Not Sure How to Work Smarter than You Are Now? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have been a manager for a couple of years. My company provided zero training. I kind of figured things out as I went along, and took a lot of online courses. I’m doing okay.

My issue is that there is just too much work. I’ve tried putting in ten-hour days, being super organized, using time management systems—you name it. But even when I work 55 to 60 hours a week I still can’t get it all done. My partner keeps telling me I’m going to burn out, but I don’t really feel that way. I love my job and am convinced there is a better way to get things done. I keep hearing that I need to work smarter, not harder, but I don’t really know what that means.

I am beginning to think there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’m just not smart enough.

Any suggestions you have would be welcome.

Up Against the Clock


Dear Up Against the Clock,

There is nothing wrong with you.

You are smart enough.

There is just too much work.

And your partner is right. You are in danger of burning out.  In fact, I might suggest that your recent attack of self-doubt is an indication that burnout is already happening.

Humans are simply not built to sustain that much intensity 24/7/365. If you were saving orphans in a war zone, it might make sense, but even that would come to an end at some point. High intensity can work well for special projects—situations that have a beginning, middle, and end. But even CEOs and business owners have to find ways to take vacation and modulate intensity, and they are generally well compensated for their commitment. The situation you are describing sounds like a long, dark tunnel with no hope of light at the end of it.

You must take action. Now.

You have a few options.

  1. Get help. I am not sure where your manager is in all of this, but if you have not escalated this situation to them already, now is the time. You can’t expect your manager to know you are overburdened unless you tell them. If they are available to you at all, ask for a 1:1 to go over everything on your plate and brainstorm how to get some of it off your plate. If they are not available to you, make a spreadsheet. List everything required of you, the time each thing takes, what you need to hand off to someone else, what you are going to do in 45 to 50 hours a week, and what you are not going to do. Then email it to your manager. If you can’t get support from your manager, you might think about escalating the situation to your manager’s boss or even HR.
  2. Prioritize. Choose the deliverables that are going to make the least impact on your team and others and find a way to delegate them or just don’t do them. A client who had just completed an MBA from Harvard Business School once told me that one thing Harvard teaches in MBA programs is how to prioritize. The way they do it is by assigning so much work that it is almost impossible to do it all. The students who succeed figure out which assignments to invest their time in and which to coast on. This story may not be true, but it makes sense to me because no one can do everything that could be done, or even should be done. The dirty little secret of working smarter is that you decide what you’re not going to do or what you are going to do less well. You must choose what you will focus on and what you will not focus on.
  3. Schedule and take a vacation. It sounds like you have climbed on a hamster wheel and you can’t get off. Impossible as it may seem, you must step away and get some perspective. And I don’t mean a long weekend. I mean at least one entire work week during which you totally unplug. If you can’t do it, that is an HR matter. Seriously. It means that the staffing and resourcing for your team is wrong.

You will notice I am not suggesting you delegate more, because every situation like yours I have ever seen suggests that you are either already doing that or you don’t have anyone to delegate to. If that is the case, you need more people. Fight for it.

This is a crossroads moment for you. And I know you know that, or you wouldn’t have written this letter. The only person who can put up the hand, stop the train, call a time out, and rebuild your work life so it makes sense is you. Your number one priority is personal sustainability so that you can continue to contribute to your organization, grow your career, and enjoy your life.

The moment is now.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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