March 4, 2020

Overworked and ready to quit? First, ask these 6 questions.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Apr. 30, 2021.

    If you feel overworked, the problem might not be your job or the people you work with, but rather "whether the work on your plate is the right work for you," Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach, writes in Harvard Business Review.

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    This employee was ready to quit

    One of Nawaz's clients, Suleikha, an SVP of finance and administration, had firsthand experience being at her wits end with her workload. Suleikha was a reliable, hard worker who "worked seven days a week, never unplugged, neglected relationships at home, and deferred exercise," Nawaz writes.

    Suleikha's demanding workload left her feeling "burned out" and she began to seriously consider quitting her job, Nawaz writes. But before Suleikha decided to leave, she turned to Nawaz for help.

    Suleikha and Nawaz brainstormed ways that Suleikha could become happier and healthier in her job, asking key questions about Suleikha's workload and identifing tasks that could be offloaded.

    The 6 questions to ask about your to-do list

    Nawaz writes that to help Suleikha and other clients better manage their workloads she relies on a six-question process. These questions are designed to force the individual to consider whether a task on their to-do list actually needs to be done.

    1. "Why is this task necessary?" Suleikha discovered that about 25% of her to-do list didn't have a "meaningful 'why,'" Nawaz writes. Determining why a job needs to be done can help ensure the most important jobs are prioritized while others are either pushed to the side or delegated.
    2. "Does it fit into my 'time portfolio?'" Nawaz advices clients to develop a portfolio for their time. Suleikha, for instance, divided her main jobs into seven categories and then gave each category the ideal percentage of her time she'd dedicate to them, setting goals to reach those ideals. By doing this, Nawaz writes, you can be more mindful about which jobs truly need to be done.
    3. "What would happen a month from now if it isn't done?" Before you agree to do a job, consider what impact it might have on you and any relevant stakeholders, Nawaz writes. This allows you to avoid spending your time on something that that can be "consigned to corporate oblivion right now."
    4. "Who wants this task done, and who is the right person to do it?" When analyzing a task, ask not only who could do the task instead, but who the right person to do it is. Then, you can free up some of your time by delegating tasks, which in turn "allow[s] your teammates to appropriately do their own work" instead of you doing it for them, Nawaz writes.
    5. "How often do you give more importance to a task than it is actually worth?" Evaluate how quickly you think you can do a task and how important you think it is, Nawaz writes. "Assign accountability where it belongs and focus on the action items that are truly pressing and truly yours—even if they are outside work."
    6. "What's the story I'm telling myself?" Suleikha thought there would be major consequences if she didn't accomplish every task on her to-do list, so she and Nawaz created a "fact vs. FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt)" list to compare which concerns are legitimate and which are not.

    By asking these six questions, Suleikha was able to "mov[e] past her compulsion to take on every little thing" and is now able to focus her time on the most critical tasks, Nawaz writes. That, in turn, has made Suleikha happier and healthier both at work and home.

    "When you believe you have to accomplish a million tasks, ask yourself these six questions," Nawaz writes. "You might discover there are more important things to do—ones that will increase your impact and prolong your longevity at work and in life" (Nawaz, Harvard Business Review, 2/27).

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