Smooth out pressing problems

April 8, 2005

If you've got too much work to do, don't be distracted by your ironing, but do consider organising your work in the same way - into different piles, advises Harriet Swain

You've got two journal articles, a keynote speech and a funding application to write, 24 undergraduate essays to mark and a PowerPoint presentation to prepare for a postgraduate seminar. Oh, and you've agreed to organise the overseas students' annual tea. All by tomorrow afternoon. Aargh.

Don't panic. There are solutions to managing your workload and one, according to Gary Wood, social psychologist and life coach at Birmingham University, is to imagine it as a pile of ironing. The temptation with ironing is to dive straight in, he says, but you should resist this. You need to divide it into three piles - cool, medium and hot ironing, to be done in that order. Wood suggests you divide your workload the same way - with the piles related to urgency.

"Instead of an amorphous lump, you have three strategically grouped lumps and it is easier to tackle." There are two benefits: first, each of the piles is smaller; second, you have a better idea of what each contains.

Next, you must accomplish something from the urgent pile. Not only will this reduce the amount left to do, but it will give you a better idea of how long it will all take. "Often, when you have a lot of work, time gets distorted and you think you'll never get it done," Wood says. And you should not allow yourself to be distracted by doing something from one of the less urgent piles because you enjoy doing it. "Work out what is the most pressing, not the most attractive," he says.

Roger Kline, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, says that if you feel you have an excessive workload it is almost certain that other colleagues will feel the same. He recommends analysing when and why your workload started becoming too great and comparing notes with colleagues.

He also advises calculating how much work you have in terms of administration, teaching, research, widening participation activities and so on, and making sure that, first, it does not exceed the amount usually contracted for in your university and, second, it is not too out of sync with how much you are doing. Again, he suggests you do this with colleagues and write it down as a formal record. Natfhe usually advises starting off by saying you have too much work rather than by saying you have more than other people, since this is the best way to raise questions about how far your employer is complying with health and safety guidelines on workloads.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, says you should learn to say "no" and to think hard about the things you should be saying "yes" to so you don't overcommit yourself.

"Don't do things you don't really want to do, but think you should do for your career," he says. Not that you should forget career ambitions, but you should avoid taking on work for that reason alone. "You will end up doing things you don't enjoy and will still take on things you enjoy doing - then, you will be overcommitted." He advises learning to work cooperatively to help spread your workload and he emphasises the need to create an "exit time" every day to stop working.

Dave Berger, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, says many academics need to learn to let go of their work when it is in a usable condition rather than polishing it to the nth degree - and to take more exercise.

Peter Clough, a senior lecturer in psychology at Hull University, says people demand more of themselves than of a friend. He suggests monitoring your fatigue levels, recognising the good and bad times of the day for you and not trying to struggle on with work in the bad times. He also warns against "time bandits" - people who steal your time to deal with their issues. He suggests telling them to come back later - 90 per cent of the time they sort their problem out themselves.

But Wood is strict with people who try to postpone their work. "There is an illusion that you can say 'I'm not in the mood'," he says. "That's a cop-out. You don't have to be in the mood to do something." He says it is easy to switch moods and recommends dropping the attitude that everything has to be fun. "Some jobs aren't pleasant," he says. "If we waited until we were in the mood, we would never do anything."

Further information - Natfhe's Tackling Stress at Work Toolkit M. Y. Tytherleigh, C. Webb, C. Cooper, C. Ricketts, Occupational Stress in UK Higher Education Institutions: A Comparative Study of all Staff Categories . Higher Education Research and Development, February 2005.


Prioritise your work

Take breaks and take exercise

Watch out for time bandits

Set an exit time when you will stop work every day

Remember that not being in the mood is not a good excuse

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