How to Handle a Heavy Job Workload

Ever get close to burning out from a heavy workload? Your boss is pushing you to complete twenty tasks this week, yet you know you can only handle five or six. So you stay late and dine on coffee and pizza, trying desperately to finish at least ten.

And after you finish ten tasks (sans sleep and a healthy meal), another twenty tasks hit you next week, giving you a total of thirty. Deeper and deeper you sink as the weeks drag on.

Sound familiar?

As a former manager, I often heard about cases like this from my team. Heck, I experienced cases like this myself. Over time, I developed a way to compensate for these unrealistic & heavy job workloads. I had to; I would have gone insane had I not.

  1. First, it’s important to realize that it’s not always possible to complete all the tasks you’ve been assigned. Your boss may make you think you can. Even you may think you can. But c’mon, be realistic. Look at all that work. If you feel that troubling pinch in your gut, then trust your gut: you have too much work.
  2. Second, let your boss know. Not all managers are able (or willing) to help you lighten the load, but you still need to alert your manager about this condition. Give your boss a chance to fix it if possible.
  3. Third, find out the source of all these tasks. Someone asked for this work, so go seek that person out. Ask that person how urgent and necessary this work is; chances are, some of it can be postponed or done by someone else with more time.
  4. Fourth, prioritize your tasks. After speaking with the sources, you’ll have an idea of the urgency and importance of each task. This can allow you to prioritize each of the tasks and do the most urgent and most important first. Ideally, your manager should help you with this, but if he/she is not able to, do it yourself.
  5. Finally, do the work. Do them in priority order. Realize that some of the items won’t get done. If you can, set clear expectations with your team and the sources of work. This isn’t always easy, as many will argue and try to coax a higher priority for their task. But hey, there are only so many hours in the day. The more they argue, the less time you’ll have to finish everyone’s tasks.

In my opinion, your direct manager or project manager should handle this kind of task prioritization for you. That person would/should also have the power to delegate and balance the workload across the team, which is something you may not have the authority to do.

Unfortunately, managers aren’t always able or willing to do this. If that’s the case, hopefully these tips will help.

What have you done to handle a heavy job workload?

Constructive Team Conflict is Good

Entrepreneur Week at Stanford University During his lecture “Top Ten Mistakes that Entrepreneurs Make“, Professor Jeff Pfeffer said something that made me go, “Ah!”

If two people agree on everything, then one of them is redundant.

It’s a quote from a colleague of his. What he’s saying is that constructive conflict is good, even necessary, for highly-functional teams. When team members disagree, each is forced to defend his/her position. In doing so, facts are surfaced, assumptions are challenged, alternatives are analyzed, and everyone walks away more enlightened than before.

To put it another way: two heads are better than one, right? The more diverse your team is, the greater the variety of solutions they can offer. If everyone in your team thought the same way, however, then why do you need that team? Why not just keep one person and fire the rest?

Flaky People in Start-Ups

A friend recently asked me, “How do you deal with flaky people when you’re in start-up mode?”

My answer: Don’t.

When you’re just starting up a new business, the people you choose will be absolutely critical to your long-term success. These are the seed people, the grandparents of your business, the ones who will set the pace for generations to come.

A start-up requires an incredible amount of work. It’s not for the faint of heart. A flaky person is not someone with a strong heart—at least, not for your business. Why would you want someone who only cares half-heartedly about success?

There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps that person’s skills are extremely rare. Or that person is already loaded with prior commitments. What do you do then?

Then it becomes a matter of motivation and task management. I’ve already written about motivation. Here are some tips on managing the tasks of a flaky person.

(In this definition, a “flaky” person is one who is unreliable, may not complete tasks on time, and may even forget some of those tasks.)

  • Be clear and direct about expectations. Put them in writing (an email is fine).
  • Get that person’s buy-in on tasks. Have that person agree (verbally or in writing) to the tasks.
  • Set clear timelines and deadlines. Make this schedule visible to the person.
  • Communicate often, even to the point of over-communicating. Repeat the tasks and deadlines.
  • Hold regular, predictable, and frequent checkpoints. The checkpoints can be short and succinct.
  • Give feedback immediately to the person, especially if performance is an issue.
  • Have a back-up plan for an alternate resource.

In my opinion, working with a flaky person in a new business is very, very risky. Personally, I wouldn’t do it. But if you have no choice, hopefully these guidelines can help. Good luck!

How to Motivate Employees

There are many schools of thought on employee motivation. Here is the philosophy I’ve used while managing Internet software developers. The underlying principle is simple and has served me well.

Employee’s Goals

This graph represents your employee’s own personal goals. These are individual motivations which can be ideas like, “to get a promotion,” “to be a manager,” or even “to save enough to buy a house.” They don’t necessarily have to do with their day-to-day work either; they should be the deeply personal motivations which drive that person.

Company’s Goals

This graph represents your company’s goals. These can be company-wide or specific to your particular team. The key here is that an employee’s personal goals will rarely map directly with a company’s goals (you’re probably thinking, “no duh”).

The Convergence of Goals

At some point, there will be an overlapping of an employee’s personal goals and the company’s or team’s goals. If you can accurately identify both sets of goals, those that converge in the middle will be the strongest motivators for your employee within your business.

If your employee is working on a task that is outside his/her personal goals, but within the company’s/team’s goals, your employee will most probably still do it, but may not be strongly motivated, depending on how far it is from his/her personal goals. Conversely, if the task is outside the company’s goals, but within his/her personal goals, your employee will be strongly motivated, but the task won’t be of any use to your company.

It is also important to note that not every task can be mapped directly to an employee’s personal goals. Every job has its share of grunt work. But as long as a reasonable number of an employee’s tasks fall within the convergence of goals, then you’ll have a well-motivated employee.

An Example

Mary and Joseph are developers for Acme Software. David is their manager. Acme Software creates desktop and web widgets.

In his talks with Mary, David learns that her personal goals are to become a manager and one day own her own company. She’s already a brilliant developer who’s stronger in building web widgets than desktop widgets, but has lofty ambitions that span outside of Acme Software. Mary hasn’t yet held any managerial positions, but exhibits some leadership capabilities.

With Joseph, David learns that his personal goals are to purchase a bigger house for his growing family, get a promotion, and earn a name for himself in the open source community, where he already regularly contributes. He’s a strong desktop developer, but wants to grow his skills in web software. Joseph has no interest in management and the politics that come with it.

Joseph’s team is tasked with building a stock ticker widget for the desktop and the web. He needs a team lead, a senior developer for the desktop version, a senior developer for the web version, and junior developers for each.

Knowing what David knows, he gives Mary the assignment of being the team lead and Joseph the assignment of senior developer for the desktop version. This matches both of their personal goals and their team’s & company’s goals, with a few compromises. The rest of his team fills the other positions.

For Mary, this is a stretch role. David will have to mentor her closely as he tests her leadership and managerial aptitude. Her strong technical skills help her earn the respect of her team, though she will need help earning the respect of the product, sales, design, and QA teams. This experience will be very valuable for her, especially if she’s to own her own business one day. David explains this and Mary enthusiastically takes the assignment.

For Joseph, this is a stepping stone towards a promotion and internal recognition. As the senior developer in an area with which he is competent, desktop development, he will define the technical architecture while working closely with the senior developer for the web version. These discussions will familiarize him with web development and prepare him for a future role coding a web widget. David explains this and Joseph enthusiastically takes the assignment.

By understanding the convergence of his employees’ personal goals and the goals of his company & team, David has been able to staff a highly motivated team. Not all real life cases will be this easy, of course, but these underlying principles can be a useful guide for any manager.

How to Sell Your Ideas

Trying to sell your ideas within a corporation isn’t always easy. You have to contend with politics, egos, bureaucracy, and other assorted barriers.

With that in mind, I put together the following information a couple of years ago for my team. Some of it is influenced by Seth Godin’s book Free Prize Inside, which lists lots of great idea promotion techniques.


  • This is not about how to come up with great ideas
  • This is about how to promote your ideas
  • Your job is to come up with great, viable, & successful ideas

Ideas Are Easy

  • There are a million great ideas out there
  • There are a million bad ideas out there too
  • Lots of websites give you free ideas almost every day
  • People at your company may be bursting with ideas already (maybe)
  • Your company’s problem isn’t generating ideas, it’s choosing which ones to implement
  • Your problem isn’t how to sell your idea, it’s getting your idea through the clutter of other ideas

Be an Idea Champion

Understand People & Politics

  • Understand the other person’s point of view of life, frame of mind
    • Consider the person’s background, culture, social standing, economic status, religion, family, ethnicity, etc.
    • Consider personality typing tools (Jung, Myers-Briggs, Keirsey)
    • Be aware of non-verbal communication & cues
  • Understand the other person’s goals & motivations
    • Be aware of what the pesson wants from life, from you, or from this particular deal. What matters to this person? Money, fame, reputation, a promotion, etc?
  • Find out who the true influencers are; these aren’t always the top executives (though usually they are); sometimes, it can also be a project manager or a low-level product manager, or even an administrative assistant
    • E.g. The executives of a major company wanted innovation. Unfortunately, below them were some senior managers who were afraid of upsetting the status quo and hurting their stock options because they were already making a fortune on them. They wouldn’t let any new ideas through if they hurt the status quo. These senior managers were the true influencers, not the top executives. A way to approach them is to understand their motivations and show that, by not embracing this idea, the status quo would be broken because competitors would do it better.

Convince Others That Your Idea is Great

  • Not just good, but great
  • Do some research and gather statistics to back-up the potential success of your idea
  • Show them your vision, describe the future where your idea is a reality
  • Tell them the emotional impact of your idea, get them energized about it
  • The goal is not to prove beyond a doubt that your idea will work; that may be impossible to prove. The goal is to go through the necessary steps for your colleagues to believe that your idea will work
  • Understand what motivates people (which ties into politics)
    • Some want a cool challenge
    • Some like the geek factor of new technology
    • Some like being the first-to-market
    • Some want to push the stock price up
    • Some like making their own jobs more secure
    • Some want to make the world a better place
    • Some want public recognition

Convince Others That You Can Make This Happen

  • Build your reputation as a leader, an Idea Champion
  • Start small (plan a small event, like a team lunch)
  • Increase your responsibilities (take on increasingly more difficult tasks)
  • Take ownership of difficult, complex problems (own them from identification to resolution)
  • Be proactive about problem-solving (if you notice a problem happening frequently that no one else has identified yet, step up to find a solution)
  • Consider volunteering to champion someone else’s idea (to help prove yourself and gain a political ally)
  • Consider learning about project management, marketing, engineering lifecycles, etc; (give yourself the right skills to see your idea through)

Good luck, champ!

You’re Not Your Job Title

“You’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You’re not your job. You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself.”
– C. Palahniuk

Tired of being a peon? Looking to get a promotion or more responsibilities? Or something bigger and better in your career?

The first step is to realize that you are not your job title.

That’s right, you’re not. Don’t let it define you and what you can do.

So your title says you’re a “developer,” yet you really want to be a bigger part of your team? Then don’t just write code all day long. Offer product suggestions, marketing ideas, and UI design feedback.

But don’t just spew out any ole’ thing that comes to your mouth. Having a lot of poorly thought out suggestions doesn’t help anymore. “We should make the navigation blue.” “Why?” “Because I want to be a bigger part of the team, and I really like blue.”

Nope. You’ve got to offer helpful suggestions. The best way to do this is to learn more about the product and understand the business.

A product director once gave me this advice: “Think of yourself as the CEO.

That’s good advice. You start to see things differently when you think of yourself as the top person in charge. Now you have to worry about your customers, your competitors, the market, your expenses, your balance sheet, your team dynamics, etc.

This helps frame your suggestions. It’s not about making the navigation blue anymore, it’s about doing what’s best for the customer, while weighed against the strengths of your company vs your competitors and the market trends.

It’s not easy to do this. There are all sorts of barriers, from insecure colleagues who’ll feel threatened by your initiative, to the fear of making big mistakes with decisions with which you have little experience.

It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Go ahead and take the initiative anyways. If others feel threatened by you and try to sabotage your progress, what’s the worst that could happen? They fire you? Then I’d argue that your team had the wrong dynamic for you anyways, and that you should have just quit.

Frightened? Think of your mistakes as learning lessons. They’ll be much more valuable than what you can get out of a book, you know. You can also hedge your bets by soaking up knowledge and advice from more experienced people that you admire, like role models.

But make sure you realize that not all of your suggestions will be taken. You’re thinking like the CEO, but you’re not the CEO. At the end of the day, the actual CEO is the person entrusted to make the right decisions for the business. You’re at the company because you trust the CEO to do that.

Decisions shouldn’t be made by consensus; there will be many decisions with which you don’t agree. And you’ll make many suggestions that which others will not agree. At the end of the day, it’s more important to make some decision and move forward all together. That’s part of thinking like a CEO.

If you don’t like it, quit and join another company. Or start your own!

Until then, remember: You are not your job title. Think of yourself as the CEO. And soon you’ll be moving on to bigger and better places in your career!

Tricks of the Trade

Tricks of the Trade I don’t remember how I first came across the site Tricks of the Trade. But I’ve kept it bookmarked and occasionally return to it because I think it’s pretty cool. (Unfortunately it’s not updated too often.)

The site is basically a list of tips & tricks for all kinds of random things, like how to make mayonnaise or get a ride home from a pizza delivery guy after a night of heavy drinking and no means of transportation. Or, as the site’s tagline says, “Professional secrets from those in the know.”

The author is Matthew Baldwin, of defective yeti fame. I don’t know him or anything, but I’ve heard of his site (again, I don’t remember how) (I probably should get my memory checked, eh?).

If you’re familiar with Haley’s Hints or Haley’s Cleaning Hints, this site is just like that. If you’re not familiar with Haley’s Hints, they’re a collection of household hints, like how to remove stains or construct a satellite radio/microwave using toothpicks and vinegar. Or something like that.

Tricks of the Trade goes beyond household hints though. Here are a few business-related ones:

For Managers: If you manage a large number of people who are always offering suggestions, insist that feedback be submitted in writing. Blame your faulty memory, if you want to be diplomatic. The bad ideas will be discarded before you hear them, as the employee won’t want to go through the effort of writing them out; the good ones will be more complete and better articulated, as the submitted will have to think his idea all the way through before sending it in.

For Bartenders: When serving alcohol, card every woman who looks like she’s in her 30’s or 40’s. They will to tip better. (Mike’s note: BTW, I was a bartender once, and this is certainly true!)

For Meeting People: If you are unable to remember someone’s first name, simply ask them: “What’s your name?” When they reply with their first name, laugh and say “Oh no, I knew that, of course. I meant your last name”. This is a much more acceptable thing to forget–and you still get their full name.

For Partiers: If you need a ride home after a wild night out, walk into a pizza parlor that delivers and order a pie to be sent to your house. Then ask if you can get a lift to your house — hey, they’re going there anyway! (Mike’s note: This isn’t really a business-related tip, but it’s a good idea!)

For Office Workers: If you are sending an email with an attachment, add the attachment first, then compose the message, and then add email addresses tothe send line. Now there’s no chance you’ll have to send the ever-popular “whoops, forgot to attach the file” follow-up. In fact, it’s a good practice to always put the email addresses of the recipients in last, to ensure that an errant carriage return or mouseclick won’t fire off the message half-baked.

For Salespeople: If you’re calling a business to speak to someone specific and you get a receptionist, it’s often helpful to say “I’m returning a call for such-and-such,” instead of just “I’m calling for…”. It will typically get you transferred in with less fuss.

For Business Travelers: Always ask for a business discount. You may not have a business, but you work for one–and even if you don’t, how would I know? The worst that will happen is someone will say no. Most motel and hotels have corporate discounts. Nobody tries very hard to find out how legitimate people’s business claims are, and most of us secretly don’t care. In fact, when buying any product or service, try asking for a discount. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you’ll be surprised by how often it works.

Matthew was solicited to write a book with these tips a couple of times. Unfortunately, none of them panned out. But he hasn’t given up on the idea. So if you have a tip or trick, submit it and maybe you’ll get into his book! Or just check out his site for some amusing tips & tricks.