“The collaborative demands eventually wore me down—constant email, international travel, calls at all hours of the day and night.”
“I was exhausted when at home but, even worse, I just didn’t feel good about myself. You begin to internalize all of the different collaborations and demands, and it literally makes you into someone you don’t want to be.”
“I have so many different topics demanding attention that the pressure feels enormous. It’s overwhelming to switch from one to the other and make thoughtful decisions anymore.”
Does this sound like you? If so, our research offers hope.
In the past decade, time on meetings, calls, email and other collaborative work has risen by 50%. Most people spend 85% of their week in collaborative work. But we identified a group of high performers who were doing things differently. They were high performers at all roles and levels who were thriving in spite of massive collaborative demands.
We paid attention to these outliers. And by following their path and making just 3 or 4 small shifts, you can gain back as much as 18-24% of your work time, or the equivalent of one workday per week! Here’s how it works:
First, reduce collaborative overload to regain time and space.
Our research has shown that we create collaborative patterns and habits that on the margin do not seem like a big deal yet accumulate to significant amounts of time that absorb our days. But these small, almost mundane habits are the ones we can change.
While it is easy to see external reasons for overload (your boss, the extra assignment, not enough resources), it is more difficult to see the ways our struggle is self-imposed. Our interviews revealed values and beliefs that can lead us to jump into work when we shouldn’t: a need for accomplishment, desire to be in-the-know, getting identity from helping others and then becoming the path of least resistance, fear of missing out or fear of loss of control.
People who were thriving recognized their personal patterns—often after a rough patch at work, personal or professional relationship problems or a health crisis—and worked to counteract them. They challenged beliefs by understanding how identity and ways they choose to engage drive excessive collaborative demands.
People also imposed structure by focusing on their priorities and adapting roles, routines and interactions for efficiency. They defined clear objectives that helped them prioritize their time and created rules for how they interacted with others.
Finally, more successful people addressed collaborative inefficiencies when they altered behaviors by employing appropriate communication channels and promoting efficient network norms. They improved their meetings—both in-person and video conference—ensuring needed people are present, others are free to decline or come and go, and that time is used for collaborative tasks. They also became more efficient in their use of email and knew when a phone call, text or IM was a better choice. More effective groups also set expectations around response time, especially after hours.
But freeing up time isn’t the end of the story.
It’s the beginning of the story. What we do with our reclaimed time is crucial to break the cycle of endless, inefficient collaboration.
Rather than repeating the practices that create overload, more effective people reinvest that extra time in networks proven to promote performance and well-being. Our research shows they do three key things:
- Enable scale by mobilizing a broad network and key opinion leaders.
- Create contexts of engagement with pull not push.
- Prioritize renewal with networks for purpose and well-being.
The element that surprises people most is the “pull” strategy. The conventional thinking about networks is that you need to be extroverted and reach out to as many people as possible. But my research shows that what matters most in boosting your performance is not how often you reach out, but how often you’re sought out.
Taken together, these practices create a reinforcing pattern—an infinity loop of gaining time and investing wisely. With each small gain of time and positive network investment, accomplishments grow and social capital increases. As more time and energy is given to high-value collaboration and connections, people become less overwhelmed, more effective—and enjoy a sense of well-being in work and life.
Identify 3-4 actions you can take to buy back your time and reinvest for performance and well-being using our Collaborative Overload and Engagement & Performance card decks and tools. And stay tuned for my new book that takes you into the stories of top performers who do this well.Share!