One of the things that I’ve seen as a common thread among people in the industry as of late is the subject of burnout. Sure, burnout is a common topic no matter what year we’re in but a lot more of what I’m starting to hear about is self-inflicted burnout. Taking on too many projects, doing more than one job, and even having too many things going on outside of your specific role are all contributors to burnout. How can we keep that from happening?
Atlas and His Burden
For me, one of the biggest reasons why I find myself swimming in frustration is because I am very quick to volunteer to do things. In part it’s because I want to make sure the job is done correctly. In another part it’s because I want to be seen as someone that is always willing to get things done. Add in a dash of people pleasing and you can see how this spirals out of control. I’m sure you’ve even heard that as a career advice at some point. I’ve even railed against it many times on this blog.
How can you overcome the impulse to want to volunteer to do everything? If you’re not in a more senior role it’s going to be hard to tell someone you can’t or won’t do something. As I learned last year from commenters you don’t always have that luxury. If you are in a senior role you also may find yourself quickly volunteering to ensure that the job is done properly. That’s when you need to ask an important question:
Why do I have to do this?
Check your ego at the door and make sure that your Aura of Superiority is suppressed. This isn’t about you being better than the job or task. This is about determining why you are the best person to do this job. Seems easy at first, right? Just explain why this is something you have to do. But when you dig into it things get a little less clear.
Are you the most skilled person at this task in the company? That’s a good reason for you to do it. But could you offer to show someone else how to do the thing instead? Especially if you’re the only one that can do it? Cross training ensures that others know what to do when time is critical. It’s also nice to be able to take a vacation without needing to check your email every ten minutes. Enabling others to do things means you’re not the only phone call every time it needs to be done.
Is this something you’re worried won’t be done correctly if you don’t do it? Why? Is it something very difficult to accomplish? If so, why not have a team work on it? Is this something that you already have an idea of how you want to do it? That’s a recipe for trouble. Because you’ll implement your ideas for the thing and then either get bored or distracted and forget all about it. That leads to others thinking you’ve dropped the ball. It could also lead to people passing you over when you have good ideas because they’re afraid you’re going to take the ball and drop it later. If you think that it won’t be done correctly without your input you should find a way to add your input but not make yourself responsible for the completion of the project.
Are you just taking on the task for the accolades of a job well done? Do you enjoy the feeling of being called out for a successful completion of something? That’s fairly standard. Do you enjoy being chastised when you fail? Does it bother you when you’re called out in front of the team for not delivering something? Again, standard behavior of a normal person. The problem is when the need for the former outweighs the aversion to the latter.
In this excellent Art of Network Engineering episode with Mike Bushong he recounts a story of a manager that pushed back against him when he complained that no one knew how busy he really was. Her response of “everyone just sees you not getting things done” really made him stop and realize that taking the entire world on your shoulders wouldn’t make anything better if you kept failing to deliver.
I could go on and on and belabor the point more but I think you understand why it’s important to ask why the task can’t be reassigned or shared. Rather than just refusing you’re trying to figure out if anyone else should be doing it instead of you. As someone with too many things to do it’s critical you’re able to get those done. Adding more to your plate won’t make anyone’s job any easier.
I feel that I will always struggle to keep from taking on too many things at once. It’s not quite a compulsion but it’s also difficult not to want to do something for someone or take on a task that really should be done by someone with more skill or more time. The key for me is to stop and ask myself the question in the title. If I’m not the best person to be doing the job or if there is someone else that I can show so I’m not the only one that knows what to do then I need to do that instead. Sharing knowledge and ensuring others can do the tasks means everyone is involved and you’re not overwhelmed. And that makes for a happier workplace all around.
I realized and related that with QOS in past if I have too much traffic (more than available bandwidth) and I don’t take action, all traffic (tasks) are gonna be degraded. And even if I simply start discarding some random stuff, it may not be a good idea.
So I started signalling to my Manager (and other people) about the marking (Priority).
If it’s urgent and important – P0
If it’s not urgent but important – P1
If its not urgent and not important – P2 (will only do when I have time if I have time)
.. and so on.
We get lots of ideas/tasks, but not everything needs execution and new stuff keep coming. If you have unlimited time, sure do everything, if not, until it becomes urgent/important, let it be there.
The most complex thing is the definition of urgent and important, urgent for whom and import for whom. And I always struggle with the same thing you explained in the post, why do I have to do it 🙂
Most of the time, I want to pick P0 when it’s just outside my skill level, difficult but not very. I can take P1 which can be very difficult but it’s not urgent so I can struggle and figure it out.
But if it’s P0 and very difficult for me, I have to pass unless I don’t have a choice. If I think it’s P2 but someone passing me a task thinks it’s P0, I gotta pass, if I have a choice to do so. If I have too many P0 and even if it’s very interesting, I have to pass or else I will compromise on the quality of work I do on other P0.
As a techie, we say lots of times, “It depends”. We should also borrow the favourite saying from Economists, “Ok, but at what cost ?”