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The 4-Step System You Need to Become Less Stressed About Work

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This is a guest blog by Fredrik Jonsson. He might be the only person who rates “Cougar Town” as a true sitcom masterpiece. He is a former freelance writer, a current sales and marketing consultant, and he loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. If you want to ask him a question, request a topic for a future post or just say “Hi,” send him an email at [email protected].


If you read this blog, you are most likely an entrepreneur, a freelancer, or an employed “knowledge worker.” Subsequently, your value is not measured in how well or fast you perform recurring tasks. In the words of Seth Godin, you are here to lead and/or solve interesting problems.

Now, most of us find this proposition incredibly appealing. What’s not to like? Working in the digital/connection/knowledge economy is fun and interesting. But we’re often ill-equipped to deal with its challenges, specifically, the effect it has on our workloads and our work-related stress levels.

Full disclosure: I have personally struggled with this. At first, I was convinced it simply meant that I was not talented enough, agile enough, or hard working enough. However, the more I read and talked to people about this issue, the more I realized I was far from alone in feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

It is an ongoing epidemic.

This might sound familiar: for the modern worker, there is no off switch. We no longer talk about work-life balance, but about work-life integration. A factory horn does not signal the end of your shift. Our computers are in our pockets, no longer locked away in an office building during evenings and weekends. You’re always connected, always available, and never really quite done. Right?

As recurring tasks become increasingly automated or outsourced, our jobs are consistently filled with more complex, creative, collaborative, and problem-solving tasks. Replacing repetitive, mind-numbing assignments with meaningful projects sounds great, but here’s the challenge: an increase in complexity makes it much more difficult to estimate time and manage scope.

When everything is constantly moving at warp speed, how do you juggle your tasks and projects while attending obligatory meetings, keeping your inbox from flooding, and controlling your stress levels?

Hold that thought.

Final point: while technology has made our lives much easier, we tend to overestimate the time it saves us and underestimate the time we invest in it (self-service portals, software updates, and support tickets, anyone?). Technology does not generate new business and good ideas for us; it simply supports the execution. It may take care of you digital newsletter distribution, but it will not craft authentic, relevant, thought-provoking, and interesting messages to the people that want to hear what you have to say.

So how do we manage our workloads and work-related stress when our jobs are becoming more complex, creative, and collaborative in nature?

First of all, immersing yourself in productivity and agile methods makes an enormous difference. I can’t imagine trying to work without checklists, eating that frog, and having systems I trust in place for managing email and prioritizing between the urgent and important. On a strategic level, building habits and rituals will have a transformative effect.

However, here is something I strongly believe: you can be the most productive GTD person in the world, but at some point it’s no longer about doing more things faster. There are limits to how much we can take on. Now more than ever, we need to develop our ability to establish boundaries, manage expectations, and diplomatically push back when our workloads become unworkable.

Over the past few years, I have tried out anything and everything to improve my own situation. Through this journey of trial and error, I have figured out a four-step approach that has consistently helped me and a few of my friends turn things around; we’ve finally been able to regain control of our workloads and reduce our work-related stress levels.

I’ll share it here, with the hope you get something out of it.

Let’s get started:

Step 1: Track Your Time for 1 Week

This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received, and I cannot overstate the importance of this exercise.

Why time tracking? A couple of reasons:

  • It will help you understand how you distribute your time between different tasks and projects during a given working week. From here, you can take corrective action to ensure you spend it more wisely.
  • You will see how many hours you actually work (this number may come as a surprise).
  • It will identify your biggest time sinks and causes of stress.
  • It will highlight the tasks that you should outsource (if you are a solo entrepreneur) or delegate (if you are a manager or employee).
  • It provides clarity around the types of tasks you need to manage more effectively. Here’s looking at you, email.
  • Very important: you will produce a dynamic document that you can use to have an ongoing, constructive dialogue around your workload with your manager (if you are an employee) or a mentor/trusted advisor (if you are a self-employed freelancer or entrepreneur).

To get started right now, follow the steps in this great AE article. Also, make sure you track your time during a typical work week, so that it’s representative of your day-to-day.

Step 2: Review; Perform an 80/20 Anxiety Analysis

Once you have one week’s worth of data, it’s time to review your findings.

Exercise 1

Check the total number of hours you worked during the week.

Register your reaction to this number.

Exercise 2

Identify the 20% of activities that generate 80% of your time waste, anxiety, and stress. Outline the corrective actions you need to take in order to improve your situation.

The Pareto Principle applies to most things, and this is not an exception. Start by identifying the two things you do that generate the biggest time waste and stress.

Important note: your top two items are not necessarily the ones you spend the most time on. If you are a sales person and you spend the majority of your time selling, that is a good thing. This exercise is about identifying the tasks and projects that are furthest away from what you should be focusing and spending your time on.

Here are a few common examples:

Unproductive internal meetings occupy a large part of your calendar, which leaves you short on time to meet key KPI’s and operational responsibilities. If this is the case, you need to devise a strategy for identifying the meetings that are truly important and work out how you can say no to the rest.

You’re spending a lot of time on tasks that are too challenging for your current skill level.

Another important note: this may be hard to admit to yourself at first. While specialists are expected to thrive in an economy disrupted by technology, the modern worker and entrepreneur are often asked to do numerous things. Variety and constant learning are incredibly rewarding, but facing multiple tasks beyond our current capacity can have a significant negative impact on our stress levels. If you are constantly out of your depth, you need to ask for support, resources, training, and assistance (and in some cases, the best solution is to delegate the task to somebody more suitable).

Exercise 3

Identify what you can realistically delegate or outsource.

On a weekly basis, what do you do that somebody else is already employed to do or better suited to manage? Do you answer support calls for a favorite client even though you have dedicated customer service representatives? If you’re an entrepreneur, where are your biggest weaknesses and how can you get somebody else to do the things you are not good at?

Know yourself. Write down everything that stands out.

Step 3: Action Plan — Where Do You Need to Improve?

Up to this point, we have tried to identify the tasks in your workload that are furthest away from your core responsibilities, that consume too much of your time, and that are better managed by somebody else. Now it’s time to look at how to improve other areas. Here are some common examples:

Multi-tasking

If your time-tracking Excel is filled with an endless amount of entries, you most likely need to work on your focus. Good news: there are a lot of tried-and-tested techniques that you can implement right now. Turn off email and social media notifications to avoid constant interruptions. Use time-boxing techniques and book a meeting with yourself in the calendar. Use your out-of-office assistant to set better expectations around your availability and speed of response. Put on head phones to physically signal that you can’t be interrupted. Establish office hours for when other people can reach you. The list goes on.

If you don’t control your time, somebody else will.

Emails

If Inbox Zero sounds like an unachievable utopia, you need to do something about it. Implementing a system that you trust will inevitably take some time to learn, set up, and master, but the long-term gains more than justify the investment of time and energy.

Tasks taking longer than expected to complete

Here’s an example from my own time-tracking experience: blog posts. I love writing and thought-blogging would be right up my alley. However, my time tracking showed that it took me forever to write even the shortest of entries. Why? I was used to writing in longer form. I’m analytically inclined and like to think, analyze, research, and re-write. It worked really well for longer reports, but not for blogging.

In order to get better (looking at the word count of this post, I can tell I’m still learning), I decided to take classes in copywriting and business writing.

Enough about me. This is about you. What takes you longer to complete than expected? What actions can you take to address this situation? Write them down.

Step 4: Prepare and Present Your Findings

Book a 20-minute meeting with your manager or mentor. Advise them that the topic of this meeting is to have a discussion around how you can work more effectively.

Your agenda is as follows:

  • Introduce your time-tracking exercise – a 30-second explanation of what you have done and why you did it is sufficient.
  • Highlight your top two time wasters (from Exercise 2 under Step 2) and your suggested recommended actions. Explain your reasoning for how you concluded that these actions are the most suitable.
  • Highlight the top two things you identified that could potentially be delegated or outsourced (Exercise 3 under Step 2).
  • Explain what you would like to do to manage some of your tasks more effectively (Step 3; for example, take a course in email management or business writing).
  • Go through each point and ask for feedback/decision.

Bonus tip: be honest with yourself. Perhaps your biggest source of stress comes from something that takes no time at all. That five-minute presentation you need to do every Friday might occupy your mind for days. No wonder, when public speaking is our biggest fear. The important thing is to recognize whatever this is for you, outline steps you can take to improve the situation, and talk to your manager or mentor about implementing a solution.

Here are a few real-life outcomes from such meetings.

Removing the extra-curricular activities

We all have projects we say yes to even though we don’t really have the time. One of my friends is a high-performing project manager, who found herself accepting responsibility for organizing the company’s weekly breakfast and becoming editor-in-chief for their internal magazine. They both seemed like minor assignments at first, but they quickly ended up consuming a lot of time. When she presented her findings, she was able to show that these were the projects furthest away from her KPI’s and core responsibilities. After the meeting, these roles were delegated to somebody else.

Internal meetings and too-challenging tasks

Another friend of mine is an entrepreneur. He quickly identified that meetings consumed too much of his time — specifically, off-site meetings that involved preparation, transportation and post-meeting followups. On average, a one-hour meeting consumed three hours of his effective time. Second, he was spending a lot of time trying to update and improve his website, which was not a natural talent or something he was excited about doing.

After reviewing where his time went, he presented the Excel to one of his mentors. Together, they established firm criteria for when he would accept an off-site meeting, knowing that it would need to justify three or more hours of his effective time. He also made sure to outsource the work around his website to a consultant.

Final note: Knowing how much you work and where your time goes is not a one-time event. You don’t need to log every minute of every day, but consistently keeping track of how you spend your time has a tremendous upside. It allows you to have recurring reviews with your manager or mentors and ensure you adjust course as needed. If you’re an employee, you’ll also be able to gently push back and make better decisions around what you take on.

My project manager friend no longer says yes to everything. She has established a constructive, ongoing dialogue with her manager. If she is asked to take on a new project, she simply looks at her current workload and determines what she can realistically take on. If there is not enough time, she presents her situation with the following words:

My workload is currently at 100% — here it is. I would love to take on this new project, however, that would mean I would need to delegate x/y/z. Can you help me make the decision about what I should prioritize?

Next Steps

If you’re ready to get started, here’s your checklist:

  1. Grab the AE time-tracking spreadsheet and use it for the next five days.
  2. After five days, review the distribution of your working hours. How do you spend your time?
  3. Identify the two things you do that generate the most time waste and/or stress. It could be public speaking, emails, meetings, or anything else. Write them down and list the corrective actions you need to take to tackle these challenges head-on.
  4. Write down the tasks you can delegate or outsource.
  5. Identify tasks that you have potential for managing more effectively. Document the actions you can take to do so.
  6. Book a meeting with your manager or mentor. Present your findings and proposed actions.
  7. Ask for feedback — follow up and implement any decisions.
  8. Request that you have this meeting scheduled on a regular basis at an interval you are comfortable with.
  9. Continue keeping track of how you spend your time. Use this data to evaluate your capacity to take on new projects.

I sincerely hope you get something out of this approach. If you have any questions around the details and tactics covered in this article, just send me an email at [email protected], and I will happily respond.


This is a guest blog by Fredrik Jonsson. He might be the only person who rates “Cougar Town” as a true sitcom masterpiece. He is a former freelance writer, a current sales and marketing consultant, and he loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. If you want to ask him a question, request a topic for a future post or just say “Hi,” send him an email at [email protected].

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1 Comment

Posted by Alexandra  | June 30, 2016 at 9:03AM | Reply

Nice piece, Fredrik! Step 1 turned out to be very important for me and I’m very glad I paid a lot of attention to it. Not only did this help me come up with a plan to do my job better, but it also increased my productivity.

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