An all too common theme within a work environment is the mounds of work that people have on their plates at any given time. If this is something that you are experiencing, you’re not alone! This is a systemic issue that spans industries around the globe. In this article, I’ll break down:
- The effects of an overflowing plate of work
- The state that we should aspire toward
- The formula that will help you right-size your workload and get closer to the desired state
The adverse effects of an overflowing plate
How did we even get to this point of overload? It usually starts when multiple deliverables are weighted the same in terms of value and urgency, which can lead to a sense of a lack of control over commitments.
Because it is impossible to complete everything with the same level of urgency, a general feeling of failure sets in; quality is compromised; and speed to completion is reduced.
What does the desired state look like?
What we all long for is a life where we feel in control, where we deliver high-quality work, where we are improving the world around us and feel fulfilled.
The question is: What can we do to lean more into this desired state and regain greater control?
The three-step formula that will help you right-size your workload
Oftentimes, employees struggling with work overload also tend to work in environments that overuse meetings and place a high value on tasks.
Recognizing that part of the issue could be the environment itself, I’ll share a formula that will be able to stand on its own and one that may also help to improve the DNA of the organization.
Step 1: Prioritization
Ruthless prioritization is the first step toward regaining control. One technique that we use is a 3×3 matrix that compares High vs. Medium vs. Low Value against Urgency. Here are the steps to take to make this work:
- Get clear on your definition of value.
- Discuss how you would define High vs Medium vs Low Value.
Urgency means: the speed at which the value that you hope to gain will diminish if you do not work on an issue now. As you can see, the consideration of urgency controls bias and motivation.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 for Urgency.
- Take inventory of the work on your plate.
- Map each item on your list(s) to the various sections on the matrix. Scrutinize where you are ranking your work items. Whether you are creating a physical representation of this exercise in your office or using a collaboration tool, once you plot your work your matrix may look something like this:
- Take the necessary steps to eliminate the “low” and “very low” items from their plate.
Step 2: Visualization
- Start by creating a board with four columns and title each: Backlog, Next, To Do and Done. This exercise may be done physically or virtually.
- In the Backlog column, add your Very High, High and Medium work items.
- Once everything is in your backlog, move the highest-priority items into the “Next” column. (Remember how I color-coded the “very high” items differently from the others? This helps illustrate that these items will be prioritized and worked on first, before anything else.)
- Here is where the biggest mindset shift happens (and why we titled this article, “The Power of One”): Move only ONE of the items from your “Next” column, into your “To Do” column. This will be the item that you will focus on immediately.
Reducing your Work in Progress (or WIP) to one feels uncomfortable and counterintuitive, in part because further work decomposition may need to be done. Here’s the reality:
- Multitasking is not real.
- Dividing your time and attention across multiple items results in lower throughput and a higher lead time to completion.
- The collateral damage to a higher WIP is always some combination of poor quality, longer lead times, stakeholder disappointments, etc.
- Lowering your WIP wherever possible results in higher throughput, faster lead times, a huge shift in focus and a gratifying sense of completion.
Step 3: Conservation
To keep this system alive, establish policies and cadences for yourself. Are there any items that can supersede anything in your existing hierarchy? How often will you review and prioritize your work? How often will you replenish your backlog? Getting clear on questions like these will help keep you grounded, focused and in control and keep your system intact.
Bonus Step 4: Pause, Reflect and Celebrate!!
Breathe it in and celebrate all your hard work with your team.