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Causes of Overwork: Inadequate Skill

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Here are our final thoughts about why people are overworked. In this episode, we cover the most shameful and difficult factor of all.

Last time, we talked about situations that cause interruptions in workplace productivity. That was second on the list of workplace issues that lead to frustration, exhaustion and collapse:

  1. Unreasonable expectations – You are asked to do things which are just not possible.
  2. Unnecessary interruptions – You are being bugged by people for things that just aren’t worth breaking your concentration.
  3. Inadequate skill – you don’t have the training or ability to do assigned tasks.

Whenever we aren’t able to do the work in front of us because we don’t actually know how to do it, we often experience a sense of helplessness. Imagine a nightmare where you suddenly find yourself responsible for a critical, life-altering task: performing surgery, landing an airplane or translating for a hostage negotiator. Unless you’ve had the years of training and experience necessary, these kinds of tasks are simply impossible.

Of course, the reality is that the gap between our current skills and what we are asked to do isn’t often that enormous. You don’t go from being qualified to watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy to suddenly holding a scalpel and performing open heart surgery. Usually, when we lack the ability to do part of our jobs, the desired task is just far enough out of reach to be both frustrating and disheartening. We become frightened that we might not be qualified, and sometimes feel ashamed at our incompetence.

This experience of feeling suddenly unqualified and have low employee satisfaction for our jobs is often called the impostor syndrome. Even though we actually are capable of doing the work (and learning new tricks of the trade as part of the process), finding ourselves staring a new task in the face can be overwhelming. We sometimes feel like we’ve somehow managed to fool all the people around us into believing that we have the credentials and the mental acuity required, but in secret have no idea what we are doing.

It’s fairly easy to see how this emotion translates into overwork. A particular assignment seems beyond our reach, and then we spiral into a panic and begin to believe that we are totally unqualified. The hours start to pile up as we work furiously to make up for the difference.

The root problem with “inadequate skill” is how we characterize the learning process. Usually, we think that the ability to complete a tasks consists of only two steps:

  1. Incompetence – We have no idea how to do the work, and need to pursue training and mentoring.
  2. Competence – We are able to do the work, and can teach it to others.

Of course, this isn’t true. You can speak a little bit of French. You can know enough about emergency medicine to use CPR to someone who is choking. You can probably use some of the obscure features of your favorite software program, if you have plenty of time and a reference manual handy. There is a something between incompetence and fluency where you can be successful, you’re just not very efficient. We like to call that countercompetence:


consulting on countercompetence

What should you do if you’re feeling overworked because you think you don’t have the skills to complete a certain task? Talk to your colleagues about how you are countercompetent. Explain that you are able to do to the work, but that you’ll need more time and more support to check for any errors or mistakes.

Technically speaking, this is the easiest area of overwork to eliminate. You merely need to reach out and explain the areas of your expertise. But practically speaking, it’s the most difficult of all. None of us like to admit weakness. We all tend to feel like impostors when we’re asked to do something that we don’t yet know how to do.

Productivity is about getting more work done in less time and feeling good about the process. When you’re overworked, you’re not being productive. Take note of which of the three causes of overwork are most significantly impacting your workflow. Change your behaviors and your perspective. And when you do find yourself putting in fewer hours but having greater results, reach out to our productivity consultants and tell us about it. We’d love to hear your stories about how you’ve found ways to keep from working too much.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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Robby Slaughter
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