Everyone, everywhere, is busy.
As I coach and train people across the nation, here’s what I hear, time and again…
“I feel overwhelmed. There are so many balls in the air that I’m struggling to keep up. Stuff gets done at the last minute and my email is out of control. I’ve even started to rely on other people’s calls to remind me of things I’ve forgotten to do.”
Sound familiar? If so, the good news is that you can do something about it.
While there’s no magic fix to being overworked, there are 3 timeless strategies that can help you take back control of your work and life.
Develop. Delegate. Downshift.
Over the years, I’ve often been out of my depth and in need of developing new skills.
I remember my first locum job as a physiotherapist in Scotland. It was my first senior position, in an area of physiotherapy practice that was unfamiliar to me. I was a long way from home and felt totally underprepared.
I’d walk into work each morning and take a big breath, fake a confident smile and simply do my best. When I felt overwhelmed, I remember hiding behind the curtain of my cubical or taking long toilet breaks to regain my composure!
This line, from the U2 song Yahweh, became very important for me at this time…
Take these shoes, click clack off some dead end street. Take these shoes, and make them fit.
I remember feeling like I was wearing a pair of shoes that were 2 sizes too big and I knew that I needed to grow up… rapidly. The job was doable. It wasn’t necessarily a bad fit. I was simply green and needed more experience to grow into my role.
Sounds obvious but sometimes knowledge and habits are all that you need to skill-up and feel in control.
In junior roles, this is rarely overlooked. But in our experience, it IS regularly overlooked and neglected in senior leadership and management roles.
Most people, we find, get promoted into management by being great at something else. In my case, I was promoted to Deputy Manager by demonstrating competency as a rehabilitation physiotherapist. I’ve seen the same transition occur with engineers, scientists, teachers, accountants and IT specialists.
This should be obvious, but being a good rehab clinician isn’t the same as being a good leader of people. It’s an entirely different job!
I soon learnt that retraining a person to walk after a stroke didn’t qualify me to manage an overflowing to-do list. Retraining balance in the elderly didn’t help me set and manage my budget. Then there was the coaching of staff, setting strategic direction, dealing with staff conflict, leadership politics and identifying values to shape culture in the workplace.
All of these responsibilities required specific skills and habits that I needed to develop through training and coaching.
Time and again I meet senior leaders who struggle for lack of skills and habits to manage both themselves and others. If you feel overwhelmed and out of control, one strategy might be to develop — so you can do your job well.
There’s no such thing as a super-hero (at least, not in the workplace.)
Sometimes development is not enough. The job may be unrealistic. There are too many pressures, too much information and too great a volume of work for any one person to do.
In this case, it might be time to delegate… either through job re-design or by delegating your work to other people.
I recently coached an executive who received 100 emails a day, yet only had 1 hour at her desk (in 15 minute intervals.) She was organised and managed herself well. She was good at saying “no” to others and was proactive in managing her calendar commitments. Her struggle was not primarily a skills game… it was a volume issue.
Our conclusion? She needed extra resources to help her succeed.
She gained permission to share an executive assistant and it worked. Her EA helped manage her email inbox, prioritised actions and responded to simple requests. In turn, this gave her more space to focus on what mattered most.
Not possible in your workplace?
Delegation doesn’t necessarily require a bigger budget. Get smart and be creative. Remember, 20% of the activities that you and I do each day provide 80% of the outcomes.
Start by ruthlessly stopping non-important work across your team — I call this the “silly busy stuff.” Have an honest (and vulnerable) conversation with your team about how overloaded you are — look for shared solutions and delegate as much as possible. From my experience, if you model healthy leadership, eliminate non-important work and communicate clearly, others will be happy to help you out.
The hardest thing (I find) with delegation is the letting go of control. Many of us are busy because we like to be busy. Be brave. Communicate well. Trust others… then let go.
Downshifting is the elephant in the room that no one ever wants to talk about. Yet it’s an extremely effective strategy.
Last month, I coached an executive who was struggling across multiple aspects of their work and life. They were a great communicator and excellent with people, yet lacked the habits and confidence to manage themselves at an executive level. Their inbox was a mess. They constantly apologised for tasks they had forgotten or missed. They left tasks to the last minute and the quality of their work was under scrutiny. In addition, their health was suffering, they weren’t sleeping well and their marriage was strained.
Basically, they were sinking.
Truth be told, this leader simply wasn’t cutting it as an executive. They had previously excelled in a specialist technical role and yet was drowning in a suit. Development and delegation had already been trialled and the cost of doing nothing was significant (think relationships, health and happiness). So I proposed a radical idea… that they consider the strategy of downshifting. That is, to intentionally and strategically move down (or across) the corporate ladder, to regain confidence, health and happiness.
Unfortunately in this case, downshifting was too confronting an idea for this executive and they changed nothing.
In our society, everyone looks up. Promotion is always good. Demotion is always bad. People hardly ever look sideways, despite the opportunities. And they almost never, ever, look down.
However going downwards — to downshift — is sometimes the smartest, most sensible move one can make.
Downshifting is a growing phenomenon across affluent nations. An Australian survey found that 23% of adults in their 30s, 40s or 50s had downshifted in the preceding decade, with this percentage continuing to rise over time.
Clive Hamilton (author of Affluenza) writes:
Downshifters are people who have made a conscious decision to accept a lower income in order to pursue other life goals. They are motivated by a desire for more balance in their lives, more personal fulfilment and more time with families.
Downshifters choose to reduce work hours, change careers or intentionally gain lower paying jobs to invest in other spheres of their life. The reasons are multi-faceted — to increase health, build relationships, gain personal fulfilment or to grow in spirituality.
It’s not for everyone. From my experience, downshifting is both costly and hard to sustain over time.
Yet when pursued for the right reasons, it IS an excellent option.
Downshifting In My Life
Here are some examples of when I have intentionally downshifted from paid work, to pursue other life goals:
- I chose part-time employment to work 2 days a week to help build my house (under the supervision of a master builder). It was a challenging but very rewarding experience and I ended up with a beautiful eco home that got featured in house magazines. By sharing land (and chickens) with another family, I also ended up with a sustainable mortgage and a close-knit community.
- Later, I returned to part time employment after becoming sick with overwork. I found a coach and developed a bunch of self-care habits that have sustained me ever since — such as daily exercise, a weekly digital detox, morning prayer and meditation, quarterly silent retreats and regular date nights with my wife. These habits now provide me the capacity and resilience to thrive with a much higher workload, whilst remaining happy and healthy.
- I gave up a well-paid and secure physiotherapy management position to start a business (yep, Spacemakers). I wasn’t unhappy in my previous job — quite the opposite — but I looked upwards and didn’t like where my career was taking me. I needed a new challenge and so became an entrepreneur. Sure, my pay cheque was cut in half, but my skills development, calendar flexibility and life satisfaction doubled.
Overworked? Develop. Delegate. Downshift.
Life is both wonderful and short.
If you’re too busy to enjoy life, overworked or simply struggling to keep up, then consider making a change.
Develop. Delegate. Downshift.
If you need some support along the way, feel free to contact us. We may not be able to help you out directly, but we have friends who can.
Please write a comment or tell us your story about being overworked. Have you developed, delegated or downshifted recently?
- U2 album (2004): How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Interscope Records, track 11↵
- The Pareto Principle & Being Overworked – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle↵
- Hamilton, C., and Denniss, R. (2005) Affluenza – When Too Much Is Never Enough, Chapter 10, Allen&Unwin, Melbourne, p.154↵
- Hamilton, C., and Denniss, R. (2005) Affluenza – When Too Much Is Never Enough, Chapter 10, Allen&Unwin, Melbourne, p.153↵