I had an interesting discussion with a very close friend and colleague in academia recently about managing high workloads and the expectations and pressure placed on work output. Both of these topics have been major issues for both of us for most of our short careers, so the current situation and ensuing discussion was nothing new; sadly, it was quite familiar. So here we were on a Sunday night, she was home working on her laptop (as she had been doing all weekend in a desperate attempt to „catch up“), and I was on Skype for moral support and to „workshop“ the issue of reducing her workload to a more realistic level, and integrating some steps towards work-life balance.
I should say from the start, both of us are the controlling, over-achieving perfectionist type, which makes it easy to relate to one another, but incredibly difficult when it comes to managing workloads and…delegating (the word sends cold shivers down my spine). Some might say our inability to say No combined with our passion (obsession?) for our careers lands us in this position in the first place. But should our dedication to our profession and to advancing our careers always be so punishing? How do the successful people do it, what was their secret? This is what currently had us stumped; how were we expected to balance high and demanding workloads whilst trying to progress our own careers, without burning the candle at both ends?
Naturally, the discussion turned to quality versus quantity. When the work demands are so high there is no other choice than to sacrifice quality in favour of quantity, and simply get things done. If you are like us (OCD controlling perfectionists), this usually doesn’t sit well, particularly when we are the ones holding ourselves to the highest standards. We realised that this was the point in our careers when the balance was shifting; no longer was it possible to be the workhorses and also advance our own careers. One required doing someone else’s work whilst the other required dedication and commitment to our own work. Essentially, it was time for us to start tending to our own back garden.
I love analogies, so I am going to borrow a great one from a colleague. Our workloads are like dinner plates – there is only a finite amount of space to fill. When it comes to quality versus quantity, what quality of food do we want on our plates? Will it be Michelin star or a Macca’s family meal? (No offense to the McDonald’s lovers). What we say Yes to determines the quality of food on our plate, and of course the quantity. At some point the plate will become full, and we must draw the line and make the decision to stop; to accept that our plate is full, be happy with the contents, and focus on doing our best to address what is in front of us. And – the most critical part – if more work comes along, we must assess its quality and decide if it is worthy of taking the place of something already there. That’s right – no piling up the food like an all-you-can-eat Sizzler buffet. In order to maintain our Michelin-star dinner plate, something else must be sacrificed to squeeze on that extra bit of dessert…after all, we can’t have our cake and eat it too!
So, how appetizing is your dinner plate? Is it Michelin star or a Macca’s meal? Small, tasty well-prepared morsels or a towering pyramid of poor-quality slop? Turning this situation around will certainly take time, energy and a great commitment, but like all things of high quality, they are well worth the effort in the end. I have shared with you below the strategies we came up with during our Sunday night „workshop“ in the hope that they also assist you in the task of cleaning up your own dinner plate. Because no matter what our profession, we are all striving for our personal Michelin star, so if you have some suggestions of your own, please share!
5 Top Tips for Cleaning Up Your Dinner Plate:
- Set your boundaries (i.e. choose the size of your dinner plate). This is the first step and it will determine how much work you are prepared, and capable, of delivering within a realistic scope. And don’t forget, your personal life also has to be balanced with your professional workload to ensure a healthy, balanced life.
- Stick to your values (i.e. choose your favourite foods). Your personal and professional values serve to remind you of what is most important in your life, and this becomes your decision-making criteria for taking on new/extra work .
- Keep your own best interests at heart (i.e. no plate-sharing). It may sound ruthless, but this is your career we are talking about! Only you know where you wish to go and what you wish to achieve professionally, so keep this vision alive in your mind and make decisions that serve to get you there.
- Develop profitable collaborations and partnerships (i.e. leverage more dessert). At this point, scan the office; who else has similar professional interests and skill sets and could benefit from collaborating on some projects? By working together and pooling resources, you get more work done faster, it alleviates some of the pressure, and you achieve your goals. Win win!
- Continually assess the quality of your dinner plate (i.e. be the harsh critic. Gordon Ramsey-style). Regularly review points 1-3 above to make sure you are not falling into old habits and sneaking in those few extra morsels. Remember, over time, those few extra morsels add up to a few extra kilos….