Your team is doing fine… and then, someone leaves. Someone else goes on maternity. Another coworker gets married, and cashes in on their carefully-accrued leave quota to take a month-long honeymoon break. If you’re extra unlucky, yet another co-worker has a car accident and gets laid up for a month. All of a sudden, the work of three or four people falls squarely on your shoulders – yours, and yours alone.
This has happened to me about three or four times in my career to date. In fact, I once covered for three roles for almost an entire year. Nobody likes to cover for multiple coworkers – it throws your entire life out of balance. But how do you survive these situations without quitting or having a mental breakdown?
#1: Prioritize your tasks by the week, day, or hour – as appropriate
Identify what you must get done in the moment, and make sure that you push it through, at the expense of all else. One day, this could be a high-leverage work deliverable with significant impact on your numbers. Another day, you may need to clean your bathroom for the first time in three weeks. If you have a family to feed, you may need to drop everything else for an hour at 5 pm to cook dinner.
When there’s too much on your plate to ever get fully done, you can become too absorbed in one task. And inevitably, you’ll forget the other things on your plate. When that happens, make sure that you are focusing on the right task for you, your team, your household or your family.
#2: Set yourself up for future time savings – with automation
Most times, you do things more accurately in the moment by using manual methods. This is because you can see what you’re doing, and therefore check your work more easily. However, the time – and tedium – of manual tasks adds up the more times you rinse and repeat. Add on the fact that your team is short-staffed — if you’re doing two people’s work, be prepared to spend double the hours. And so it goes… until you end up cranking out reports at 2 am because there simply aren’t enough hours in the workday to finish 8 hours’ worth of work for 3 people.
At this point, you must think about working smarter, not just working harder. Put aside your throughput for a week to invest the time on restructuring your processes with more automation. Perhaps you will find a way to replace manual data entry with an Excel spreadsheet. Or, you may decide to accelerate an Excel process with a Python script. You may need more time initially to test and debug your automation, but when you can do 2-3 times the work in the same time or less afterwards, you’ll thank yourself.
A rule of thumb: When you start feeling stressed that your fingers literally cannot keep up with your deadlines (you just can’t type fast enough!), stop everything and start to automate.
#3. Reset expectations – and celebrate small wins
If you could deliver the work of 3 people as if there were 3 people on the job, why would your boss ever need to hire new headcount? Accept the reality that short-staffed teams must trade off on speed and delivery. Therefore, consider yourself successful when you’ve done one person’s work well. When you achieve small milestones, celebrate them!
#4. Avoid sleep debt, because your body will insist on repayment sooner or later.
We seldom work truly only 8 hours a day – even with a full team, we normally need about 9 or 10 hours to complete a typical day’s tasks. When other people’s workload come into the mix, your days can stretch to 12 to 16 hours. If you don’t have new hires on the immediate horizon, this could stretch on… forever.
Every single time I have done more than 2 people’s work, I end up working till 2 or 3 am for days in a row. Eventually, the weekend will come, and I end up not wanting to get out of bed… until 12 noon. By that time, I’ve lost half a day of productivity. When burning the candle at both ends, remember that what goes around, comes around. You may get higher output in the short term by burning midnight oil for a day, but too many days of it will result in lost productivity somewhere down the road.
#5. Carve out time to be a human.
Whenever I’ve stepped up to take on extra workload, my employers were lucky that I don’t have a family. Without a hubby and kids, I can (theoretically) go for weeks – or months – without cooking or cleaning. I don’t need to take time out to pick up or drop off kids from school, or to supervise bedtime and bath time.
Theoretically, I could devote 16 -18 hours a day, 7 days a week, entirely to work. Just give me a steady stream of takeout, and I won’t ever need to leave my desk except to shower or sleep. But does that make it healthy? Honestly, at times you need to put your foot down. Decide that you need some time for your needs. Perhaps you finally need to completely switch off work for a day on a weekend, to come back refreshed the next week. Or to step away from your desk to prepare a healthy home-cooked meal… even if it’s just for yourself. Give yourself space to be a human, not a robot. That comes back to tip #3 – don’t feel guilty to look after your needs. As long as you have done one person’s work well, you are a being a responsible employee.
In a nutshell: Embrace imperfection and incompleteness.
I hope that these tips will bring hope and balance back to all of you who are in the same boat as me right now! Just remember, expectations can sometimes exceed what you can deliver as just one human. You need to be mindful about pacing yourself to deliver the most important things – for your company, but also yourself. Accept that things will be imperfect, and some tasks may never get done. That you won’t be able to say “yes” to everyone, definitely not all at the same time.
Still, remember that everything you say “yes” to – and deliver – brings value to your stakeholders. Even if you can never clear your plate, as long as every single thing you do matters, keep going!