When work gives you lemons

Why you should stop asking "Can I squeeze this in?"

If you want to do something well, don't ask if you can fit it in. Instead, try a new question.
All squeezed out.
All squeezed out.
Image: Mumemories (Shutterstock)
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Modern work presents us with plenty of opportunities to cram more into our days. When we receive an unexpected request or come up with a new idea, our first thought is often a question: “Can I squeeze this in?”

We look at the calendar; we consider the budget. We try to carve out just enough space to add in an extra task or errand. Time and money are easy to measure and, therefore, easy to manage. We pull together time management systems, productivity tools, and cost-benefit analyses. But these measurements don’t guarantee a job well done. They simply ensure that the job gets done profitably.

So we need a different question to assess our capacity before we give the go-ahead. Try this one: “Do I have what I need to do this well?”

Why we need a new question for new projects

When we answer this question instead, we do consider time and money. But we also consider harder-to-measure resources that impact our ability to do great work, such as emotional bandwidth, mental energy, and social support. If we don’t take stock of our full capacity, we end up compromising quality or cutting corners, no matter how much time we have on our hands.

The tasks or errands might get done, but they’re hardly a job well done. All that squeezing wouldn’t be a big deal if it happened only occasionally. But constant overload creates psychological consequences that impact our work.

The emotional consequences for squeezing it in

We learn what we’re capable of via social or performance feedback over time. But when we’re stretched too thin, we can’t perform at our best—and if that happens regularly, our confidence takes a hit. It also damages our self-efficacy: our belief in our ability to do what’s required to meet or exceed expectations, described first by psychologist Albert Bandura.

When our confidence in our ability to positively influence our work falters, it “can give rise to feelings of futility and despondency as well as anxiety,” writes Bandura. Lackluster results, rather than being seen as a consequence of overload, become personal failings.

Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety over “not being enough” are pervasive. “Oftentimes, [our members] blame themselves for this failure when it is actually a problem of overextending and a lack of support,” says Shannon Siriano Greenwood, the founder of Rebelle, a community for professional and entrepreneurial women. While Greenwood works with women, everyone is susceptible to blaming themselves for a lack of resources.

So squeezing in another task, project, or responsibility can have long-term consequences for our job performance and mental health.

What does it take to ensure a job well done? We need a multi-dimensional view of our capacity, including our levels of emotional bandwidth, mental energy, and social support.

Evaluate your emotional bandwidth

When Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the phrase emotional labor in 1979, she noted its profound effects. In studying flight attendents on the job, Hochschild saw how these workers, required to smile and speak sweetly to irate, out-of-control customers, would lose touch with their experience of emotion and identity.

“Emotional labor of this sort is not limited to service workers, of course: many firms expect such work even in inward-facing office workers—especially women,” writes anthropologist David Graeber in his book about meaning at work. Today, most types of work require “soft skills,” meaning more workers than ever do emotionally-demanding jobs.

Yet we rarely consider our capacity for emotional management when considering our workload and responsibilities. We might blame anxiety, stress, or physical exhaustion instead. Exercise, sleep, meditation, or therapy might be the remedy. But none of those are substitutes for working within our emotional capacity.

To check your capacity for emotional bandwidth, consider whether you feel irritable or frustrated consistently. Are you craving alone time? Or do you feel optimistic and confident? Do you feel drawn to socializing or collaborative work, or in need of a recharge away from projects? The next time you consider squeezing in another task, take stock of your emotional bandwidth.

Make room for mental energy

While the post-lockdown discourse on work shows signs of hope, the prevailing work culture still fetishizes overwork and grinding optimization. Even though much of our work today—thanks to the ballooning service and information sectors—requires critical thinking and systems analysis. “We’re keeping those [mental] tabs open. And that becomes very overwhelming and exhausting,” Jadah Sellner, author of the new book She Builds, says.

Our focus on optimization squeezes out the time needed to reflect and analyze. In fact, when we focus on a series of tasks, one after another, our brains won’t activate a circuit known as the default mode network (DMN). While in DMN, the brain “activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas,” writes Dr. Srini Pillay, founder of NeuroBusiness Group. Without engaging DMN regularly, we might be able to push through our to-do lists, but we won’t be able to do much creative thinking or analysis.

Consider whether it’s challenging to solve problems or connect ideas to take stock of your mental energy. Have you allowed enough time for brainstorming and reflection? Before taking on another project, account for your mental energy levels.

Seek social support

Jadah Sellner, the coach and author, was on a deadline for her book while running a group coaching program and producing a podcast. Sellner directed her full capacity toward work. Then, in quick succession, Sellner experienced three devastating losses. Her father, dog, and younger brother all passed away within six months.

Even while she was writing an anti-hustle culture book, she said her first instinct was to push through and keep working. But Sellner dug into her values and realized she needed help.

Sellner knew that mutual support is one of her core values. So instead of hiding her grief, Sellner put her book on hold, asked friends and team members to help support her clients, and devoted herself to supporting her family.

Our ability to receive help is a critical part of our capacity—and one we often ignore. A job well done doesn’t happen alone. It’s the product of a network of people, whether their contributions are direct or indirect. Sellner knew that grief was its own project that would require all of her resources, including the social support she’s intentionally cultivated.

To take stock of your access to social support, consider whether you share openly with your friends, colleagues, or family. Are you always the one listening and rarely the one asking for help? Or do you have relationships with people you can rely on, not only in a pinch but also for the simple needs of daily life? The next time you consider a request, consider who you might ask for reinforcement.

Find fuel for a full tank

Finally, remember that work isn’t the only thing that impacts capacity. We easily misjudge our capabilities “because we’re not converting our personal dreams, goals, and aspirations into actual projects,” Charlie Gilkey, co-founder of Productive Flourishing, says. As a result, “we become really great workers who are husks of full people.”

Instead of asking whether you can squeeze in another task, ask yourself, “Do I have what I need to do this well?” Managing yourself or others in a way that supports better, more satisfying work requires accounting for your capacity across many dimensions. It’s often possible to push through and check items off the list even when you’re feeling drained.

But being confident you can do work you’re proud of? That requires a full tank of gas.

Tara McMullin is the author of What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting. She’s also the host of What Works, a podcast for humans navigating the 21st-century economy.