Everyone has a certain operational tempo or workload that they’re comfortable with. How many tasks need to be on your list for you to feel restless? Comfortable? Stressed out? Some of this is a function of the work you do and the documents you produce. My buddy Doc has an entire book he has to write and deliver by the end of the quarter. There are lots of sub-items under that one task, but it’s still only one deliverable. Another coworker can have anywhere from 6 to 12 (or more) speeches or presentations on his pile at any given time. My active workload can hover anywhere from 1 to 20 items range, and I’m usually happiest in the 4 to 6 range if those 4 to 6 items are all due within a month.
Again, your workload is a function of what you’re producing. When I was checking in guests at one of the Walt Disney World Resort hotels, I might have checked in anywhere from 1 to 40 guests, depending on the day. When I was writing training scripts for the Disney University, I had something like two products due at once, and three was pushing it because each product was several dozen pages in length.
The most important things to know about your workload are:
- What can you expect?
- What can you handle?
The first bullet can be answered by having regular discussions with your immediate supervisor/tasker/customer (preferably at least weekly) and asking what the workload looks like, how you’re doing with what you have, and what’s on the horizon.
The second bullet can only be answered through experience and, again, through the type of work you do. Proposal writing for the government, for example, tends to peak March through May and September through November, with occasional surprises thrown in along the way. Newspapers are constantly humming, with assignments coming in and going out daily. When I answered Disney guest letters, I could usually kick out 40 a week, or one an hour (and before you think I’m slacking there, you’ve obviously never researched guest complaints). Let us also not forget that your “work” will include meetings of various sorts, which can either contribute to, or distract from, the products you need to produce.
The newer you are to a position (or the work), the more likely the workplace is to give you assignments gradually until they understand your work pace and quality. The first time I worked for the NASA human spaceflight business, I was tasked with writing conference papers for one manager of one element, the J-2X engine. As my understanding and work velocity picked up, so too did my clientele and workload–with the solid rocket motors of the Ares I first stage being added to my plate, followed by the Ares I-X flight test. A reorganization of duties shifted me to Ares I-X and supporting the Project Manager, his deputy, the outreach manager, and his deputy. Running flat-out, I was writing conference papers and presentations for around half a dozen people, at which point I cried “Uncle!” and asked for a little relief.
But really, until you test your limits and then go beyond them, you won’t really know how much work you like to have until it hits you. And if you’re underworked–which happens occasionally–you can always go scouting for more.
(Side note: My military buddies tried to explain to me the cardinal rules of the service, but it didn’t work. “Don’t be the first to do something. Don’t be the last one to do something. Don’t volunteer for anything. And never tell the sergeant/commanding officer you have nothing to do.” I’ve managed to violate pretty much all of those “rules,” but it’s gotten me some interesting work.)
The most important thing you can do with your workload is to monitor your tasks carefully so nothing falls through the cracks and then be willing to ask for help if things are going awry through under- or overwork. You want to succeed, and so do your peers and leaders. Moving at the wrong pace helps nobody, least of all you.