Are you swamped at work? Here is how to fix it.

posted by Russ, July 6 in lifestyle design with tags , , , ,

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Swamped at work

Photo credit: Sarah Mae

How often do you hear someone tell you that they are “swamped” at work? I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot, and it’s no irony that it’s usually while I’m at work. I haven’t touched a topic like this lately, but I used to quite a bit in the past. If you’ve been a reader for a while you know that I am a big fan of the the concepts of the 4 Hour Workweek and the idea of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). And since I’m still a 9 to 5 working man, I still very often have thoughts like this, even though I’m not writing them.

I think everyone has found themselves saying “I’m swamped at work” at one time or another. How often do you hear it? Do you hear it more than you did 5 years ago when the economy was blazing? Well, I guess that’s a real possibility considering the layoffs that are going around and the fact that your company just might really need to squeeze a bit more out of you, but it’s also probable that you don’t hear it any more often. I was thinking about it abstractly today, and I realize that being swamped is often indicative of mismanagement. If you are swamped it means your boss or manager is giving you more work than you can handle. Of course there are exceptions, and also industries which are more susceptible to creeping deadlines. But at my company, IMO it’s mostly due to mismanagement. Changing tasks on people and losing attentiveness to what was last week’s priority results in wasted time and effort, plain and simple. If it is repeatedly happening that something was a priority last week and it’s not this week, there is clearly a problem. It’s probable that giving you more work is just based on rash project decisions by management, or even worse is just a way to get you to work longer hours. At my company, it’s both.

Do you know why I know?

Rules for Work

Photo credit: reemer

Because I fell into the trap when I started. I would try to impress my boss by completing a task, but after about a year I realized that it was like chasing the dragon (see definition #3). The longer I worked the more I was expected to work, and the more I tasks I completed the more I was given. And even worse, all that work wasn’t even helping the bottom line. As mentioned above, some of my tasks would change priority after a couple weeks or even daily. And other projects were completed “in a push by management” never to even be used.

I have secretly identified hours and hours worth of work that I have put in and my company expects that could be totally removed without even hurting the company. But do you know why no one isolates these tasks and axes them? Because 1) then everyone would only work 10-20 hours per week and we’d look like a bunch of slackers, or 2) the big boss would be so thrilled that another 10-20 hours worth of workload would be added that still wouldn’t improve the bottom line.

So I slowly started pushing back, getting myself to an 8 hour day, and on many days much less. And you know what? Nothing changed. As long as they see my face and me sitting at my desk, all is well. There is no tangible measurement of success, the measurement is for the most part hours logged, and the impression of being busy. The company is still around, I get my paycheck, and my stress is lower. And you know what? As long as you are smart enough to determine what really is priority, you can work this out and still be the superstar with a bonus at the end of the year.

I do want to point out that I am quite aware that this isn’t the most ambitious plan, nor is it particular enviable to admit to this form of slacking. I also realize that if I need to work like this then I am obviously in the wrong job. But this is not a long term solution, and I have not just settled for handling my workload like this. Instead it is a way to keep myself sane while I explore other options and keep myself motivated in other ways. And even though I have some guilt about it, like I said, I have worked much harder in the past and put in many hours on other projects that just turned out to be wasted effort, which is why I don’t feel so bad.

So what did I learn?

I learned that you have to be responsible for managing your own expectations. If you get cornered into a tight deadline, or get more work than can be done in a reasonable amount of time, speak up. Otherwise the work will keep coming. With certain exceptions, being “swamped” is no more than having a boss who likes to give you too much work. Know what is priority, know how to make a difference, but manage your workload on your own terms. If you want to try to be the office rock star, go ahead, people will always find work for you to do, and in the end you may be lucky to have an appreciative boss and get all that your little heart desires, but more likely than not you will just end up stressed out and overworked, and you will continue being able to say “I’m swamped”, while I’m sitting in my cubicle with a moderate workload, relaxed and stress free.

Originally posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 6:22 AM .

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