So let's say you followed all my advice in episode 51 last week, but still have more to do than you can manage.
Don't worry, I'm not going to blame you or tell you to "hustle harder".
I totally believe there are organizational and systemic factors beyond your control that have left too much on your plate.
I also believe there are things you can control to prevent those factors from burning you out.
I'll share some steps you can take today.
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This episode was produced by Podcast Boutique .
If you caught my last episode, #51, you’ll recall I challenged you to reduce the items on your to-do list through a combination of delegation, postponement, or plain and simple deletion. And even as I spoke that challenge into my microphone, I could hear your objection, because I’ve said it plenty of times myself.
“But Sarah, I’ve trimmed down my list as much as I can, and there’s still too much that has to be done!”
And for the record I believe you. I believe you have too much on your plate. I believe you’re truly doing as much as you can, and maybe even more than you should. And I believe that there may not be much you can control about that situation right now, because of systemic, structural flaws that overburden many educational and library leaders.
Today’s challenge recognizes that reality, and gives you a plan to be kind to yourself and your organization in the face of that truth.
Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, the podcast that empowers leaders to transform their organizations in ten minutes or less! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to coach educational and library leaders like you who want to build a better world without burning out.
Kind Leaders aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. We strive to make tough decisions without becoming jerks. We design systems that enable our teams to make a big impact without overworking. And we know that once we stop controlling and start collaborating, even the most ambitious vision can become effortless. Kind Leadership is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around for the next 10 minutes as I teach you how your school or library can create a resilient, thriving legacy that will strengthen your community long after you’re gone.
So, you’ve determined that your current workload is unsustainable. I think we’ve all been there from time to time. But here’s the first question: is this a short-term issue or a long term one? Most of this show’s listeners work in schools and libraries, and there are certain rhythms to the year. For instance, when I worked as a reference and instruction librarian, the first few weeks of each semester were my crunch time, with lots of classes to teach and one on one research appointments. These days as a higher ed administrator, things get crazy toward the end of the fiscal year, or other institutional deadlines. Many of my public library listeners have to plan around the chaos that is Summer Reading. You get the idea. So look at your crowded task list and ask honestly—will it still be this bad in a few weeks? If not, figure out what you can do to push through. You might delay some stuff that you normally wouldn’t, or perhaps you decide to work a little more during this hectic time, and schedule some rest or vacation time for after the rush. However, when the dust clears and you catch your breath, sit down and figure out if there are steps you can take to make the next rush a little more manageable.
But what if this is just how my workload is? I hear some of you ask. And I’m sure a lot of you are in this predicament too. I’ve been in higher education for almost 20 years at this point, and it seems like every year the demands get higher and the budgets and staff get smaller. And I’ve heard the same dynamic described in public libraries, K-12 education, and colleagues at universities ranging from the Ivy League to rural community colleges. Even in the calmer times of year, there’s just too much work that needs to be done. And that’s when you need to triage. What task will provide the most benefit to you, those you lead, or those you serve, for the least time and energy? Do that ONE thing. Cross it off your list. Take a breath. Walk around. Pick the undone task that provides the next most bang for the buck, and repeat. If, or rather when, a crisis hits your desk, rank it, and either start on it or triage it lower in the queue. Then at the end of the day, close your email, stick your list in the desk, and go home without any guilt. Because now the most important thing on your list, after any family obligations you may have, is to rest and recover so you can do it all again tomorrow.
Of course that’s easier said than done. You triaged the stuff that must be done, worked on it and whatever other surprises arose during the day and you still end the day with some pretty important and urgent tasks left on your plate. Generally speaking, this is not your cue to stay late or take work home. This is your cue to not do your remaining tasks, and explain to whoever expects them to be done how you made the decision you made, why it fell to the bottom of your priority list, and ask them if they would rather you prioritize things differently.
This does a few things. First, it keeps your stakeholder up to date. Second, you’re making it clear that you are maintaining boundaries around your time and energy for the good of the organization, not just yourself. And finally, you are communicating the real workload limitations of you and your team to the people who are making the decisions that lead to unsustainable workloads. Because the types of leaders who listen to a show called the Kind Leadership Challenge generally believe they are working for a cause bigger than themselves, it can be easy to just work harder and longer in the name of building a better world, rather than stewarding our energy for long term sustainability. It’s often the easier and maybe even safer choice in the moment to just keep working away without complaint, but it means that when you or your team inevitably burns out, the problem is not only worse, it’s a surprise. Catch it early, and everyone in your organization can make the strategic shifts that keep things more doable.
But what if your organization can’t—or perhaps won’t—lighten the load to a sustainable level? Let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen, after all. In fairness, at least when we’re talking about mission-oriented organizations like the ones most of you work for, it’s a bit simplistic to say that an employer doesn’t care about their employees’ well being. They do, for reasons that are as pragmatic as they are moral. Turnover costs money and decreases productivity, especially if it happens at a time when things are already hectic. However, an organization cares more about its survival and wellbeing as a whole than they do about any one person, or even a group of people. Sometimes top leadership decides, rightly or wrongly, that it has no other choice but to do more with less, at least for a season. And if you’ve been in that situation for long enough, and don’t see a change on the horizon, then you have some decisions to make. And they all come down to one question: have you given all you can?
If the answer is yes, then your next steps is clear. Update your resume, reach out to your network and start looking for something that is more sustainable.
However, you may not quite be done yet, but you see that moment of burnout on the horizon if the current trends don’t change. In that case, you need to ask a second question. What needs to happen for you be ready to leave? The answer to this question, or rather answers, fall into two categories. The first category is things that may happen, or not happen, that would be your signs it’s time to go. The second category is what actions you need to take to make a future transition as smooth as possible. They might be building up your emergency fund in case you have to take a gap between jobs, preparing your loved ones for future changes, or taking on any job training or network building necessary for your next step. That way, when and if you hit the point where you need to say “take this job and shove it”, you’ll be prepared for what comes next.
And I realize your next step to building a better world without burning out might involve a career change, not just a different school or library. If you think you’re done all you can in the education or library world, The #TransitioningTeachers hashtag may be helpful, and there are all sorts of free and paid resources out there for educators and librarians looking to make a change. Heck, you can reach out to me for a free 30 minute coaching call and I can walk you through making a decision or clarifying your options. This is a service I provide as my schedule allows to any leader who follows the Kind Leadership Challenge, and you can find the link to book a call in the show notes.
But whether you need to reach out to me or not, here’s your challenge for this week: Define the nature and implications of your workload problem. If you’re already determined you just have more tasks than time, then why is that? is it just a hectic time of year, or something more chronic? Have you triaged your tasks? Have you set boundaries around how much you can sustainably do, and communicated the how and why of those boundaries to your stakeholders so they’re aware of the larger systemic problem? And finally, if all that has failed, have you hit the point where you’ve given all you can give to your organization, and need to figure out what to do next with your career?
All of these questions are simple, but they can be painful to confront. Some of them cut to the heart of how we define ourselves and our organizations as “kind” or “unkind”. However, the first obligation any kind leader or any kind organization has is to be kind to itself. And what’s more kind than ensuring your long term ability to build the world you wish to see, even if it requires a challenging conversation or a change of plan?
Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, head to kindleadershipchallenge.com/52 and share that link with a colleague who needs to hear it! Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.