The art of balancing workload, priorities and expectations

How to manage workload, setting expectations and handling variable priorities and live a happy, healthier life.

Rheinturm, Düsseldorf, Germany

How to manage workload, setting expectations and handling variable priorities and live a happy, healthier life.

( Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev )

Over the years I've been working for different companies and in different roles, both as an individual contributor and as a team manager in the IT world.  It is said that wisdom come from experience: I wouldn't go as far as declaring that I am sure to be a wise person! But what I can do is share my experience in this area and leave it open for further discussion and comments.

Experience, after all, is something that is acquired through collaboration, teamwork and dialogue.

Today I wanted to share with you some of my ideas and learnings on how we can strike a balance between our work and personal time, without sacrificing one for the other. I am focusing from the perspective of someone employed at a company: I am sure most of these apply also for self-employed people but I'll leave that determination for the reader.

Let's dive right into it. I will start by laying out some of my key opinions on these matters.

Opinion 1 - There is always more work to do

This is a simple one. In most jobs, there are always extra tasks to complete, no matter what. There is an unscheduled, last-minute call with a customer. There is that initiative to improve how post-project documentation is managed. Various internal teams could do with your input on several initiatives.

In some cases, while such tasks may not necessarily be part of your day to day job, they could give you a great opportunity to learn or get exposed to areas you are interested in. You name it!

Sometimes, the ask for you is well-defined and time-bound. In other cases, not so much. Depending on your experience, your advice might be sought out exactly because you are perceived as someone who could contribute significantly in making hazy things more clear.

There are days where you will end up with more open actions than what you started with. And even then, a colleague will ping you to check out on something new.

Opinion 2 - The Customer is King (or Queen)

I marked this as an opinion, but in my case, I would say this is a firmly held belief.

When a commitment is made to a customer, it must be upheld and followed through, without exceptions. For example:

  • We have accepted a call.
  • We have promised to follow up on some questions by a certain time.
  • We need to send a document by that day.

For no reason, other than what would be classed as Force majeure, we should be failing in showing up or deliver what we promised in time. If we fail to do so, or as soon as we are reasonably sure we will not be able to do what we promised to do, then we owe our customer an apology. Also, we will need to follow up promptly with a new, realistic updated delivery expectation.

Please note that when I say customer here I mean both your company's (or your own) customers that are paying the bills and also the so-called internal customers - those colleagues that are primarily dependent on your work to perform theirs successfully. The way we engage with each can be different, but ultimately they are owed the same "level of service" from us.

Photo by Shirly Niv Marton
Photo by Shirly Niv Marton

Opinion 3 - Separation of Work and Personal time

I think there is merit in keeping a clean separation between work and personal time. Even more so, with the proliferation of remote work, the line may be very difficult to draw. I think it pays off to start by identifying an indicative daily timeline between work and personal time.

Of course, this does not mean you have to work with a stopwatch and drop tools as soon as you hit a specific hour of the day. Rather, I think this should be similar to keeping a regular sleep schedule and aiming at sticking to it for most of the time. Yep, I just compared work to sleep (*) 😁

Most companies nowadays are smart enough to treat their employees as adults and it pays to be flexible both ways for all parties. I might need to start late one day or finish early or take some extended break during the day for personal reasons. Likewise, I might be expected to work longer hours at other specific times to get something over the finish line, or to help with an urgent matter.

One should be looking at the overall balance of these occurrences and find out that they are evenly distributed on both sides of the equation.

(*) Sleep is rather a fundamental component of living a healthy life, and is of utmost importance for replenishing our energy and improving our mood. So sleep is more important than work, and a good night of rest can enable us to engage in focused work too! Read more about this - if you aren't falling asleep already 😴

Opinion 4 - Work is Life

OK. I just said above that I am a fan of separating Work and Personal time, and now I'm arguing that Work is Life. Isn't that a contradiction? Let me explain it further.

What I mean here is that, from my perspective, what we do in our daily jobs is not just an appendage of our living. Most people will be spending a significant portion of their daily waking hours at work.

This means having daily interaction with other people, inside and outside the company. In many cases, these interactions develop and blossom into far more meaningful relationships which go beyond the confines of the workplace - or virtual remote workplace that is!

It would be crazy to think that we can self-compartmentalize a time of the day after which we can get back to our own life. And I am sure that most people realize this anyway, even from a negative angle.

For example, by "loathing Monday" some folks are painfully reminded every week that there is a specific part of their life they would like to move on from as soon as possible... their workplace. Or, they may like what they do but are for some reason so spent and exhausted that they loathe it now.

So, because work is your life, you must ensure that it is a part of it that you cherish and are proud of. You will want to look back at this time of your life and retain good memories of it.

Photo by Jill Heyer
Photo by Jill Heyer

So, what does this all mean?

Now that I laid out my way of thinking about it and shown you what my "north star" looks like, I can move on to more concrete advice on what I think you can do to balance your workload and set the right expectations.

Baseline your capacity

Firstly, it is crucial to get a good grasp of one's capacity. This means looking honestly at your situation (skills, mood & energy, health) and trying to predict how much we can get done in a typical day and at these conditions.

This can be tricky when you are starting a new job (especially early on in your career), or when you are learning a new skill or product/technology. In those situations, you should initially lean on your manager or other experienced team members to cross-check your estimations and see if they are realistic. If possible, pair up or shadow a colleague and think how you would approach these tasks on your own.

Likewise, if your manager assigns you a task that you reckon will take longer than they expect, talk to them: explain why you think their assessment is not accurate. If you can, help them by putting forward some ideas on the kind of support you would like to have to meet that deadline.

When I mention honesty, I am thinking about having a frank inward review of our capabilities. Sometimes we like to think that we know more than we do. And it might feel bad and difficult to admit to ourselves that we don't! Or we may become stressed about it which is even worse.

The way we learn starts from admitting that we do not know something and then giving ourselves an objective of conquering that topic. Once we become proficient in a skill, technology or field we will be able to take on more confidently bigger and challenging (and ultimately rewarding) tasks.

In a healthy team dynamic, we should have no doubts about reaching out and asking for some tips from an experienced colleague, to get us going faster.

Don't overcommit

Great, assume we now have a better idea of what our capacity is. We know what we can take on, and ideally, this should be aligned with what your manager puts on your plate. For sure, we may also have some stretch goals there, that are intended to make us grow in our professional capabilities and career.

What should we do then when we are asked to take on even more tasks, or allowed to collaborate on a side activity we always wanted to get involved with?

Many jobs are subject to seasonality and bursts: for example, any role touching Sales will typically deal with variability and sudden increases in workload (for example, around the end of a quarter or fiscal year). This must be taken into account so that we can leave room for manoeuvre when those times are approaching.

What about those one-time opportunities? Again, an honest appraisal is the best way to proceed: if you are already at capacity, but you don't want to miss it, take it and be prepared to go for the extra mile.  How important is this for you? For how long this will require you to overexert? What could be the unexpected outcomes out of this? Is this really a one-off, or will you have another shot at it in the future?

Ultimately, remember that you need to own the commitments already made. Don't take on something extra if this will cause you to delay on something else you already promised. One of the best ways I have found to gain the trust of customers is to be predictable and consistent. Don't let someone down by trying to do too much in too little time, or by pushing too hard on yourself.

Learn to say "No"

To achieve professional growth, we must be exposed to tasks that are going beyond our "nominal" capacity, and that put us in a new (professional/technical etc...) area to operate in.

Some people may instead decide to keep a predictable and steady pace, perhaps because they have other things to worry about at that specific moment in life, or because they like to avoid stressful situations, or simply because they believe that such approach is the best thing for them. This is completely acceptable in my books, and must be respected.

In any case, pretty much in the same way as physical exercise, there is always a fine line between "healthy exertion" - which is manageable - and "permanent straining" - which usually spirals out into stress and burnout.

Space shuttle Atlantis, mission STS-135 (photo credits: NASA)
Space shuttle Atlantis, mission STS-135 (photo credits: NASA)

Because I am a space nerd, I like to visualize this as the launch of a rocket in space. Every aerospace vehicle is designed to take into account the max q condition, which is when the vehicle reaches the maximum dynamic pressure in the atmosphere.

Without going into too many details, the flight plan of the rocket must allow for a decrease in the engine throttle (let's say 75% of maximum power) until this point is passed, as this is when the rocket must bear the greatest aerodynamic forces. It forces a kind of a speed limit. If the rocket were to push at 100% engine power when passing through that point, it would most likely disintegrate in a ball of fire, and never reach orbit.

To avoid such ghastly occurrences in our life ☠️ we must learn to say 'No' so that we can keep our "engine" and "airframe" within the expected tolerances. When I manage a team or lead a project, I always prefer a colleague pushing back on my request, rather than not questioning it and then being unable to follow up on it.

For sure, a manager should have a good grasp of what everyone in his team can do, but as we all are humans and fallible any manager worth their salt will want to be challenged if a misjudgement is made, and will have to lean on the experience of each team member to complement their own.

A 'No' then becomes an occasion for the manager to do a sanity check. Perhaps the request was not well made, and it can be discussed and clarified into a more defined (and smaller) task that is indeed doable. Or maybe, the task is truly too big or unfeasible for some reason, and we must go back to the drawing board and find an alternative way, or start managing expectations.

Lastly, you should expect other people to respect your commitment, time and professionality in the same way you should do for them. When a request is unreasonable, or someone attempts to pull you in at the last minute with no preparation, think about it and don't feel bad for saying no. Sometimes it is much better to push back rather than do a half-baked job because of the lack of preparation.

On this last point, I recognize that there are special circumstances where this is unavoidable and we just have to do the best we can with the situation we are presented with. As a rule however, we shouldn't be carrying a burden because others are consistently failing to plan appropriately - and sometimes even making an habit of relying on the good will of a person. Instead, work with them to come to a mutual understanding to avoid getting in such situations in first instance.

Prioritize

OK. We now have a decent idea of what we can chew. We haven't overcommitted. We have discussed and adjusted for the unclear bits that worried us more. We have left some leeway for the random and unexpected.

Unfortunately, the world is always in flux. Priorities shift and change rather quickly. We may still end up in a situation where there is a clear conflict. How to make a call here can depend on your experience and the evaluation of the whole picture.

What (if anything) is burning? Let's say Customer A is upset and angry: then you try to put yourself in their shoes and evaluate objectively. Should you drop what you are doing and help them, and jeopardize a commitment already made with Customer B?

Maybe Customer B's request (or even Customer A's) is not as urgent as initially thought. Maybe you have a tighter relationship with Customer A and you can call them to assess the situation and agree on a plan of action that gives you some breathing room.

Are both customers in dire straits and there is no way you can handle them both satisfactorily? Then perhaps it's time to ask for help within your team or escalate the matter to your manager. In a healthy team, people will typically have each other's backs and be ready to give a hand, or a good suggestion, when in need.

Whatever the approach, the keyword here is frequent communication all with the parties involved. Sometimes it means just acknowledging the issue in a timely fashion. We may not have an answer yet but people will (usually) appreciate that an effort is being made, and they will feel kept in the loop.

Think when you are in the airport and a flight is delayed, with no explanation or new departure date shown. Or when the package that was supposed to be delivered three hours ago is nowhere to be seen, and there is no update about it on the delivery app. How does that make you feel? How would it be different if you had even a concise acknowledgement of the problem from the company involved?

Finally - sometimes it is inevitable that things go wrong. When everything fails, you may still be ultimately the person that needs to make good a failure with a customer. I am not talking of blame-shifting or assignment of blame, but rather having to own responsibility for a bad outcome.

Things happen, and most of the times an honest apology and an explanation of what we will to do to make things right will go a long way to repair the relationship and re-establish trust. Don't take it personally, everyone has to go through this some time or another, and how we navigate and recover out of the situation is what makes the difference.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi
Photo by Zoltan Tasi

I hope that you find this useful and that it gives you some ideas to apply on your day to day activities. I would love it if you had some tips to share in the comments below, I'd be happy to learn from you!

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