My friend is overloaded at work and constantly frazzled. Though he works long hours and through many weekends, it’s never enough to catch up. There’s always another task, and usually it’s urgent. To make matters worse, he’s experiencing some attrition in his staff, so the load keeps getting bigger. Now he’s trying to figure out how to cram more into his already beleaguered day.

The fact is, he can’t. And he shouldn’t.

A long time ago I stayed late at work to finish a project. One of the execs walked by, saw my light, and stopped to see what I was doing. I filled him in and we chatted a bit, and told me he was glad I wasn’t making a habit of working long hours. Then he dropped this nugget on me.

Whenever I see someone consistently working ten- or twelve-hour days, it tells me one of two things. Either they don’t know how to do their job, or they’re doing the job of more than one person. Either way, it tells me the company has a problem.

As a young professional trying to move up the ladder, that rattled my foundation. Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to do? Work long hours and pay our dues, so we can…work long hours in higher positions?

I’ve been chewing on this since 1996(!) and it makes more sense every day. Before you hit me with But, but… let me add these caveats.

  1. The number of hours mentioned is arbitrary. Substitute “the allotted time” if you can’t see around the number.
  2. This doesn’t apply to one-time projects or unusual situations. A couple years ago, for example, a crisis at work kept me there for twelve-hour days for most of a year. It was unexpected, not part of my regular job (which I was allowed to practically ignore for the duration, by the way), and when it was over, it was over. We’re talking about the regular tasks that fill your days–essentially, your job description.
  3. In some fields, workdays are over when the job is done. Firemen can’t walk away when they’re fighting a fire, a surgeon can’t leave in the middle of a procedure, and snow plow drivers can’t go home in the middle of a storm. I get it. I’m not talking about this. Move on.

In other words, the special cases don’t apply. We’re talking about the day-to-day stuff here. Of course, if you’re always faced with a special case, you might need to consider what’s so special about it.

Of course, most people feel powerless to change the status quo. What’s-always-been becomes the-way-it-is and we just keep spinning our wheels until we burn out and leave or become apathetic. What good can any one person do?

Back to my friend.

Forget his staffing shortage; that’s a recent development. His issue started long ago as he took on more and more responsibility. Before he does anything else, he needs to look for ways to work smarter: streamline processes, delegate, eliminate the chaff. He’s a smart guy, so I assume he’s already done this, but if not, it’s worth putting aside the daily work for a few days to figure it out. The productivity gains will outweigh the temporary losses.

After that, it’s probably time for him to stop doing the work.

You read that correctly. Stop. Doing. The. Work. (After hours, of course.)

My friend’s boss has no idea what’s happening. Bosslady doesn’t know her worker has to burn the midnight oil to make it happen; she just knows the work keeps getting done. Why should anything change?

If this is you, here’s the plan. First and always, communicate. Let the boss know what you’ve got on your plate. Tell her the allotted time doesn’t allow for everything to get done at once, so ask her what’s most important. Prioritize. Who knows? Maybe she’ll provide extra resources or a shortcut of some kind. Maybe she’ll do nothing, but at least you’ll be on record. It won’t be a surprise if you come up short.

Then do what you can do. Work hard and smart. Give it your all, but when the workday is done, go to dinner. Pet your dog. Watch TV. Sleep late on the weekend, visit a friend, run errands, live your life. You’ll become a more engaged employee when you aren’t burnt out.

Yes, the work is still a problem, but now it’s not just YOUR problem. It’s a company problem. Actually, it always has been, but you’ve effectively hidden it by expanding your workday.

If you’re the boss, take a minute to look at your people. Who’s working long hours and why? Do they need more training? Are they unproductive? Or is their plate too full?

That same astute exec often used a swan metaphor: beautiful and calm on the surface, but paddling like h*ll underwater.

Look for the swans.


Thanks as always, KMN. So many of my insights started with you.

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