Decreasing Overload

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Many years ago when I had a shiny new Ph.D. and three kids under the age of six, I became a half-time lecturer in the Psychology Department of the University of Michigan.  While it was the largest psychology department in the country at the time, there was only one woman on the faculty who held a regular appointment as a professor.  All the other women on the faculty had non-regular positions, such as lecturers.

With ambitions to become a professor, I went to the chairman of the department and asked him how the faculty were evaluated. “You’ll be graded on three things”, he said, teaching, community or professional service, and research and publications”. “Which is most important?” I asked.  “They’re all equal,” he said.

He lied. It took me a while to learn that in a research university like Michigan, the most important factor you’re judged on is the quality of your research and publications because that’s the business of that business.  Teaching is a bare second place importance in that kind of university, and service is a very, very distant third.

When I knew what really mattered, it was easy to decide on priorities: as a full time mom and a part time careerist, I would devote the greatest amount of my work time to research and writing. Next, I’d work to make my classes exciting because I’d teach what was really cutting edge. And I would say, “Thanks, but no,” to any invitations to sit on department, university, or national committees until all my children were in school for a full day.

The most important thing to remember is everything is not equally important. To reduce life’s work-load, people have to set priorities.  It’s like inboxes:  one box is for stuff that requires immediate attention; one box holds things that need to be done but there’s no particular hurry; and a third box is for whatever comes across your desk and you’ll get to it bye and bye…maybe.  Creating priorities is creating categories of degrees of importance, and that limits how many items must be tended to immediately.  Setting priorities give people a sense of control because when you prioritize you are less controlled by tasks.

Setting priorities told me what I really had to do – and what I didn’t need to do. It let me know what I had to do marvelously well, what could be okay, and which commitments could be ignored.  Setting priorities and discovering that no is a really useful tool, is the way we reduce task overload.

Creating priorities and looking good have become especially important and useful to people wherever downsizing has occurred because the people who are still employed are expected to do the work of the people who are left. But it’s still the case that some tasks are more important than others and those require a commitment of time and to excellence.  Other tasks can be okay – and that’s okay.  The trick is to strategize: differentiate on the basis of importance between aspects of work while continuing to look involved, enthusiastic and committed.

Americans are tired. Employees in the United States put in more hours and have less vacation time than any other advanced industrial nation. The average American works the equivalent of eight weeks a year longer than the average Western European.  More than 37 percent of us put in more than 50 hours a week.  In more than half of American couples, both partners come home from work after 7 PM and face all the tasks and responsibilities of their second, their domestic job.

Stress rises when there are no limits to the demands made on people at work and at home. Our days are fully scheduled and the schedule can’t be met without Herculean efforts.

It is psychologically unhealthy when there are no boundaries on what people are expected to do, no limits on how much people are expected to pay attention to and be responsible for. That’s why reducing overload also involves delegating, or not always being the person who does it.



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