In this third installment of a four-week series I share answers to a prevalent problem: What do I do when there’s too much to do? The first week we focused on organization. The second week I outlined three conversations that can help leaders better define priorities and possible outcomes. This week I’ll explain why, at some point, you have to face the difficult task of choosing your sacrifice.
Dear Dr. Graham:
So, I’ve got my organization system in place. And I’ve had those conversations you suggested. I have a better handle on my commitments and feel better organized. I even successfully got my boss to agree to push back a deadline I simply couldn’t meet. These changes are helpful, but there’s still too much to do. I’ve got 36 things on my list just for this week, and I can realistically get only 23 of those done.
I’m intrigued by what you said last week about the third step being about “choosing your sacrifice.” Please explain.
— Still overwhelmed
It sounds like you’ve planned and prioritized according to the principles we discussed during our first week about how human brains work. You’re also addressing what you call your perfectionist tendencies. You’re continuing to determine which tasks deserve less than 100 percent of your attention, and you’re acting accordingly. And as we discussed last week, you’ve had conversations with your team and your boss about how to not only prioritize work, but what will happen if the current workload continues at the current pace.
Like you, many of my clients don’t just have busy seasons; they are chronically over-busy. They are dealing with company cultures that constantly require them to do more with less. Sometimes the conversations I suggested last week help initiate changes within those cultures. Sometimes they don’t.
So, here’s the bottom line: there is no miracle answer here. If, after initiating all these efforts, you still have too much to do, you have too much to do. That means you must choose your sacrifice. If you don’t choose what you’re going to sacrifice, the sacrifice will choose you. Case in point: I have a self-employed client with children and several volunteer commitments whose out-of-state, elderly mother recently started having serious health problems. Despite my urging to eliminate items from her to-do list to free up time to care for her mother, she refused: “I can do this. There’s nothing on my list that can go, and I work best under pressure.” Two weeks later, she nearly passed out while driving. (Luckily, she was able to pull over to the side of the road, avoiding an accident.) This client refused to choose her sacrifice, so a sacrifice chose HER, endangering her life and, potentially, the lives of others. I know she wishes she had stepped up to the plate by proactively removing a commitment. Her loved ones — and fellow highway drivers — sure do.
So, don’t fool yourself. At your current workload, a sacrifice will be made. The results of refusing to choose your sacrifice could be the loss of your health, your happiness, or a mistake you make that will cost you your job or the respect of the people with whom you work.
This week I suggest you choose which of those 36 tasks are most important and then sacrifice the rest. That may sound too simple, but it’s reality. You simply can’t do more than you can do.
I’ll be interested in your feedback as we wrap up next week. And I will have one more “countercultural” suggestion for you to consider.