What's the difference between busy and overloaded?

How can you find your 'sweet spot'?

The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger this week examined the "sweet spot" between taking on enough and taking on too much—and why finding it is critical to success at work.

What determines someone's 'sweet spot'

According to Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, a person's ability to handle many tasks and activities is formed by genetics and early life experiences. Some people have a born tendency to react poorly to stress. Meanwhile, people who received early nurturing and warmth and experienced enough early adversity to instill resilience are generally better able to cope.

Sood—the author of the "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living"—says personality also matters. For instance, altruism helps people manage more tasks without harmful effects. But research shows that people with neuroticism tend to struggle more when managing multiple roles.

Why busy colleagues stress you out

How to tell when you're getting overloaded

Cali Yost, a consultant and trainer on work-life flexibility, estimates that about 15% of employees at the companies she has worked with are able to effortlessly manage long to-do lists. These "naturals" usually keep one calendar for all their activities—work or personal—so they can see the big picture. They tend to be "master collaborators, communicators, and coordinators," she says.

But most people have a poor sense of their ability to handle multiple tasks. When they get overloaded, things fall by the wayside, like missing a client call or forgetting a social engagement. Early signs of overload also include insomnia, minor ailments, rising blood pressure, and regular aches. People can also become anxious and irritable.

Getting overloaded can also affect your cognitive abilities, hurting working memory and concentration.

Health care workers may be the nation's most stressed employees

Tips for staying in the 'sweet spot'

According to leadership coach Pat Mathews, adding an enjoyable activity to your slate can help you say in your "sweet spot."

For example, an IT manager that she worked with considered quitting his job because of stress, but instead decided to drop a stressful position on his condo association in favor of spending more time participating in a signing group. The move re-energized his personal and professional life.

Similarly, Coaching Out of the Box's Amy Ruppert advised one client to stay in the shower for an extra 15 minutes every morning. "That was all she could handle in the beginning," she says (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 5/13).

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