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Key messages:
1) The invisible workload is a combination of:
– The mental and emotional load from activities like worrying, planning and coordinating, remembering and monitoring, not to mention managing other people’s emotions and egos; and
– The countless microtasks these generate.

2) Unlike regular tasks, the invisible workload usually doesn’t make it on any to do list and yet can take up a significant amount of your life and energy.

Most professionals will have some level of comfort managing their to do lists. But what about the workload that doesn’t get on those lists and yet takes up a significant amount of your life and energy?

Ever find yourself exhausted after the day but feel you have little to show for it?

We all have! In many instances the culprit is the invisible workload and the actions (countless micro tasks) it prompts us to take in the physical world.

The emotional and cognitive load can come in many forms, including:

  • worrying;
  • planning (organising, coordinating…);
  • remembering (including procrastinating and holding on to mental baggage);
  • monitoring & managing;
  • wanting the world to be different;
  • taking responsibility; and
  • managing other people’s emotions and egos.

At times it can feel like we have a choir of voices inside our heads all with their own concerns. Their intention is to help but they can unwittingly play a major role in creating a sense of overwhelm and a feeling of having so much to do.

On top of stressing us, they can also add to our actual physical workload by, for example, getting us to repeatedly check up on things (email, social media, orders, project statuses) or hold unnecessary calls or meetings to get updates. It can even prevent us from delegating tasks to avoid having to monitor them and follow up.

Breaking it Down

The first step is noticing. It has taken me some time to notice the thinking patterns that contribute to my own invisible workload. Some are big, some are more subtle. What’s more, I keep uncovering more.

For example, untidyness is a massive mental burden for me. Every time I walk into the office or even at home I scan everything for stuff that is “out of place”. It has taken me years just to let things be and tidy later but some level of the mental burden is still there. Every object I see in those travels is something to be managed – tidied away – read – cleaned up…

This is partly why I subscribe to minimalism – fewer things to manage!

Once you get a handle on what types of thoughts are coming to mind you will be in a position to look for ways to ease the burden. The following are the most common categories I have encountered in life and with clients.

Worrying

When I was growing up my mother used to worry about pretty much everything. She would play out all sorts of catastrophic scenarios, almost none of which ever happened. The stress she carried around had real health consequences. I realised pretty young that there had to be another way, especially as plenty other bad things happened, none of which had been on the worry radar.

That is not to say that it doesn’t pay off to consider possible negative events in the future. Indeed, there is a stoic practice known as Premeditatio Malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”), which involves visualising what might go wrong. The idea is to build resilience for the inevitable shipwrecks life will throw at us.

Personally, I find such thinking really falls under planning and works best for events that:

  1. Have some realistic chance of happening; and
  2. About which you can do something.

Business continuity planning falls into that category but the concept also applies in private life. For many years I lived near an area with a very high risk of forest fires. As a result, we always had a “go bag” ready in the corner just in case the fires got too close.

For everything else, my invitation is to simply thank the voice of worry. Sound weird? It can at first but you get used to it. In my case, that would be something like: “Thanks mum, I hear you. Thanks for thinking of me but we’re fine. I will take it from here“. Note it down if it helps.

Planning

I tend to plan at different time scales. I will have annual aspirations and weekly work-ons to head in the right direction. To avoid this clogging up my brain I typically set aside some time on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning to play out the coming week. I look at my diary, review my aspirations and what I would roughly like to accomplish that week.

When something around planning comes up during the week I simply note it down and look at it on the Friday. This helps me not to overly distract myself during the week. I am telling that voice in my brain:

Thanks for your concern but I am on top of this. Time has been set in the schedule. Now is not that time“.

It can also be helpful to keep a list of what needs to be planned / coordinated / organised to allow you to quickly check if some positive action needs to be taken.

At the same time, there is a risk with planning that we want to control what will happen leading the planning to morph into worry. In that regard, the invitation is to plan but not to get attached to the outcomes. As Eisenhower said:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything!

The faster you accept that and use your mental resources to plan a response rather than worrying, the easier you will make things for yourself.

Wanting The World to be Different

In my experience this is a very insidious thinking pattern that creates significant mental load. It comes in many forms from “you should have done [pick something that in hindsight might have been beneficial]” to somehow refusing to accept how things are (also known as complaining).

What has happened has happened so the opportunity lies in being one of the first to accept this. The less resistance, the less mental load we create and the more serenity and mental energy we can bring to our response. This is what Krishnamurti is getting at in the quote below.

“Here is my secret. I don’t mind what happens.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Remembering

Our memory banks do not sit quietly by as we go about our days. They are continually in motion, reminding us of the various work or personal tasks and events they feel we should remember. As a general rule, the brain tends to hold on to anything it considers unfinished. That is why procrastinating can be exhausting. Also some things like running a business or a houseful never technically end – there is always more laundry, cleaning and shopping to do, always new sales targets to meet, quotes to send out – and for this reason the brain keeps whirring. So, what can you do?

Pro tip: Do a mind dump at least once a day!

A short mind dump every morning (and evening) works for me. I open my Mind Dump file as I do my Daily Sketch (my daily plan) and note down whatever thoughts come to mind. This can range from the mundane (something I had forgotten to add to the shopping list or someone I should email) to some insight or even post my brain has been working on. I note them all down. If something comes up during the day I will also quickly add it to the appropriate list just so the voice can let it go.

And yet, remembering goes beyond even this. Our brains also find it hard to let go of grudges, slights and other mental chatter such as frustrations that remain unexpressed or commitments and promises we haven’t fulfilled. Just ask yourself how this is helping? How might you let go of them?

Monitoring and Managing

This category is very different to the others. It is primarily where you’re waiting on someone or something else. Because of that it is also very broad. Even though you technically have nothing to do it can generate a whole pile of work.

For example, how much time do you spend checking things every day?

  • Order statuses?
  • Email?
  • WhatsApp?
  • Social media including LinkedIn?
  • Platforms like Slack or Upwork?
  • What about checking up on tasks or on projects you have delegated or outsourced?
  • Following up on messages that have gone unanswered?

Ever been to a meeting without an agenda just because the person calling the meeting is a little nervy and needs an update?

Most people will have struggled with some of these at some stage. Because this category is so broad it is hard to find one neat hack but there are a couple of principles that might be helpful.

  • Schedule times to check up on things: I set aside time on Fridays to check the status of any systems / platforms I use.
    – Are they up to date?
    – Is work I’ve outsourced on track?
    – How are my orders doing?
    – Do I need to contact anyone for an update?
    – Do I need to nudge anyone?

    More broadly, consider setting days in which you typically do certain tasks (pay bills on Saturday, do Admin on Monday…) or theming days (Monday is for Marketing and Branding….) can also be helpful in reducing the overall mental load.

  • Agree reporting rules: If done properly, this can significantly reduce follow-up meetings and free up a lot of schedules. The principle is that when delegating a task or assigning a project rules are agreed around status updates. For example: “Jim will send a status update every Friday morning. We will schedule short meetings (they do not have to be 60 minutes) when some specific point needs to be discussed or decided.

    Just reflect on how you delegate and perhaps equally importantly “What do I need to know when I delegate a task?

  • Set reminders for yourself: It can be really helpful to add reminders like “If I have not heard from Denis by the time this reminder appears I will call someone else.
  • Set boundaries: Specify when you will check the various platforms. “I will check my email every 60 minutes” or, if you can get away with it, every evening or even less frequently.
  • Manage your expectations of others: Just because you check your email every 30 minutes doesn’t mean everyone does or should.

Taking Responsibility

Ever step in to do something because you feared nobody else would do it? Or not do it well enough?

This is as true in the home as it is at work. This can be particularly tricky in the home when one partner may feel they are expected to bear an unfair proportion of the invisible workload required to keep the show on the road. There is certainly a gender component to this historically that cannot be ignored and yet that is only part of the story.

The invitation is thus to ask yourself:

  • Why am I taking responsibility for this?
  • What responsibilities do I expect others to take for me?
  • What did I do today that wasn’t mine to do?

Managing Other People’s Emotions and Egos

This is also called emotional labour and can be exhausting with a lot of emotional energy used to manage all those with whom we interact. This is particularly true for highly sensitive people and empaths. It may involve our partner and kids or direct reports and managers. For example, particular care may have to be taken with how messages are delivered to certain individuals whilst others need praise lavished on them.

I know that I have a tendency to manage other people’s stress and to create a safe and supportive environment. That can be really helpful in certain circumstances but having this ‘always on’ would be overwhelming.

There is also a gender component to this aspect, with women expected to play such roles in many societies. In work and group contexts this can lead to women being expected to bear an unreasonable share of the burden of keeping the group happy and functioning.

All of this steals mental space from the actual work that is being undertaken so the invitation is to start noticing how you are conditioning your actions because of others:

  • Do you find yourself choosing your words extra carefully to ensure others don’t take offense?
  • Rereading and rewriting emails and messages?
  • Holding back from saying what you feel needs to be said?
  • Saying what you think others want or need to hear?

The deeper question is why we try to manage other people’s emotions.

For those who are highly sensitive, they may feel they don’t have an option and yet we always do. Personally, I have found that much of this is born out of fear and in particular fear of having to deal with moodiness, an outburst or some other form of irrational response. It is a learned response from childhood.

And yet, given the significant mental and emotional energy devoted to this, I now actively ask myself in each instance whether it is worth it or whether saying what needs to be said in a gentle, non-judgmental and compassionate manner might not better serve the relationship. I would invite you to offer yourself the same possibility!

Other Areas for Exploration

If the above items haven’t provided you with enough food for thought then the cultural realm might be worth exploring. Cultural expectations can significantly lengthen what would otherwise be rather swift interactions. I have been at 1-hour meetings that could have been concluded in 5 minutes had they been stripped of all the cultural expectations.

Purely around meetings just ask yourself:

  • Why are meetings called?
  • How are they run?
  • How much time is spent on chit chat? How important is this?
  • Do we have clear agendas?
  • Does everyone have to stay for the whole meeting?
  • Do people have the option of sending in a quick status report rather than attending?
  • Can people leave if the meeting goes off topic?

This can be particularly rich when you are working across cultures with each culture having its own expectations regarding social interaction and what is acceptable and not.


Any of this resonate? Have other stories to share? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at tom @ tomoleary.ie