One of the most common patterns of overwork I see with clients stems from advancement. Here’s an example. Ellen worked for a startup that was doing well and growing like crazy. A natural systems-thinker, Ellen could anticipate potentials glitches down the road and know how to resolve them ahead of time. She got lots of thumbs-up from her manager to run with her solutions.
The only catch was that as a result, her workload kept growing and growing. Each new solution she came up with added to what was already on her plate. Eventually, her workload became untenable and overwhelming. That’s when she sought me out. She hired me to help her become successful at work again. She thought she was failing.
As people advance into more complex work, many jump into the new work without letting go of enough of their old work to make it possible to succeed. The solution is to offload some of what’s on their plate, either to someone already in the organization, or to a person who would be hired to do this work. There are at least two pieces to this process of offloading. One is to bring your manager on board — you’ll need his or her buy-in. The second piece is actually handing off — or delegating — parts of what is now your job.
Learning to delegate is a process — it’s not a trivial thing to learn how to do well. There are courses, books, and articles about how to become a good delegator. I sometimes lead workshops on delegating, and may write a blog post about it soon.
Ellen was suffering from what I call the “If it’s on my plate I should be able to do it” syndrome. The solution for Ellen was to catalog all that she was doing and to quantify approximately how much time each of these items required of her weekly. When it was all down on paper, it became visible to her that the job as it was currently defined was impossible. No wonder she felt like she was failing!
I had her select the pieces she most wanted to keep, and draft a job description for the remaining responsibilities. Then she made the business case to her boss — that much of what was on her plate could be done by someone at a lower salary, which would free her up to do more of the work she currently found most engaging, which happened to be high-value work for the company’s long term strategy. Her boss hired someone to work for her.
When I raise the subject of delegating, many people immediately slam the door shut by saying, “Well there’s nobody at work I can hand work off to, and that’s not going to change. My boss will never let me delegate any of this off to a colleague or a more junior person.” I’m sure that some people reading this will identify with this position, and here is a suggestion for you. Delegate something on the home front. You will get some relief from that which will help you at work. Relief anywhere in the system helps.
By delegating, I mean have someone else do the task, using any means that will work. Hire, barter, trade, call in owed favors, indenture your children, whatever it takes. There is always something more you can delegate.
Have you had an experience like Ellen’s? Do you have an anecdote about a time when you used delegation to move things off your plate and expand your bandwidth? If so please share in the comments!