If you often find yourself taking on too much, you’re not alone. Many leaders suffer from the same problem. But this issue isn’t only happening at an individual leader level.
Taking on too much is happening at an organisational level too. That is, companies are taking on too much work, trying to make too much change all at once.
The reason for this is simple. When individual leaders take on too much, it follows that their organisations will do the same.
There are some obvious challenges from trying to take on too much. In this article, I’ll touch on what they are. I’ll also look at why you might be taking on too much and most importantly, some ideas for what you can do about it.
What’s Wrong With Taking On Too Much?
There are a few common issues I see when leaders try to take on too much work. This is a common challenge faced by my coaching clients.
At first, this might not seem like such a big problem. After all, if you’ve taken on too much and only finished half of it, you’ve still achieved an awful lot, right?
Yes, that’s true. You can still achieve a lot, even if you can’t get it all done. But there are some problems with this approach. When you take on too much, it’s common to find that:
- Confidence suffers. When you are constantly finishing only half of the tasks on your todo list, you might start to feel like a failure.
- You experience “mental clutter”. You always have more on your task list, and you never feel like you’ve finished. Some leaders experience tension from existing in this state for long periods.
- Reputation damage. A leader who is on top of all their work, compared to one that always has unfinished projects. Who looks better?
- Potential burnout. Obviously taking on too much has the potential to lead you to burnout. Your team will suffer when you’re not at the top of your game.
Taking on too much is a common issue, and it’s tempting to fall into this trap. It’s worth thinking about why we do it, and we’ll cover that in the next part of this article.
Why Leaders Take On Too Much
It’s not easy to kick the habit of taking on too much. But if this is a problem for you, the best time to start addressing it is right now.
1. Fear of Making the Wrong Choice
You have so many things you could focus on. What if you choose the wrong things?
You might see poor results and end up looking bad.
Some leaders overcome this by failing to make a choice at all. In other words, they’ll simply try to do everything, so there is no choice to make!
Obviously, this leads to problems. So what can we do about it?
How to Overcome the Fear of Making the Wrong Choice
One of the first things to do is to ensure you have a direction, vision or purpose for your team. This is extremely valuable, because it helps you to decide where to focus your effort.
When you assess all your possible tasks or projects against this vision, you will see that some of them align strongly with your direction. Those become your top priorities. The rest can wait.
Next, have a way to monitor progress. That way, you can see how you are tracking as you go along. Perhaps you’ll be a few months down the track and you’ll notice that some of the initiatives you’re focusing on aren’t the right ones.
This is OK. You can always course-correct and look at other options. Sometimes making the wrong choice is better than making no choice at all, because you have started moving forward.
2. You’re Taking On Too Much Because You’re Optimistic
Optimism bias is a huge factor in many workplaces. We all like to believe we can do anything.
After all, there is an awful lot of motivational content out there which is telling us we can achieve anything we put our minds to.
Unfortunately this optimism can land us in trouble.
We’ll assume we can take on too much, and still finish it all. We’ll underestimate how long tasks will take. Or perhaps we’ll assume a project will be less expensive than the reality.
Interestingly, the UK Government has guidelines and calculators specifically designed to counter optimism bias, because it has led to so many cost overruns in large projects.
How to Counter Optimism Bias
How do we stop this, and bring ourselves back to reality? Here are some things to try:
- Use previous experience. How long did this work take the last time you did it? How much work were you able to handle before? Use previous experience as a guide to help you.
- Keep initiatives in reserve. Let’s say your task list has 10 items. Order them from 1 to 10 in order of priority. Now halve it and commit to the top five. Keep the rest in reserve. If you finish the first five, move onto the rest.
Optimism is nice and feels good, but it can land us in hot water. Be careful not to overextend yourself because you believe you can do anything.
You’re human, and there is nothing wrong with admitting that you aren’t superwoman or superman.
Learn More: Is Optimism Bias Sabotaging Your Leadership?
3. Short-Term Thinking
One of my favourite phrases, and I’ll say it again. Short-term thinking leads to bad leadership.
When we take a short-sighted view of the world, we may start to cut corners and forget about the potential problems.
One of the areas I see this happen the most is when it comes to pushing back and saying “No”.
Pushing back can be uncomfortable and involve a difficult conversation. That’s why we have a tendency to avoid it.
Instead, we might find ourselves saying “Yes, we can do all of these things” when we really should be saying “We can only do half of them”.
Many leaders agree with their bosses and fail to push back because it’s easier… at first. In the future is when the problems start to happen.
All of those projects you agreed to seem fine when you’re just getting started. Your boss thinks you’re great, because you’re being compliant and saying “Yes” to everything.
When the wheels start to fall off because you’ve taken on too much, you’ll now have a bigger problem on your hands!
How to Stop the Short-Term Thinking
The simple answer is that we need to start taking a longer term view. You can help with this by asking yourself the following questions:
- What will the impact on my reputation be, if I’m taking on too much here?
- Could this become a bigger problem if I leave it until later? Think of the snowball, rolling down the hill
- Am I more focused on avoiding conflict or a difficult discussion, than getting the best outcome?
It’s certainly challenging to think for the longer term. However, I’ve seen so many leaders get into trouble because they haven’t considered the future impact of a decision they make today!
Learn More: How Short Term Thinking Leads to Bad Leadership.
4. You’re Taking On Too Much, Because Pushing Back Is Considered Selfish or Lazy
One of the best ways to stop ourselves from taking on too much is to push back and say “No”. However, as we covered earlier, this is not easy.
It takes courage to push back, because it could involve an awkward and difficult conversation with someone who has more authority than you do.
This all comes about because saying “No” and pushing back is still generally perceived as unhelpful, selfish and lazy.
We fear that we won’t be seen as a “team player” if we say No. We are scared that people will think we’re lazy or unhelpful when we refuse to take on too much.
How to Reframe Pushing Back as a Good Thing
Pushing back is never an easy conversation. However, as a leader, it is a skill that you simply need to develop if you’re going to be effective and safeguard your wellbeing.
That goes for your team, too. Failing to push back will often see your people become overwhelmed as you keep saying “Yes” and take on more and more. And do you think they respect a leader who can’t say “No”?
We need to reframe pushing back as a good thing.
It’s worth remembering that:
- Pushing back helps to prevent burnout, which means you can support your team properly
- Saying “No” forces people to think harder about what is important
- Pushing back gives you the capacity to respond to unexpected events and plan for the future, resulting in less chaos and fire-fighting. You become proactive, rather than reactive
- Pushing back also has the benefit of building respect, when done in a constructive manner.
Also never forget that pushing back doesn’t mean just saying “No”. There are plenty of ways to go about it, and you can learn more about them by listening to the podcast at the link below.
5. Taking On Too Much Is Hard to Measure
Uncertainty is a huge factor in our organisations today. There is so much change going on, that it can be difficult to know what the future holds.
The same can be said for taking on too much. How much is too much? It’s really hard to know.
There is no scientific equation that tells us how much is too much, or not enough. It depends on the effectiveness of your team, including skill, motivation and other factors.
It might feel like we can take on just on more thing. But can we? How do we know? Is this extra thing the one that will “break the camel’s back?”
How to Handle the Uncertainty of What “Too Much” Means
There is no exact science to this. But it can be helpful to try to quantify your work, and make your workload a little more measurable.
To help with this, try the following:
- Tracking your work in a system. Metrics are easier to capture using a system (or even in a simple spreadsheet). If you know that your team completed 100 tasks in your best month ever, then you’ll know that 200 is probably too much.
- Taking on just a little more. If we’re asked to take on more, we don’t have to accept the whole lot. Perhaps you can try taking a little more and seeing how your team copes with it. Then you can assess where to go from there.
- Keeping tasks in reserve. As we covered earlier, it can be helpful to keep some projects in reserve. Instead of committing to your whole list, try half. If you exceed expectations and finish it all, you can add in some extra work and look like a superstar.
Taking on too much is hard when you don’t know how much is too much. Use some of these ideas to see if you can work it out for you and your team.
Taking on too much is never a good idea when it comes to our wellbeing or mental health. If you have five tasks on your list and you finish all five, how awesome does it feel?
What about finishing only five out of ten? Not as good, I’ll bet.
Stop taking on too much. Your team and organisation will thank you for it in the long run.
Do you find yourself taking on too much? What are the challenges that stop you from doing less? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!