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Leadership Thought #234 – Are You Spread Too Thin?

October 26, 2011

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Burnout is a direct result of being spread too thin.  There is only ever so much one person can handle and do well.  I don’t care how talented they are.

I have often heard the saying, “If you want something done give it to a busy person.”   Some people just seem hardwired to take on more responsibility.  They just cannot help themselves and have a tough time saying “no.” When they find a need, they feel compelled to address it.  Mediocre performance isn’t an option for them, and they work hard even when no one else is watching.  While it is great these people exist, I also worry that we expect too much from them and in the end, they end up suffering from burnout and too much stress.

There is only so much any one person can accomplish on a sustained basis. If you spread yourself too thin, you will find yourself constantly falling behind and falling short of everyone’s expectations.  No one can be great at everything and eventually performance cracks will start to appear in your personal and professional foundation.  If you find yourself constantly balancing too many deadlines and feeling stressed rather than energized by your commitments, then you need to reevaluate what you are doing and why.

We all reach a point of diminishing returns in our work and in our life, a point at which something must give.  We can do this either proactively or by default.  Here are a few questions for you to consider:

  • How much time should you spend working every week and what are the possible consequences of not having clear boundaries between work and personal time?
  • Are the financial benefits of that new promotion or business opportunity worth the time spent away from home and your family?
  • Should you do someone else’s job or create workarounds if they are consistently non-performing or strive to hold them accountable and make your concerns public?
  • Are certain clients no longer worth the time and effort required to make them happy?
  • Is it better to serve on one nonprofit board and make a tangible difference or volunteer for multiple boards and merely meet the most basic requirements?
  • Do your kids really need to spend their non-school time shuttling back and forth between multiple extra-curricular activities or should both of you be more selective and allow for more down time?
  • Are you spending enough time cultivating a strong relationship with your spouse/significant other or are you taking them for granted and assuming things are fine until they are not?
  • How much time are you able to dedicate to regular exercise and your own health and well-being?

My experience is that most physical and emotional breakdowns happen gradually rather than all at once.  Someone is chugging along well, and we are all amazed by what they can accomplish until something dramatic happens.  We are often surprised at first but then after further reflection, we realize they were pushing themselves too hard and trying to do too much.

I am a fervent believer in hard work and dedication.  Deficient performance should not be acceptable once you have committed yourself to doing something.  However, we all should be more selective and honest with ourselves about what we can realistically accomplish, especially if we are that “Type A” person who has a tough time saying no.  In the quality versus quantity argument, I encourage you to lean towards quality as often as possible.  Don’t allow yourself to get spread too thin.