You’re looking at your agenda for the week, and you’re filled with anxiety – another week with too much work. But are your tasks themselves that difficult, or are you overwhelmed by the thought of being overworked? Perhaps you think you have too much work to do, but in reality, all it takes is a little mindset change and time management to feel like you have agency over your workday again.
There’s a possibility that you’re not necessarily working too much – you’re just doing the wrong type of work for too many hours in a row.
Research from the Harvard Business Review shows that 41% of knowledge workers spend time on tasks that give them little personal satisfaction, as they could be handled well by others. These tasks include desk work or “office housework,” excessive meetings, and ineffective cross-department collaboration. Respondents rated these tasks as low-value to the company and reported that they offered no personal utility.
Unfortunately, you may feel like you’re committed to these tasks as a supportive and helpful team member. In many company cultures, it’s important to seem like everyone is on the same page – as one participant in the Harvard study put it, “I want to appear busy and productive. The company values team players.”
So while tasks might be boring, low-value, or impractical for you to complete, you feel obligated to hold the line. After all, it’s easier to keep your head down and do your part rather than have uncomfortable conversations with your manager or coworkers about workflow.
Next, you might not actually have too much work. You could just be working for too long and utilizing your time ineffectively. We all know about the research that states how much productivity falls off when employees work longer than 50 hours each week. But feeling like you have too much work leads to working at night and on the weekends, which the study says leads to lower overall hourly output. Unfortunately, it could seem like the best way to handle too much work is to increase your hours on the clock, that might actually be doing more harm than good.
Ultimately, a sense of urgency about meeting deadlines, accomplishing tasks, or hitting milestones comes from the self-perpetuating organism of company culture. If a routine data transfer is treated the same way as a massive project, it can cause employees to feel constantly pressed for time, even if they only have a moderate amount of work to do. Being rushed in the office by coworkers or managers creates anxiety, inferiority, and resentment in employees – and often makes the work you’re doing feel unnecessarily draining. Even if you have a lot of work to do, the psychological dread that follows you like a dark cloud can make even the smallest tasks seem like insurmountable feats.
If you’re starting to feel like you have too much work, there are a few ways you can reclaim some of your agency without hurting your output or team relationships.
If you feel like you’re drowning in desk work, try working smart, not hard. You’ll find joy in automating, delegating, and refraining from the work that doesn’t feel like it serves your goals. The aforementioned Harvard study found that when workers mindfully attempted to reduce their involvement in low-value tasks or meetings, they cleared six hours of administrative tasks and two hours of meetings out of their schedules on average.
Getting rid of these tasks from your schedule won’t just make you feel less busy. It’ll also make you feel less drained. Delegating can be done carefully, kindly, and with mutual respect. As for automation, start small, and find a tool that works best for you without requiring other team members to be on board. You can also look up hacks, tips, and tricks for the software you’re using with your team currently and then share some of your findings so everyone can stop feeling like they have too much work.
While you might have pressing deadlines or milestones to hit, another way to feel like you’re not in over your head is to slow down. A study from the book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done shows that the more time-pressured an employee feels by their company culture or management, the more hours they work. Unfortunately, this can be a bit counterintuitive, as data also states that employees see a drastic drop in productivity at hour eight of their day.
If you feel trapped by your coworkers’ or your manager’s need for speed, have a serious conversation about what kind of value time pressure adds to the quality of work. Get a sense of everyone’s mind when it comes to workflow, and don’t just subscribe to your team’s sense of urgency without considering it mindfully. You might find that talking about your group process could be a turning point in the way you work together.
It’s entirely possible that you can’t automate, delegate, or throw away your low-value tasks, as they’re an essential part of the foundations from which your more creative projects are built. However, that doesn’t mean you have to feel bogged down by too much work. Self-assessment tools can help you determine the priorities of your to-do list so you can space things out in a way that doesn’t make you feel overwhelmed.
Additionally, a great way to be busy without feeling too busy is to productively use the lulls in your day. You can plan some breaks and take them intentionally by penciling in a walk, a snack, or even a short meditation. Additionally, you could keep a small list of tasks that only take a short amount of time. Whenever you find yourself with a free few minutes, check those tasks off your list. At the end of the day, you’ll feel like you accomplished a lot without feeling too stressed.
This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.