Reducing Workload

Career Planning:

Current Situation

Free Stuff

  (O O)

The instructions for
thinking outside the box
are printed on the outside.
Want to get out of your box?
work with FutureVisions

with FutureVisionsSM

creating sustainable results in growth and performance

Once begun, work follows the path of least resistance.

Most of us manage our daily workload through triage:

We avoid or postpone all but the most pressing decisions and tasks.

And when everybody is in triage mode, the path of least resistance is to just keep things moving, passing work on to others as quickly as possible, even if that work comes up short in focus or importance. Because the biggest wall of resistance comes from stopping the flow and telling our bosses what they want us to do isn't focused, important, or valid.

The SO What? It's a lot easier than you think
to reduce the flow of work from your boss.

The secret is to avoid any conversations that sound like you want to reduce the flow of work from his plate onto yours, and instead just clarify the immediate next steps. Clarification is your secret partnering tool - while your boss is clarifying next steps, he'll actually get more focused. Really!

Working smarter means saying “I can’t do everything.”

Constantly find the vital few and focus on those. The key to success is knowing what NOT to do. The steps on this page have been specifically designed to stop you from shooting yourself in the foot!

If you work with a manager who continually passes on too much, don't question your workload, or push for anything greater than short-term prioritization! If you do, your manager is likely to think that you're pushing work back onto his or her plate! Then, everything that happens next - the negotiations, the kicking and screaming, all the business rationale, everything - has absolutely nothing to do with your goals or your workload. Instead, what's buzzing through your manager's head is "I thought I got this off my plate and onto yours! Are you asking me to revisit decisions that I've already made? I don't have time for that!"

It's his workload he's worried about, not yours! Once begun, work follows the path of least resistance - your boss doesn't want anything pushed back on his plate. He wants you to just keep things moving.

Your problem is that a manager who fails to prioritize and focus your workload is abdicating a responsibility s/he has to you. Still, partnering with your manager will reduce your workload. Complaining will not.

One of the primary drivers in day-to-day activities is to keep things moving forward. Most of us avoid anything that smacks of moving backwards like stopping to reflect on, and question, any work that has already been set in motion.

That doesn't make any of us bad people. Or bad managers or bad teammates.  Just crazed and overloaded.

How not to shoot yourself in the foot

Unless you are willing to go toe-to-toe with your manager, forcing him to think about his own workload avoid conversations that ask your manager to uncheck his handoff to you. You don't want to appear to be pushing anything back onto his plate. The four steps in this chapter will help you avoid this. (Note: In some "empowered" cultures, you may be able to push back on your manager. If you're among the lucky few - great! Do so. But it's an extremely rare manager who is willing to have his decisions questioned, especially if it means pushing work back onto his boss's plate.)

Overload creates opportunities

Accept the fact that too much work is probably going to keep coming at you. But because your manager hasn't had the time to think through your entire workload, that leaves a window of opportunity to jump in

1.  Before you talk with your boss about managing your workload: Do your homework

Know exactly which work is extraneous, how many goals are too many, and where you think your efforts need to be focused.

Some guidelines for doing your homework, and figuring out what's extraneous and what's important:

Nobody can focus on more than three to five goals at a time
Of the umpteen goals your manager just announced, which three do you believe will add the most value to the company, your customers, your team, and you?

If your boss just won’t prioritize your work, acknowledge (without any disparaging comments) that all the targets are important. But say that youjust can’t do them all right now and that your poor execution will put him/her at risk. Ask if others can take on some of the targets.

Go away and look into what it would take to do the remaining targets. Arrange another meeting (informal is best, don’t ask for an appointment) and begin by telling him/her that most of the list is a lot harder than you (both) might have realized. Walk him/her through a few examples.  Again ask who else it can be assigned to. Keep forcing him/her to choose: “which one of these do you think is more important? Which one of these…?

One by one, cross things off. You may find however, that even after that meeting your boss is still expecting all the targets to be met, even those taken off the list. You may have to have a third meeting in which you are relentless. Get it down to the vital five and thereafter only discuss those with boss, peers, subordinates, etc.

All work requires tools, support, training, and resources

Itemize your entire workload. Which projects are so under­supported that they are doomed to fail? Which projects lack true sponsorship and commitment from key players in the organization? By answering those two questions, you've identified your extraneous workload.

Research tip: Ask for copies of whatever communication, reports, presentations your manager presents to his bosses. Even if he hasn't focused your to-do's to a critical few, the odds are that his few priorities are in those reports! And his few need to be your few.

2. When you meet with your manager,
acknowledge the pressures s/he must be under

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Be empathetic to how important all the goals must be, and how all the work must get done at some point.

3. Ask:

"Can we talk about which three things should be
my top focus for the next few [days, weeks or months]?"

You can succeed! The secret...

bulletPick a short timeframe, and
bulletDo not ask your manager to rethink goals or workload that have been handed down to him

Something like...

Hey boss, I know we're supposed to get these 4,321 things done within the next few months, and I'd never question the wisdom of this list (..ahem...), but I've got some suggestions for which three should be my priority for the next few weeks. Of course, (..ahem...), I'll keep the other 4,318 movingforward while I focus on these three.


These are the three things I d recommend we focus on first. Make sense?

(Of course, your Pass-On-Too-Much manager will want to up your three things to five or ten or twenty. On to Step 4...)

4. Keep shortening the timeframe

(from months to weeks to, possibly, days)

until, as partners, you both agree: "These three."

Don't challenge the length of the entire list or your manager's inability

to prioritize. Instead, just keep narrowing the timeframe...

Boss, thanks for helping me see that there's only 347 things that have to get done this month. Now, can we talk about which to-do's need to be checked off by this Friday? ...Only 47? Great! Now, which three of those should I focus on first?

Based on our long-term objective, I think these three things need
to be done first, as a foundation for everything else. Make sense?

and clarify upcoming, short-term To-Do's. If you keep the timeframe short enough, most every manager appreciates help in clarifying what comes next.

Most people avoid dealing with their manager's inability to get focused because they don't know how to confront the problem without confronting the person. By continually narrowing the timeframe, you can get your manager to prioritize without going toe-to-toe. It's an indirect approach that some have called the Nibble Method: taking small steps to get priorities set.

The upside is that you avoid confrontation. The downside: you'll have to continually go back for another nibble of focus. That's why some prefer a more direct method...

Hey boss, I'm not leaving your office until you
cut this whole list down to just three things...

If that works for you, go for it! Both approaches yield the same thing:  less work, greater focus. The only difference is where you spend your energy.

People who have followed the steps on this page report a success rate of 80%, and better, in dealing with managers who pass on too much.

Instead of saying "no" to too much work, these people have figured out that if they partner with their manager on setting better priorities, they actually reduce the overall flow of work that comes at them. Equally important, they find that the vital few priorities they coaxed out of their manager end up being the ones on which they're evaluated at year's end.

Do your homework. Tackle short-term, bite-size chunks of prioritization. And make it easy for your manager to approve your suggestions. Save him time and don't make him think he's got to go to his boss, and you will be able to continually redirect the flow of work coming at you. I promise! (A promise that I can guarantee because of the First Law of Workplace Behavior: Make it easier for people to do things your way, and you'll get your way more often.)