How do I know if I have too much work or if I'm incompetent?
January 4, 2017 5:56 PM   Subscribe

My job consumes most every waking hour of my life, and--though I generally enjoy what I do--causes me immense amounts of stress. I want better balance, but I'm having trouble parsing whether this situation is my fault or the job's fault. Are my job responsibilities too much for anyone, or do I just need to learn to be a better worker? What tools do I use to figure this out?

I started a new job in June at a rapidly growing company and was pseudo-promoted to a more leadership role in August out of necessity (project was dropped on my team). From about August to December I felt excited by the challenge and confident in how I was handling the rapid expansion of my responsibilities. For the past month or so, I have felt nothing but overwhelmed and near-paralyzed by stress. I'm still managing to function alright, but I really don't see this as sustainable. I feel like I don't have the context or the outside perspective to judge whether I simply have far too much to do, or whether I'm failing in some way (not working efficiently, prioritizing poorly, trying to do too much myself).

Help me think through the questions I should ask myself or others to gauge where the problems lie and how I can start to address them.

Complicating issues:
-I am the only person on this project in the whole company. I work in a team of three, but the other two have very little insight into what I actually do, and therefore can't give much feedback on how I'm doing, provide context, etc.
-The only other jobs I've had before this were at tiny (<5 person) startups or in academia, where things were either far more collaborative (more shared responsibility for outcomes), or far more structured (clearer role and expectations).
posted by AFittingTitle to Work & Money (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you need to find someone who does something similar to your position in another area who can be your sounding board. Like if your job is to make web widgets then you need to find a community of other web widget makers.

The fact that you are the only one who understands your job and your company is going to make it hard on you to compare what you are being required to do with someone else. If you can get that community it might be easier to note whether you have 25 web widgets and they only have 5. Or maybe that you have to make all of your web widgets with yellow flashy things and they make more, but all uniform gray ones, etc.
posted by aetg at 6:21 PM on January 4, 2017

It sounds like an issue with your workplace. It's great that you got rapidly promoted, but that promotion coming out of necessity without the normal vetting for a new position isn't a sign of a functioning workplace. It's especially telling that you have no markers of success — good managers would be setting expectations and giving you a place for feedback. Essentially, no one on Metafilter can tell you if you're doing your job effeciently because we don't know enough about the work, but your manager absolutely should be able to tell you this! Is there a manager there who can provide feedback for you?

You should not be consumed to the extent you are with work; even if you aren't working efficiently, that doesn't mean you need to be working 'round the clock. Go easy on yourself! If you have a manager/supervisor, reach out and tell them what you can do in a normal workday/week and ask them for help prioritizing the workload. It's okay to say: "I can do X and Y by the end of the day/week/month, but that would mean dropping Z. Is that something that I can pull back on, or should I prioritize differently?" It's normal to have a learning curve in a new position for these kinds of things and there should be structure in place to assist you with that. It's normal to reach out when you're regularly getting stuck on any particular task if you get the sense you're missing something that would help you get it done more quickly. Even if you're the only one working on a particular project, that doesn't mean you should be the only one who knows the basics of the skills needed to do the work you're doing.

Just don't overextend yourself. Remember that it's (almost certainly) not your fault if you can't get the job done in a 40ish work week. Don't let anyone convince you that you owe the company more than that because as you noted, that's not sustainable. It's possible you work in a job where you're expected to work long hours, but that should be weighed against compensation, positive work environment, personal growth, etc. I'd keep watch for any red flags that the company you work for is disorganized to the point where upper management's failure to plan or manage their people leads to emergencies that affect you that could be prevented. I'm not saying you work for such a place, but it's worth watching out that you're not working for a place where success is impossible because there's always a fire to put out and you end up just treading water.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:26 PM on January 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

Just from what you've told us, it sounds like you need more support. If you're the only person working on your project and no one knows what you're doing, then it's very unlikely you're getting the training/mentorship you (or anyone would) need for the "pseudo-promotion" you've gotten.

Some questions:

- What kind of training have you gotten? Do you feel like it's adequate for the challenges you've faced in your role?
- Do you have someone you can talk through problems and/or your progress with?

By the way, I think it is really, really normal to have feelings like this about 3-4 months into a new role. This is when the initial exhilaration of new challenges starts to wear off and the downsides start to hit you. It's also a normal point for things to start to catch up with you.
posted by lunasol at 6:28 PM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

A new job along with increased responsibilities will normally bring increased stress. Congrats on this; on the job, not the stress.

Address your job responsibilities with your direct manager as soon as possible. Hopefully this will reframe the situation. I can imagine a rapidly growing company can be hectic.

As for the project, break it down into manageable pieces. 1.) short-term goals 2.) long-term goals 3.) incremental milestones 4.) challenges to address 5.) expected completion, etc. Keep your management routinely in the loop on where each piece stands.
posted by mountainblue at 6:30 PM on January 4, 2017

After working for over 40 years, I am betting that your "job responsibilities are too much for anyone". From the tone of your discussion, it sounds as if you are on the rapid road to burnout.

the thorn bushes have roses has answered you better than I can, so I am nthing that response.
posted by Altomentis at 6:30 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh and yes, you should absolutely talk to your manager about this. Is it the kind of workplace where it's common to work around the clock? If so, then you may have another set of issues to deal with. But if it's not, then it's completely reasonable to go to your manager and say "Hey, I think this is too much workload for me to get done within normal work hours. I don't mind occasionally working overtime to get things done but I'd like to work with you to figure out how we can make this more manageable."

The unfortunate truth is that most managers will simply let their reports work crazy hours if the reports seem fine with it, but any half-decent manager, if it becomes clear it's not sustainable, will work to find a solution. Given that you were promoted so rapidly, and they really need you, they should be willing to work with you to solve this.
posted by lunasol at 6:34 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my experience, "rapidly growing" or "startup environment" always mean "too much work and not enough people or money". This can still be do-able, if you like the job, but you'll need to draw your own boundaries. Clarifying as the thorn bushes suggests is a great start, and this is always the answer to new projects that get dropped on your plate. ("Sure, I can do x and y by the end of the week but it means Z will get pushed back. Okay with you or should I prioritize differently?")

Thinking about how you work, structuring how you work, prioritizing your work, and managing your projects IS ALSO part of the work, so don't let those important pieces be the thing that you end up doing on your "free" time. For a while this summer, I was getting up at 5 a.m. to do all my emails for the day, since I was in meetings for 8.5 hours a day. That is not realistic nor sustainable, and finally I realized it and stopped. Now I block off times during my day to do the work that comes out of those meetings, and I also scheduled a day a month when I am not available for meetings or email and instead will be doing deep dives into planning, learning, and strategizing. I was nervous about stating my plan but I got a ton of positive response to it, including from my boss. Going to him and saying "I'm too busy to plan" would not have worked well, but saying "Here's my plan to make this time for myself to plan" got a thumbs up. So if you do approach your manager, have a plan - identify some tasks that someone else on your team could be trained to do, or the fact that these "must do" weekly projects actually take 60 hours of work and not 40, so you need to hire a part-time assistant, or some other solution instead of just a question or complaint about the workload. (I don't know how to advise you to find the time to come up with this solution, but it's worth pushing some other stuff off a little bit to do, because I agree with Altomentis that you sound like you're on the road to burnout.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:51 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you focused on your work over 80% of the time? Do you routinely work longer than 40 hour weeks? If the answer to both is yes, you have too much on your plate.

A large swath of American work culture runs on the assumption that good workers have bottomless capacity and are happy to put in the extra hours because of "passion" or some bullshit. It's wrong and dangerous; people work better when they have adequate time to rest, and when there's enough slack/redundancy built into the system that nothing rests solely on one person. Even if you're fine working long hours, you shouldn't have to. Every little bit of resetting realistic work-life boundaries helps not only you and your immediate colleagues, but other workers who don't have the time or health to meet those high expectations... which, eventually, is all of us. It's kind of like how you need to take sick time when you're sick because it's better for long-term productivity, and besides unions fought for that and management will slowly erode it if they can. (Okay, lecture over.)

Also: has the increase in responsibility come with a corresponding increase in compensation?

Talk to your manager. Propose potential solutions, but keep in mind the solutions in this situation probably won't be ones you can implement all by yourself. Even if there's room for you to improve your own efficiency, it won't solve a workload of this scale; you won't be able to Tetris it all into a tidy block. Realistic solutions will require more time or more people or both. Don't be afraid to say you need longer deadlines, or you need someone else to take over X so you can focus on Y.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:25 AM on January 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

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