Are you truly overworked or merely overwhelmed? It’s an important question. These days, nearly all career professionals believe that they’re overworked and many indeed are. And by overwork, I mean they’re working well past 40 hours, past 50, possibly past 60. And there is a physical toll taken on them as a result of the extended hours they’re putting in week after week. That truly is a sense of being overworked. However, many people who are not physically putting in these extended hours sometimes feel as if they’re overworked when they’re merely overwhelmed. Now, we don’t wish to minimize the importance of being overwhelmed. When you’re overwhelmed, it does not feel good. And we do need to address the issue. However, in this day and age, because so much competes for our time and attention, because there are so many pressures, so many deadlines, so many things in all directions that say, “Look at me”, “Notice me”, “Handle me.” Anybody, even if they work a normal 40-hour week can feel overwhelmed, and the feeling of overwhelm leads to the sensation of being overworked. So in other words, regardless of the number of hours that you put in, if you continually have too much competing for your attention and reached a stage of overwhelm, the perception will be that you are indeed overworked. Time to perfect your work life balance.
Neither situation is great. But the very good news is if you’re overwhelmed, then you understand it and you take measures to get back in control then the feeling of overwork can diminish as well. So many, many benefits to understanding why we all feel so time-pressured all the time and coming up with real world viable solutions to the issue. Anyone can feel overwhelmed at anytime, college students, retirees. Do you know that in a prison in Arizona, there was a course that was very popular among the inmates; they talked it up to one another. And in one particular session, they didn’t get enough people signing up. And when they pastor on a survey to find out why this perpetually popular course had a dive in terms of attendance, unbelievably, the overwhelming response was that the prisoners didn’t have enough time. So if people who are incarcerated can experience this problem, it’s easy to understand while the rest of us can experience it as well. If you’re facing too many priorities, then you can almost count on feeling as if it’s hopeless. When you talk to people as to what’s important to them, some will go on and on and on and on and on, list all kinds of things. But the reality is we can only pay homage to a handful of major issues in life — our career, our family, maybe our religion, our community and so on.
If you ask somebody how many priorities they have, it varies from person to person. And there is no real and correct answer as to how many a person ought to have but two or three sounds as if somebody would be really focused. Five to seven is what most people say. Nine, 10, 11 or above, by definition, they can’t all be priorities. If you rather lost 8, 10, 12, 15, 18 different issues that you say are priority issues in your life, then we already know right at the outset, you really can’t be staying on top of anywhere near that number. When did life get so complex, why we all have so much that we’re interested in? Well, the internet has brought us waves of information from every direction. We can research, we can explore to our heart’s content. All the electronic and mobile devises at our command now give us the opportunity to be in-touch with people around the globe, we’re getting messages of all kinds, and information itself is accelerating. The number of things that are presented to us as important grows every day. And so, easy to understand why any career professional today is facing increasing complexity. That’s why it’s vitally important to identify the handful of priorities that really make a difference in your life and really are of importance to you and you in particular and to pay homage to them. We ought to understand the clarity; take death for example, the finiteness of life, that there are structural limits in this world. If you start stacking bricks on a table and you go up and up and up and let’s say there’s no ceiling, you can just keep stacking up and up, eventually, the bricks will crush the table because there’s a structural limit to how much weight that table can bear. At the same time, there are temporal limits, time limits as to how much you can cram in to a day in a week. There are 168 hours in a week. I checked. It’s the same for everybody; it’s been since the beginning of time. You can only get so much comfortably in to a week and then you’re starting to feel as if you are overwhelmed independent of the sheer number of hours you’re actually logging in at the workplace.
One of the quickest tips I can offer to people in terms of staying focused in the context of honoring their priorities is to identify those priorities and then let’s say that there happen to be six. Print those six in a small point size so that you can run off on your printer a piece of paper that’s no bigger than 3.5 by 2 inches which just coincidentally happens to equal the size of a business card so you could literally get your six priorities, in other words, keywords or phrases related to those priorities on a business card size piece of paper that you could carry in your wallet.
Now, all day long, regardless of what hit you, what kind of information rains down on you, the ways in which you’re bombarded, the assignments that come in all over the place, the interesting items that capture your attention. You can take a look at your priority card, put it onto your wallet or, you know, have it as a screen on your mobile device or have it posted to your desktop PC if that’s what you use. And in reviewing your priorities, you help to kind of reset your own internal clock. You remind yourself what’s truly important and this gives you, in many instances, a clear path to steering away from some of the things that are interesting and nice but in the final analysis, really don’t add to your life, your career, your family, your community, your God and so on.
So just looking at your priority card on a regular basis is one minor technique that offers major benefits in terms of staying focused and not feeling so overwhelmed in this otherwise overwhelming world. When everyone is too busy, say in your workplace, don’t expect a more productive workplace or a more productive society. Expect of frantic workplace in a frantic society. Now, we see signs of this all the time. Every place we turn, people in a hurry, people talking faster, walking faster, eating faster, jipping themselves as of the sleep they need in this effort to keep pace with who knows what when lots of the time, they’re not even sufficiently focused during the time they are supposed to be working so they end up working longer hours. And they end up spending more and more time at their desk or in front of the screen or in front of piece of paper or in meetings.
And then they blame it on all kinds of issues but they are not willing to look within and say, “Okay, how focused am I consistently throughout the course of the day?” According to latest human resource laws and research, suppose you did eight hours of work, a typical worker can focus 60% of the time or in other words 4.8 hours out of those 8.0 hours. So if you could increase your focus just a bit more during the day, get it up to say 80%, then you’d be at 6.4 hours of focus and so on. Why do tasks pile up? Groups around the country, conferences and conventions, executive retreats, breakout sessions, what have you, a number of recurring factors appear as to why tasks pile up related to the priority issue we just discussed, related to the focus issue we just discussed. But here are the ones that seem to resonate with career professionals today. And I’ll just run down the list today quickly and just see how many really relate to your situation—priorities not well-established, distractions and interruptions, unnecessary correspondence, disorganization and/or lost items, a lack of adequate staffing, waiting for information, unproductive meetings and inability to say “NO”, unrealistic timeframes, poor communication, negative attitudes. Hidden agendas in some cases, in other words, you’re told to be working on this but you’re not really getting the support you need. Or you have the hidden agenda. You’re trying to do something else while you’re supposed to be working on some major tasks, procrastination, lack of appropriate feedback, taking on too much at once, un-clear objectives, conflicting deadlines, and this happens when you report to more than two bosses very often, poor scheduling, poor listening which is rampant in our society. People tune out after about halfway through a conversation feeling as if they know everything that they’ve been told, poor delegation, perfectionism, in other words, trying to do something all the way to the 100% mark when 98% or 97% will really work
Now, let’s do this little exercise, it’s a question that goes, “Who invited that?” So suppose you are confronting six tasks at the same time, all competing for your attention, who invited that? You could say, “Well my boss levied all six on me” or “Here’s three from a boss and here’s one from earlier and here’s one from a coworker.” Point is, in almost every case, we’re the ones who invited all six whether we can acknowledge that or not, by the virtue of the profession we chose, the company we chose, and the job that we’re tackling. And yeah, at any given moment, you may have things imposed upon you. But in general, the locus of control remains with you. When you have six items competing for your attention, many people in this effort, I guess, to gain psychological strokes, if anybody happens to be walking by or maybe internal appeasement, they try to tackle them all at once as if they’re saying, “Look at me. Look how effective I am. Look, I’m juggling this and I’m handling that and I’m dabbling in this” as if somehow that equates to true accomplishment.
Well, that is psychologically satisfying in the short run to be balancing all these tasks but the fastest and the easiest way to approach six tasks is to put them in order of importance. Tackle number one first. Take it all the way or as far as you can. And then go on in number two and then three and so on. Nothing else will get you through six tasks or any other number of tasks competing for your attention all at once than to put them in order of importance and give them your all as you tackle each one at a time. We also start playing this game where we think we can divvy up our sharp attention. So we drive down the road and speak in a cell phone. But researches told us that you can only give your sharp attention in one direction. This is the way human beings are wired. This is part of our physiology which has been information for tens of thousands of years. And so, when you’re driving down the road in a 3 or 4lbs vehicle at 60 miles an hour on the highway, that requires your sharp attention. When you speak on a cell phone even a hands free cell phone, because that occupies your sharp attention as well, the only way you can simultaneously engage in these two tasks is to revert rate back and forth between the two of them losing bits of productivity and attention each time even though it’s relatively infinitesimal to you. Yet, traffic statistics tell us that your chance of being in an accident with a cell phone, hands free or not, is times four than otherwise. It’s the same as drunk driving.
So ask yourself on a continual basis. When you feel like you’re being besieged by too much competing for your attention, ask yourself the magic question. Who invited that? Who created that? Who put that in motion? Who made the choices? And when you’re honest with yourself, a lot of the time, it comes right back to you.