to-do lists can remain there indefinitely and it doesn’t matter much. Other things are important and not handling them can cause problems. Assess whether what’s not being done is important and consider the consequences of continuing to neglect them.

3. Why Do You Feel Overwhelmed?

Sometimes we are asked to take on responsibilities that are slightly beyond our capabilities, that make us stretch our skills. Good supervisors may ask you to take on a new kind of task when they know it is the next reasonable step in your career growth. This can be a great way to improve and succeed, provided you receive the support that allows you to succeed. In fact, one of the things I really liked about being a junior associate in a law firm was that someone asked me to do something every day that I had never done before. Stressful? Yes. Unreasonable? No.

However, if you are “thrown to the wolves” with little guidance, you need to advocate for the support you need: a discussion, a template, an example or the like. If you feel overwhelmed because you don’t feel “ready” for the work, take a step back and confidently assess whether you will be able to handle the task based on your experience and the resources available to you.

On the other hand, if you are feeling overwhelmed because there are too many tasks to complete in the amount of time you have been given, perhaps you are being asked to do too much simultaneously. Do a calculation:

-Make a list of all your work responsibilities and tasks.

-Reasonably estimate the number of hours to complete them.

-Assess whether it is possible to do all the tasks by the deadlines.

If you are being asked to do the impossible — or even the really difficult — you will need to make a plan and talk to your boss.

4. Make a Plan for Change

So, let’s say you can see that your excessive workload has no chance of diminishing anytime soon, lots of important things are being neglected, and your boss has unreasonable expectations. It is time to make a plan for change. Use the list you wrote previously, laying out all your tasks, matters and responsibilities, along with an estimate of the time required for each as well as the applicable deadlines. Consider the following:

-Can any of the work be delegated to someone else?

-Can any of the deadlines be extended?

-Is there anyone or anything that can help make a task less time-consuming?

-Is there something that can be dropped without negative consequences?

With answers to these questions in mind, come up with several alternative plans to allow the work to be done, but in a different way or a different time frame.

5. Talk to Your Supervisor or Boss

This is not a conversation where you timidly apologize for asking for change. This is a conversation where you confidently explain a better plan, where you convey that you are choosing quality over quantity — a tactic that is good for the company and its customers or clients.

Explain that you know from experience that all these tasks cannot be completed on time at the level of professionalism your boss and clients expect. You want to ensure clients get the best of your efforts. Clarify how your new plan will be good for the company and the clients, as well as better for your professional and personal growth. You can also ask your boss for suggestions. In this discussion, focus on what’s best for the customers and the bottom line from a fresh perspective, and you are more likely to get approval.

The workload for anyone can be crushing, and we frequently might feel that’s “just the way it is.” Sometimes that may be true. But often we can make a change for everyone’s benefit if we are thoughtful and advocate for what is necessary.

An attorney-focused version of this post first appeared at Attorney at Work and is revised and reprinted here with permission. 


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