Thoughts on Overloading: I Still Appear to be Ignoring My Own Advice

The delicate art of Highway Jenga(TM)

I was musing recently on the inherent issues with giving students more work to do, if they are already overloaded to a point where they start doing questionable things (like cheating). A friend of mine is also going through a contemplation of how he seems to be so busy that fitting in everything that he wants to do keeps him up until midnight. My answer to him, which includes some previous comments from other people, is revealing – not least because I am talking through my own lens, and I appear to still feel that I am doing too much.

Because I am a little too busy, I am going to repost (with some editing to remove personal detail and clarify) what I wrote to him, which distils a lot of my thoughts over the past few months on overloading. This was all in answer to the question: “How do people fit everything in?

You have deliberately committed to a large number of things and you wish to perform all of them at a high standard. However, to do this requires that you spend a very large amount of time, including those things that you need to do for your work.

Most people do one of three things:

    1. they do not commit to as much,
    2. they do commit to as much but do it badly, or
    3. they lie about what they are doing because claiming to be a work powerhouse is a status symbol.

A very, very small group of people can buck the well documented long-term effects of overwork but these peopler are in the minority. I would like to tell you what generally happens to people who over-commit, while readily admitting that this might not apply to you. Most of this is based on research, informed by bitter personal experience.

The long-term effects of overwork (as a result of over-commitment) are sinister and self-defeating. As fatigue increases, errors increase. The introduction of errors requires you to spend more time to achieve tasks because you are now doing the original task AND fixing errors, whether the errors are being injected by you or they are actually just unforeseen events because your metacognitive skills (resource organisation) are being impaired by fatigue.

However, it’s worse than that because you start to lose situational awareness as well. You start to perform tasks because they are there to perform, without necessarily worrying about why or how you’re doing it. Suddenly, not only are you tired and risking the introduction of errors, you start to lose the ability to question whether you should be carrying out a certain action in the first place.

Then it gets worse again because not only do obstacles now appear to be thrown up with more regularity (because your error rates are going up, your frustration levels are high and you’re losing resource organisational ability) but even the completion of goals merely becomes something that facilitates more work. Having completed job X, because you’re over-committed, you must immediately commence job X+1. Goal completion, which should be a time for celebration and reflection, now becomes a way to open more gateways of burden. Goals delayed become a source of frustration. The likely outcome is diminished enjoyment and an encroaching sense of work, work, work

[I have removed a paragraph here that contained too much personal detail of my friend.]

So, the question is whether your work is too much, given everything else that you want to do, and only you can answer this question as to whether you are frustrated by it most of the time and whether you are enjoying achieving goals, or if they are merely opening more doors of work. I don’t expect you to reply on this one but it’s an important question – how do you feel when you open your eyes in the morning? How often are you angry at things? Is this something that you want to continue for the foreseeable future? 

Would you still do it, if you didn’t have to pay the rent and eat?

Regrettably, one of the biggest problems with over-commitment is not having time to adequately reflect. However, long term over-commitment is clearly demonstrated (through research) to be bad for manual labourers, soldiers, professionals, and knowledge workers. The loss of situational awareness and cognitive function are not good for anyone. 

My belief is that an approach based on listening to your body and working within sensible and sustainable limits is possible for all aspects of life but readily acknowledge that transition away from over-commitment to sustainable commitment can be very, very hard. I’m facing that challenge at the moment and know that it is anything but easy. I’m not trying to lecture you, I’m trying to share my own take on it, which may or may not apply. However, you should always feel free to drop by for a coffee to chat, if you like, and I hope that you have some easier and less committed times ahead.

Reading through this, I reminded of how much work I have left to do in order to reduce my overall commitments to sensible levels. It’s hard, sometimes, because there are so many things that I want to do but I can easily point to a couple of indicators that tell me that I still don’t quite have the balance right. For example, I’m managing my time at the moment, but that’s probably because being unable to run has given me roughly 8 hours  a week back to spend elsewhere. I am getting things done because I am using up almost all of that running time but working in it instead. And that, put simply, means I’m regularly working longer hours than I should.

Looking back at the advice, I am projecting my own problems with goals: completing something merely unlocks new burdens, and there is very little feeling of finalisation. I am very careful to try and give my students closure points, guidance and a knowledge of when to stop. Time to take a weekend and reflect on how I can get that back for myself – and still do everything cool that I want to do! 🙂

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