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Tips on how to fight overload and stay creative

  • Published: Apr 30, 2015 03:30
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 6,791 viewed

In my previous column, I talked about how overloaded we all feel these days. Caused by technological progress, headcount cuts and the bleeding of work hours into leisure time, this overload is a difficult feature of our lives today. I've shown that work overload hurts communication, productivity and creativity. In this column, I'll show how time pressure and overload kill creativity, and what you can do as an individual to fight back.

Overload and creativity

Creativity and innovation require time — time to think about a challenge, time to create and develop ideas, and time to turn your idea into meaningful innovation.

Harvard psychologists led by Teresa Amabile studied the implications of time pressure and work overload on creativity. In their study, "Creativity under the gun", they said that when people are under time pressure and feel overloaded, the quality of their ideas drops significantly. Even worse, they don't notice this drop in quality. So we cannot produce outstanding creativity if we're always on the treadmill. But don't we all feel like our treadmill never ends?

Dealing with overload

Work overload may be tolerable in the short run, but over longer stretches it destroys productivity and creativity of individuals and organisations alike. What can we do about it? Let's look at three examples.

Fighting overload to promote corporate innovation

Are you an executive who wants to improve creativity and innovation in your organisation? Then make sure you have enough people to do the work in a normal workday, especially in high-creativity areas, such as design, product development, marketing and sales.

Allow for some slack — even better, also give staff time to work on work-related projects of their own. Even in efficiency-driven areas, like manufacturing or operations, giving employees time and space will let them notice operational bugs and develop ways to fix them.

Fighting work overload as an individual

If you feel overloaded, try these tips:

1. Clarify priorities and values, for yourself and your organisation. This helps when allocating time and also makes it easier to say "No" when asked to commit time to less important tasks. For example, when you're asked to a meeting where you cannot contribute, knowing your priorities allows you to say no, as there are other things you must do instead.

2. In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown extends the Pareto Principle ("80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes") into productivity management. Spend time on the highly productive 20% of activities, and you will produce more in less time, and reduce overload. Work less, but better.

3. Gary Keller's book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results helps identify these highly productive activities. He says you can produce extraordinary results by asking yourself, every day, one powerful question: "What's the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?" Performing that "one thing" typically requires four to six hours of concentrated work, and it requires that you know your priorities, and have the courage to say "No" to everything else until you have completed the one thing.

4. Group similar work activities, like phone calls or email, together, and deal with them after you have accomplished your most important daily work activity.

5. Schedule time for play so you can recharge and re-energise yourself. "Play" is whatever you find fun — exercising, playing music, socialising, etc. Daily play boosts your creativity and improves your long-term productivity.

6. If you still feel overloaded after all that, then keep track of your time spent working, both at the office and elsewhere, to gauge how overloaded you really are. How much time do you need to complete your tasks? How does it compare to your official work hours?

7. Track how your time is allocated to various categories (for example, meetings, email, development projects). How does the proportion of time spent in each category compare to the output? Can you reduce less productive categories and increase overall productivity?

8. When you've documented an imbalance between the time needed to accomplish your tasks, and the time that you actually work, it's time to talk to your superior about your workload. State that your productivity and health are likely to suffer if you continue working on this schedule.  

Ask for prioritisation of your projects, or additional people who can take over projects of lower importance. Failing all that, consider looking for a new job with an organisation that understands the value of a healthy work-life balance.

Gain support for your project from an(other) overloaded person

Do you need support for a project from someone who is overloaded? When they don't reply to your messages, or don't honour promises made to you, don't resent them. Instead, be sympathetic and polite, but persistent. Sooner or later, if you catch them at the right moment, they will reply. Give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they're probably very overloaded.

The first of this two-part series was published in the Bangkok Post on April 16.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, an ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also a lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management and an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at