Overloaded at work? 12 tips to regain control

Overloaded at work? Here are my 12 tips to help you regain control. Six tips will help you reduce your workload, six tips will help you cope more effectively. 

Don’t expect to apply all the tips, they won’t all be relevant to you. Take a look, then choose 1 or 2 that you feel will help. Work to embed the new behaviors into your daily practices. Then come back and choose one more, and repeat.

Make small, incremental changes, apply them until they ‘stick’ as part of your daily routine. You’ll see the benefits.

Signs that you’re overloaded at work

Busy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re overloaded. There is a level of stress and ‘busyness’ that is helpful. It’s called good stress (or, eustress, the opposite of distress). However, keep adding workload and it becomes damaging.

Here are some of the signs that indicate you may be overloaded at work:

  • You’re more irritable, more often: being overloaded has an emotional impact. It leaves you irritable, not as an ‘in the moment’ emotion, but as your default way of being.
  • It becomes harder to focus: there’s also a mental toll. Focusing becomes more challenging, your mind becomes prone to wandering, and you multitask more often.
  • There’s a drop in the quality of your work: the emotional and mental strain results in a drop in the quality of your work. Everything from typos in emails, through to poorly thought-out strategic decisions.
  • You become less creative: to generate ideas you need an open and expansive mindset. When you’re overloaded you have exactly the opposite, your mindset narrows into ‘survival mode’.
  • You can’t switch off: work stays in your mind when you’re not working, as a result other aspects of your life start to suffer.
  • Physical health problems emerge: lack of quality sleep, poor diet, weight gain (or weight loss), low energy levels, they can all be signals that you’re overloaded at work.
  • Your work relationships suffer: you’re irritable, can’t switch off and have low energy levels. Of course, relationships start to suffer too!

Try scoring yourself on a scale of 1-10, on each of these points:

  • 1 = never, ever true
  • 10 = very true, very often.

The results will help you to see if you have a problem or not. (Hint: if you score more than about 25-30, you likely have a problem. You be the judge!).

And if you feel you’ve moved beyond being overloaded at work, and you’re tipping towards burnout, take a look at this Mayo Clinic guide.

Why are you overloaded at work?

It’s also worth considering why you’re overloaded at work. Simply put, there are 3 main reasons:

  • Self: you’re overloading yourself. Maybe you’re a perfectionist, maybe these are ‘learnt behaviors’ from your role models, maybe you have problems in other parts of your life that you’re trying to avoid. Sometimes we make ourselves too busy, without realizing it.
  • Manager: you’re being driven by your manager. They are highly task-oriented, piling more work on you, and not providing the support and development you need. Sounds familiar? You may have a problem with your manager.
  • Culture: some companies are designed to overload you with work. Tech firms and consultancies are particularly notorious for company cultures that expect 24/7 commitment to the cause.

You’ll find different tips below to be relevant to you, depending on whether you’re overloaded by yourself, your manager, or your company culture.

6 tips to reduce your workload

The bottom line: don’t walk away from a job (either emotionally or physically!) until you’ve done everything you can make it work for you.

Take a look at these tips and select 1 or 2 that are most relevant to you, then act on them.

1. Cut down your meetings

Meetings eat up your time. Research shared on TED shows that we spend up to 23 hours per week in meetings. To regain control, review all your meetings (especially your recurring meetings). Look out for opportunities to shorten meetings, decline meetings, or reduce the frequency of meetings. Talk with the meeting owners if necessary. Decline meeting invites when there’s no clear agenda or no clear role for you to play. Be a role model for effective meetings.

2. Take time-saving ideas to your manager

Don’t complain to your boss about being overloaded. That makes you look like a victim with no ability to control your environment. However, you can take time-saving ideas to your boss. The chances are that your boss is overloaded with work too and would appreciate the ideas. For example: streamline your admin, cut down on the reports you produce… find the opportunities that are relevant to you and pitch the ideas to your manager.

Frame your suggestions in terms of “saving time on these tasks will give me more time to…” (whatever higher value activity you should be working on).

3. Stop doing something, and see if anyone notices

This is my personal favorite. Pick something small, low value, perhaps a simple report that you file each week. Just stop doing it, see if anyone notices. If it takes a couple of weeks before anyone chases you, make it a monthly report instead.

4. Focus on the 20% that delivers 80% of the results

You’ve probably heard of the 80 20 rule (or Pareto’s Principle). But have you ever applied it? The rule is simple:

20% of your activities account for 80% of your results

Take a moment to reflect on the 20% of your activities that produce 80% of your results. Then take a moment to reflect on the remaining activities you undertake, that make little impact. What can you cut out?

5. Say no (without saying no)

You don’t have to scream “NO!”. You can be smarter than that.

Use some smart questions as a foundation to decline, redirect or delay (when appropriate). For example:

  • What’s driving the deadline for this work?
  • How important is this compared with (your other work)?
  • How does this work fit with our plans (or goals) for this year?
  • If I take on this work, can I move the deadline for (other work) to (later date)?

The key point is this, don’t just keep accepting more and more work. Ask these questions with positive intent and an enthusiastic voice, practice your influencing skills and regain control. (These techniques won’t always work, but keep practicing them and they’ll start to pay off.)

6. Set your agenda (otherwise, someone else will!)

This is more about mindset than action, but it’s worth adding here. How do you want to live your life? And how do you want to live your work? Are you happy to follow someone else’s agenda, or do you want to follow your own?

For example, perhaps you’re expected to be available to work in the evenings. Make it clear that you’re not available on Monday evenings (maybe you have soccer practice, or some other regular activity). Then, sometime later, make it clear that you’re not available on Friday evenings (it’s ‘date night’ with your partner). Slowly reset expectations.

Work within your circle of influence to shape your job in a way that works for you.

6 tips to cope better with your workload

It’s not all about reducing your workload. You can cope better with your workload too.

1. Overloaded? Triage your tasks

Daria Long, ER Doctor, rejects the notion of ‘crazy busy’. In the emergency room she embraced ‘ready mode’:

“We prioritize by degree of urgency. You can’t take care of them all at once, but you don’t have to, because we triage”.

It’s a simple system:

  • Red = immediately life threatening
  • Yellow = serious, but not immediately life threatening
  • Green = minor

Don’t react to everything as if it is red, it will drive you crazy. Here’s the whole video if you’d like to learn more:

2. Use your mind to get things off your mind

In his best-selling book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, the author and consultant Davide Allen says:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

Our prefrontal cortex, (the ‘executive’ part of our brain), works best when it’s doing one thing at a time. As a result, you’ll cope with the workload better if you write down everything you must do, and then prioritize.

I use a word document, it sits on my desktop and is open while I’m working. I usually have 8-10 projects listed and anytime I have a new task I drop it under the appropriate project. You may prefer a spreadsheet. Or perhaps your team uses a productivity tool such as Monday.com.

Use your mind to get things off your mind.

3. Take regular breaks

We are not computers. We can’t run continuously through-out the day and expect to be productive. Think of your day as a series of sprints, not a marathon.

Here are some simple ideas for taking a quick 10-minute break:

Take regular breaks, you’ll get more done.

4. Use productivity tools such as the Pomodoro Technique

The idea of taking regular breaks is integral to many productivity techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique.

For many people, time is an enemy. We race against the clock to finish assignments and meet deadlines. The Pomodoro® Technique teaches you to work with time, instead of struggling against it. Francesco Cirillo

The Pomodoro Technique is simple in essence. Set a timer to 25 minutes, work with focus, then take a 5-minute break. After 4 rounds, take a longer break. Take a look for more details:

5. Reduce multitasking

All the science shows that we can’t multitask. What really happens is that we switch quickly between tasks, so that it looks like we’re multitasking. All we are doing is switching quickly between two or more tasks!

And each time we switch out attention there is a cost, in terms of quality and efficiency. In his book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, John Media explains that multitaskers:

  • Experience a 40% drop in productivity across the board
  • Take 50% longer to accomplish a single task
  • Make up to 50% more errors

Don’t believe it, try this simple multitasking experiment:

overloaded at work multitasking dangers

Grab a pen and paper, take out your phone and set-up your stopwatch. You’ll need to time yourself, twice.

First, time yourself writing out all the numbers from 1-23, followed by all the letters from A-Z. Do it as quick as you can, and make a note of how long it takes to complete this task.

Second, do the task again. Do it as fast as you can, this time yourself writing out all the numbers and letters, alternating between the two (1, A, 2, B, 3, C… etc).

I guarantee you’ll experience three things as you do the second task:

  • You’re slower
  • You make more mistakes
  • You’re more stressed

That’s what’s happening when you multitask at work.

Take a moment to consider how you can reduce your multitasking at work. For example: when can you switch off desktop alerts, close your email, schedule focused time? Plan your time to reduce multitasking.

6. Stop, and reflect

You’ve heard the expression “we learn from experience”? It’s just not true. (we all know people who have been doing the same job for years and are still bad at it!).

We learn and improve by reflecting on experience.

After you’ve completed a major task, take just 10 minutes. Ask yourself:

  • What did I do well?
  • What didn’t I do so well?
  • What have I learnt?
  • How can I save time on that task next time?

You’ll soon start to see opportunities to save time. And if you’re overloaded, you’ll enjoy the reflection too!

7. Bonus tip, get enough sleep

Get enough sleep! Sleep is the most underrated ‘quick-fix’ to improved performance in the workplace. For example, one study of 4,188 U.S. workers found “significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes” among those who slept less.

Overloaded at work, tips to regain control: in summary

If you’re overloaded at work, there are two strategies for regaining control: reduce your workload, and cope better with your workload.

6 tips to reduce your workload:

  • Cut down your meetings
  • Take time-saving ideas to your manager
  • Stop doing something, and see if anyone notices
  • Focus on the 20% of what you do that delivers 80% of the results
  • Say no (without saying no)
  • Set your own agenda (otherwise, someone else will set it for you!)

6 tips to cope better with your workload:

  • Triage your tasks
  • Use your mind to get things off your mind
  • Take breaks (you’ll get more done as a result)
  • Use productivity tools such as the Pomodoro Technique
  • Reduce multitasking
  • Stop, and reflect
  • And a bonus tip: get enough sleep!

Select 1 or 2 tips that you feel will help. Work to embed the new behaviors into your daily practices. Then select more, and repeat.

And for another perspective, look at our how to deal with stress (quick fixes and longer term solutions).