What to Do When You Find Yourself Overloaded


As much as you might want to multitask, there is a limit to how much work in progress can be handled at once. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed—whether due to your own commitments or because management keeps piling on more projects—assess the situation and see what you can do to improve your condition without letting your work suffer.

As a serious test professional, I pride myself in the ability to get things done in an efficient manner and with a heart toward serving the teams I support. I love the idea of working hard to help a team realize a goal, quickly learning a new product, and applying that knowledge to help test and deliver something pleasing to a real customer.

I have worked on teams that were focused on one end product. In some cases one team had multiple subproducts it supported, and there were even times when I supported multiple projects with many teams all in one quarter of the year. To find ways to be more efficient and get another release out the door on time is a gratifying challenge and leads to more demand for (good) test services.

It also means I am often “rewarded” for my dedication with new opportunities on other projects. Sometimes these opportunities come while expectations continue for existing ones.

It can happen to anyone, and it has happened to me.

Assess the Situation

First, let’s consider the possibility that the pain that accompanies this sense of being overloaded may actually be a good thing. It may indicate the level of trust management has in you to take on these commitments. Being asked to stretch may lead us to find new resources, discover waste to eliminate, and realize we are capable of more than our old limits. How many new things have been discovered because we dared to push the envelope just a bit further, whether it was man breaking the sound barrier or us helping our team deliver just one more story point of value than the previous sprint?

This may work in practice when you are younger, new to the company, or still getting acquainted with processes or techniques. But recently, I’ve realized that there is a limit to how many teams I can help at one time. As much as I might want to multitask, there is a limit to how much work in progress can be handled. The desire to help as many teams as possible can quickly lead to overcommitment, followed by the problem of priority combined with the number of actual hours in the real week.

We can hit the wall in many ways. A project may have multiple testing needs: usability, security, scalability, functionality, readiness for release, and so on, and each project’s needs may vary. Sometimes the testing is straightforward and just requires a little learning of the product or a new tool, which suddenly I don’t have the time to do. Sometimes it’s not the testing, but the maintenance that goes with the documentation or the automation that quickly becomes a time sink.

Fortunately, there is hope for those of us who find themselves suddenly overbooked. Here are a few things I have tried over the years that helped me. They might help you, too.

1. Reduce distractions.

If being overloaded doesn’t have an immediate out, the first thing you can do is find a way to minimize distractions. There are many things that can distract and ruin our focus on the tasks we are doing.Try timeboxing things like social media checks, phone calls, and emails to reduce the potential drag it may have on your day. If you have worthless meetings, skip a few. Warn the boss. Get the project done. If you can’t get out of them, when the project is late and the boss asks why, well, you presented the company with options, and it chose the meetings.

2. Minimize work in progress by reducing context-switching.

When multiple things are important to get done, you have to figure out the key priorities or set them yourself. Focus on getting one piece done at a time. Determine your number one project and get it to a stopping point, then do the next. If you must switch contexts throughout the day, try to plan your schedule so that the shifts are reduced and more manageable, perhaps around meals and meetings.

3. Resist the urge to skip breaks.

It may seem counterintuitive after the suggestion to minimize distractions, but it is important to not skip breaks. The human body and mind both need periods of rest throughout the day, and while you may save fifteen minutes by failing to take that break you normally do in the afternoon, the increased stress will take a toll on you and compound the stress you already feel.

You are an adult and can make your own decisions, but my advice is to take breaks that involve physical activity—not Twitter or email. Get out of that chair and walk. Not only will your heart thank you for it in thirty years, but your brain will continue working on the task in the background, which may actually help you reach your goal faster!

4. Be realistic about planning goals, and plan for some slack time.

Many teams will focus on trying to maximize the amount of work individuals commit to during an iteration, but this actually hurts the team as a whole by not giving members sufficient time to collaborate with each other. Sometimes this manifests as we try to accurately estimate our work, and in so doing miss taking into account unknown risk or other work related to the task. Try to plan for how much you’ll get done next time by how much you got done last time, if not a little less, so that you can help your peers.

Sometimes these sorts of arguments fall on deaf ears. “We are behind!” goes the thinking. “We need to plan to catch up.” In that case, say your piece, do your best, perhaps even put in a few hours, but don’t feel bad when your performance continues at its historic rate. If there is no plan to make things actually go faster, just wishful thinking, it is likely the team will continue at the current rate—or, worse, take shortcuts that slow things down later.

5. Say no to taking on new work or projects.

This one is critical. Once you tell the boss you are overloaded, you cannot take on new work. If new work comes in, say either “I can start this when I finish (equally sized task)” or “I can start it now. What task do I drop?”

You may be pressured to let everything slip by 20 percent in order to take on a fifth task. If you are overloaded, you’ll end up doing all tasks extremely poorly and likely be more than 20 percent late. If you have to take on the new task, add it to your to-do box and start when something else finishes—that is the way work-in-progress limits work.

6. Consider where your skills are most needed.

It may be that everything you do is valued, but there could be tasks that can be better delegated to a more junior tester or team member. Senior testers tend to find more serious bugs, so planning to focus your energies on another set of somewhat-standardized release candidate tests without taking time to focus on risk may waste more time for you and the company. Also, a more experienced tester is aware of so many more dimensions to testing the current feature, which means there may be even more things that need to be tested for the “three-line change” to the code base. This also will slow down the project and may result in additional pressure on the tester to finish testing after everyone else in the team seems to be done with it.

If this is happening, then maybe the issue is not the tester, but that the team is trying to deliver far more work than the tester can possibly handle. Maybe you can unblock the tester by having the team help with the testing tasks they are able to do, freeing the tester to dig into the areas his expertise most helps.

It may also be that the team is being squeezed by the rework factor. It is easy to account for projects that go smoothly all the time. Experienced testers will find more serious bugs, which require rework and retesting, and that will impact the work completed during a sprint. If this begins to become a pattern, it may be that your team needs suggestions on how they can improve how they think about testability. Perhaps the team should review its definition of done and remind the developers that they too can be testing their code. You can then focus on more series issues related to the design and usability of the product.

Do the Best You Can

In the end, the best anyone can do is manage through the situation. Be honest with your team about time constraints and blockers, focus on doing just enough in your tasks, and try to get your work done and go home at a normal hour. Hopefully some of these ideas can help you cope and keep delivering when you find yourself overloaded—or at least help you know you are not alone!

What do you do to cope with being overloaded? What techniques and tools help you manage your busy workday?

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