Help! All the Work is Falling to Me!

A reader asks:

“I’m the executive director of an organization and it feels like everything is falling to me – I’m barely keeping up, and I don’t have enough time for the things I really need to focus on. Help!”

 

If you gathered up a room full of executive directors, we bet most of them would say they feel like this too, at least much of the time. (Of course, you wouldn’t actually be able to get them all in the same room to find out, because there’s no room on their calendars for it.)

But you don’t have to feel like you’re treading water – and you definitely don’t have to feel like you’re not able to get to the most important items on your plate. Here are four ways to get your workload under control and ensure you can stay focused on the work that matters most.

1. Separate your to-do list by must-do and nice-to-do items … and then delegate or eliminate most of the items on the nice-to-list. It might be painful to do that (although we bet it will actually be a relief), but the reality is that your time isn’t infinite and you can’t do everything, so you have to choose the things that are most worth doing and let go of the rest. Otherwise, in the service of trying to do everything, you risk not doing the truly high-impact work that will most powerfully drive your organization’s results.

2. Enlist others on your team. If everyone else on your staff is out the door by 6 p.m. every night while you work the rest of the evening alone, that’s a sign that you need to take steps to share the burden. Managers sometimes hesitate to do this if none of what they’d like to delegate falls neatly to someone else (for instance, special projects that aren’t obviously linked to any one department), but as long as you explain the situation – that you’re overloaded and unable to get to everything that needs to be done – you should be able to expect people to step up.

3. Figure out where you add the most value, and keep your focus there. You could easily fill most of your days with small things where you add some value (attending non-crucial meetings, reviewing work that someone else could sign off on, etc.) and never get to the items where you add the most value – which are probably bigger-picture items that will significantly move your work forward (strategizing about key projects, talking with major donors, coaching a staff member about a performance problem, etc.). Be rigorous about asking yourself what handful of items are most important to accomplish on any given day or week, and be vigilant about keeping your focus there.

4. Make sure your staff members have clear roles that truly transfer the weight of responsibility for success to them – rather than keeping it with you. Often overwhelmed EDs have defined the roles on their team in ways that utilize staff members as helpers, rather than truly transferring ownership for the work. If you’re on the hook for everything – driving fundraising, making sure programs are successful, overseeing communications materials, etc. – this will be exhausting for you and unsustainable in the long term. Instead, you need staff members to be truly in charge of each of these areas – meaning that they are the ones ensuring that the work is top-notch and driving significant pieces of your organization forward … leaving you able to focus more attention on other things.