I remember coming home one day from my first job, very upset.
I worked in a finance team and my work was part of a system. If the person ahead of me in the process didn’t do her work on time, I couldn’t complete mine on time.
I found that frustrating and stressful. I ended up trying to do both our jobs so I wouldn’t look bad.
I ranted to my father about how unfair it was and he said something to me that I have never forgotten. He said ‘Honey there are only eight hours in a working day. You can spend them any way you like, but when it’s over, it’s over. There are still only eight hours in that day’.
It was a valuable lesson that I have carried with me all through my working life. It’s helped me find balance and be assertive when I need to say no.
Start planning your work around your capacity
Imagine your eight hours is a river flowing between two banks. The river will flow quite quickly if there are no obstructions, but the moment you add rocks it starts to impede the flow and the amount of actual water that the river can carry is reduced.
Your rocks might be meetings, training sessions, reports, client meetings or other things you can’t change. Once they go into your river, your capacity for work-flow will be reduced, perhaps significantly. A common mistake in time management is to forget to adjust for reduced capacity.
Keep an eye on the changing capacity of your weekly work-flow. You can reduce stress by being realistic about what work you can actually fit into the time you have available. Plan your work around your capacity.
Signal a volume problem not a mental deficit
So what do you do when your river is full of rocks and there’s a flash flood in the high country?
Most of us either suck it up and work longer hours (which is okay short-term) or we tell our bosses that we can’t cope with the workload.
The connotation of ‘coping’ in time management is a prickly one. If we say we can’t cope with the amount of work it implies that we must somehow be deficient or incompetent.
Let’s go back to nature. If the river is full and then more water hits it at speed, what happens? It bursts it banks, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
Do we blame the river or its banks? Do we consider it mentally deficient or incompetent? Of course not. We know that it wasn’t designed to handle such a huge volume because it doesn’t have the capacity.
Neither do you.
I'm 'at capacity'
When your river is already full and the floods are coming, stop saying you can’t cope and start saying you are ‘at capacity’.
‘At capacity’ makes it an external problem not an internal weakness. It implies you know the limits and that there are limits. It also implies that you are organised and in control of your workflow and that you know when you will need reinforcements or a diversion or workflow away from your desk.
‘At capacity’ is a statement of fact that can be backed up by a look at your diary (if you have kept it up to date) and as such is not a subjective measure like ‘coping’.
Best of all, it is impossible to argue with.