Talking about priorities

Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

A few weeks ago, I published a post about a time when I got overloaded with committee work, intended as a cautionary tale. As part of that post, I mentioned that the experience necessitated a conversation with my department head about how to prioritize my time. With everything that I was working on, there was no way for me to do it all without burning myself out. As a pre-tenure librarian, I needed to know what to focus on in order to get me to that next step.

I’m lucky enough to work for someone who is receptive to conversations like this and that the people above her are also reasonably understanding when it comes to issues about workload. But I was still scared to do it even as I recognized how important it was to do so.

So I thought I’d share a few details about why I decided to have that conversation and how I approached it for anyone who might be thinking about doing the same. We live in weird times but I feel like a lot of this is still applicable if you find yourself feeling overloaded with work, especially as the pressure to do more (or even the same amount) with fewer people builds with hiring freezes and other job cuts.

Let’s start with the why.

In my professional life, I’m a self-directed person who’s generally very good with time management while also maintaining good boundaries between work time and personal time. If you’re familiar with Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, I’m what she calls an Upholder: someone who’s good at meeting both internal and external expectations.(1) Yay for me.

The reason I tell you this is that while I do sometimes go through busy periods where I’m more stressed and less organized than usual, they don’t typically get to a point where every time I sit down to work I feel paralyzed because there’s so much to do that I don’t know where to begin. This was what started happening to me in a particularly busy fall semester a few years ago. It got to the point where I was waking up panicked in the middle of the night because I thought there was no way I was going to be able to keep up with everything that I had to do. Meanwhile, new projects and tasks seemed to keep pouring in so that every time I crossed one thing off my list, two more seemed to grow back in its place. I felt like Captain America fighting Hydra.

I reached my breaking point when I was asked to take on two new committee assignments even though I was already on 12 committees. I wasn’t given the choice to say no.(2)

Clearly, I needed to do something if I wanted to keep from completely burning out.

So this is what I did.

First, I made a list of every single thing I was working on at the time. Any item that took up any time during my workday went on the list. Teaching? Of course. Committee work? You bet. Other projects as assigned? Time on the reference desk? Check and check.

But not just big things. Reading and responding to e-mail takes up a significant amount of my day, so I put it on the list.

In all, I had about forty or fifty items, including 14 service commitments, the planning and teaching for two courses, the planning and teaching for various one-shot sessions, reference desk shifts, committee reports, work I was doing to redesign our department’s website, and more. Some of the projects I listed were self-imposed but many were ones that I’d been assigned over time.

Now, I have no idea how that compares to most other people’s workloads. You might look at that list and wish you only had forty or fifty things you were working on.  Or you might feel that such a long list is reasonable as long as I wasn’t being asked to take on responsibilities that were outside of my job description (I wasn’t). But to me, this was massively overwhelming. And I say that as someone with demonstrably excellent time management skills.

After making my list, I rated each item in a couple of categories. The first was a rough estimate how much of a time commitment each required (low, medium, or high). The second was how flexible my commitment to each one was (low, medium, or high). Last, I rated my level of personal interest in each item.

The items with low flexibility were the ones I knew I would have to stick with no matter what, like reference desk shifts and teaching one-shot sessions (in other words, things that were fundamental and non-negotiable parts of my job that I wouldn’t expect to be able to give up even if I wanted to). The items with high interest were the ones I knew I wanted to hold on to. Stuff that was high flexibility/low interest seemed like a good place to start when searching for items to trim.

Now, you might be wondering how someone who claims to have been so overwhelmed with work had time to make such a detailed list. Altogether, this whole project took about thirty minutes, mostly because I didn’t let myself agonize over any of the columns where I was rating things like time commitment and interest—it didn’t have to be exact, so I just went with my gut extinct.

Honestly, just making this list made me feel better. First, because it made it clear that the level of stress I was experiencing wasn’t just in my  head—I really did have a lot of balls in the air! I also actually felt kind of proud of everything I’d been able to accomplish, though not so proud that I wasn’t still eager to offload some of it where possible. Seeing the list, I also realized that some of the high flexibility/low interest items were things that I could just quietly drop or set on the back burner, no permission needed.

When I took this list to my department head, I chose not to show her the additional columns with the ratings—only the items themselves. Even showing her just that much had a noticeable effect. She had some sense of how busy I was from our monthly one-on-one meetings but this gave her a much clearer picture of my workload. It also helped inform the conversation about where my priorities should be in the run up to tenure.

These days, I still keep a list of all the things I’m working on as a way to keep track of my priorities. Before the pandemic, the list hovered at around 30-40 items, which was still a lot but many of those items were things I was working on by choice. Working from home, there have been fewer items on the list if only because there are certain things I can’t do without access to software on my office computer and/or the library’s print collection. But it’s been enough to keep me occupied.

So this is what worked for me. Like I said, I’m lucky enough to work for folks who are generally understanding about and mindful of workload issues and were willing to work with me once they saw my full list. Even if that wasn’t the case, though, I still feel like there would have been value in making the list so that I could see that the stress I was feeling was justified and also to help me realize that I had more flexibility and autonomy on some of the items than I might have thought. If you’re feeling stressed or disorganized and you have thirty minutes, this activity is definitely worth a try.


(1) In the interest of full disclosure, I have mixed feelings about Gretchen Rubin’s work in general but her description of the Four Tendencies in general and the Upholder tendency specifically really resonated with me when I first read them.

(2) I just wanted to mention again, as I did in my post where I go into this story in more detail, that this inflexibility was highly unusual and is not something I’ve encountered since then. I do not work for mean people.

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