What do you do when you’re working long hours with a lot on your plate still left to do? And by the way, all of it is tagged as “urgent and important”, so you’re constantly fighting fires.

Well, when you’re running the show, an obvious solution is to delegate. It’s all good and well to talk about delegating as a way to get more done while preserving your time and energy. But what if you’re an independent contributor without a team, or the person on the team who takes on the brunt of what gets delegated?

The good news is that you are only being asked to do important things. That said, there can be too many of them, and perhaps it's hard to determine which are even more important than the others.

In these situations, how can you be more efficient, effective, and still have a life?

Ask questions up front

One way to address both the volume and priority of work is by discussing with your boss (or client) the question of deadlines, work flow, and the degree of importance. It’s best to do this up front when they are assigning the work to you. Asking a few key questions at the outset saves a huge amount of time and effort later.

The questions I like to ask are:

  1. What’s the goal and what does success look like?
  2. Who needs this and how will they be using the output?
  3. What’s the deadline and where does this work stand in priority relative to the other work you’ve given me (or that’s on my plate)?
  4. What makes me the best person to do this (or what led you to choose me to do this), and is there anyone else you considered?

And don’t despair – if you haven’t asked yet, it’s not too late. Just do it as a mid-course check-in.

Use these to “triage”

Asking these questions helps you do triage, which is what medics do on the battlefield.

First, they get clear on the goal: to save as many lives as possible using the available resources. Then, they go through a quick assessment of how urgent the patient’s situation is, what kind of intervention is needed, and how likely they are to succeed in saving the patient’s life. This, in turn, determines what category the patient is put into and the priority order in which they are seen.

So, what would be the triage categories for you? For example:

  1. Do now
  2. Schedule for later
  3. Push back on the request and suggest an alternative
  4. Ignore for now (a small category, but there could be garbage requests that go away, or some bosses like to ask 3 people to do the same thing and it may make sense to discuss with the likely suspects before duplicating efforts)

Know when to speak up

In terms of “pushing back”, it’s important to think through the circumstances under which it would make sense for you to speak up and challenge the request in a constructive way rather than take on that extra piece of work that tips things into firefighting mode.

Unless you're in the armed forces, you don't need to accept tasks just because they're given to you. Sometimes bosses get used to “dumping” everything on their “go to person” and only stop when that person puts their hand up and says, “hold on, I've got too much on my plate to do this justice – what is the purpose of this task and how does it fit into the broader mission, am I the best person to do it, and, of all my tasks, which do you want me to do first?”

Whether you recommend someone else for the job, query whether it needs doing at all, or something in between, you’ll feel better when you speak up and stand up for yourself.

Form your own view of “urgent and important”

You can also form your own view on what’s worth doing, and when you should be doing it using former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s method of looking at what's urgent vs. not urgent, and important vs. not important. James Clear has written a great piece on this and how you can use this method to determine priorities.

Forming your own opinion is particularly useful when you have multiple people assigning you work, and no one else can compare all your tasks across the board. It’s also great practice for figuring out what’s worth doing in your life overall.

Realize that you don’t have to do everything

Related to forming your own view, I wonder what the answer would be if you asked yourself “Am I the best person to do this task?” before you started working. This is about figuring out whether this is a good use of your time, energy and abilities, and if not, then who is better placed to do this.

And you don’t need to make this about getting out of doing the work. I’m guessing you’ve proven your hard-worker stripes sufficiently by this time. Instead, it’s about being intelligent in how you’re using finite resources – your own as well as that of the organization. Ideally, each of us would be doing what we uniquely do and what plays to our strengths.

Set the bar at “good enough”

If you must do the task, then it's useful to determine to what standard the task needs to be done. Not everything needs to be done to the standard of perfection. Back in my investment banking days, we called that “gold plating”. And it wasn’t a compliment.

So get in the habit of asking yourself, what is “good enough” for each task? You may find that you are being inefficient in using your most precious resource, which is your time, by creating a Tesla when a bicycle will do.

What can you outsource?

Even as an individual contributor, there may still be some tasks or parts of the task that can be outsourced to others who don't report to you. When this is the case, could you point out to your boss that it would help speed things up if an assistant could pull together all the files so that you could more efficiently analyze them, or something similar?

After all, it's in the organization's interest to have the most junior person who can do something do that thing. Not only is it more cost efficient, it also creates better outcomes when people grow, stretch and feel empowered to step up to the next level.

So those are seven things you can do when you’re swamped and don’t have a team to delegate to. Remember, you’re a valued part of the effort and it’s important that you treat yourself that way too. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you can’t count on anyone else to do it for you.

What challenges are you facing as an individual contributor or the “go to person” for just about everything, but without any team members to share the burden?

Leave a comment below and let’s see how can we help you.