The Secret to Cutting Your Workload in Higher Ed Admin


The 3-week illusion

Have you heard of the 3-week illusion? Probably not, because I made it up. It is not based on scientific research but simply on my personal observation of how servant leaders in higher ed. often look at their schedules and their availability.

Can you relate to this? Someone calls you and asks if she can meet with you. Before you even inquire about the purpose of the meeting, your immediate thought response is “My week is so full, I can’t add anything to it.” Instead of asking yourself if the meeting is a wise use of your time, you quickly look at your calendar and this is what you see: This week is booked solid. You may even have to reduce your water intake to minimize bathroom breaks. Next week is quite busy too. There is a little bit of time open but you’ll need to play catch-up. But 3 weeks from now you seem to have blocks of time that are open. Oh wow, it looks like you won’t be all that busy in 3 weeks… So yes, of course, you agree to have the meeting in 3 weeks.

Now let me ask you: when was the last time you had a week with very little to do? So little to do in fact that you wanted more meetings to fill the time? Never! That’s right! The thought that you will have extra time in 3 weeks is a complete illusion. Chances are, that meeting you just scheduled without knowing if it’s worth your time will seem terribly inconvenient when the time comes. You might even have to cancel it at the last minute because something more important or urgent will require your immediate attention.

Why it doesn’t work

If you are like my clients, you don’t shy away from hard work and it’s extremely important to you to be accessible and helpful. I agree with that perspective 100% but I like to question whether your strategy (or lack thereof) actually creates the results you seek.

Here are some possibilities to consider.

  • By being chronically overworked, you may not be your best self. You may be more reactive than proactive, more stressed and tense than welcoming, and you may not act like the true leader you really are.

  • If you lack boundaries you unknowingly encourage people to ask too much from you. You may be willing to self-sacrifice but the side effect is to make people too dependent on you and less able to work independently. They may think you discourage initiative and you want to be involved in everything. It can create apathy and lower morale.

  • If you don’t focus on your priorities, your staff members will be confused and they won’t know what their priorities are either. Lack of clarity will foster dysfunction because it will be difficult to know how to make decisions.

Honestly, I could list a hundred reasons why saying yes to everything can be counterproductive to your goals but I think you get the point. It is essential to prioritize and know how to allocate your time, which is your most important resource.

What to do instead

Follow these steps and you’ll be able to cut your workload dramatically.

Step 1: Get clear on your goals, priorities and values

This step is essential because it will drive your decision making process from now on. What are your top goals? What are your top priorities? What are your top values? Keep these three lists as short as possible.

Step 2: Consider strategies and outcomes

When someone asks you for something, before you say yes or no, take a moment to consider what the outcomes would be. In other words, what would be accomplished through this activity? Is the approach sound? Is there a better way to get it done? Or perhaps should someone else be asked instead of you? Evaluate whether the strategy makes sense to you before you agree to implement it. 

Step 3: Stay focused on what matters

Use your three short lists from step 1 (goals, priorities and values) to guide your decision making process. When an opportunity arises, ask yourself “Is this in alignment with my goals?” If the answer is no, what you have in front of you is a distraction, not an opportunity and you’d better pass. If the answer is yes, ask “Is this in alignment with my priorities?” If the answer is yes, schedule it soon, but if not, allocate time for it when it won’t create chaos. And the third question is “Is this in alignment with my values?” because you are a human being, not a robot, and if something is not a top goal or priority but it is going to feed your soul and make your heart sing, it probably deserves your time and attention too, at least in moderation.

Step 4: Communicate

Make sure to communicate your goals and priorities and help people understand your decision making process. They will respect you more for it and will love that you model strategic thinking rather than self-sacrifice. But don’t forget to communicate so that your change in behavior doesn’t create confusion or concerns. Continue to make your teams feel appreciated and supported.

Alright, promise me you won’t agree to more meetings without first ensuring they will be worth your time, you will never again be a victim of the 3-week illusion, and you’ll compare your intentions and results to see if the sacrifices you’re making are actually producing the outcomes you seek. It’s time for change!

You may think “But what if my boss asks for something that is not aligned with my goals?” I would respond that meeting your boss’ expectations should be one of your goals.

This strategic approach is powerful but you need to think it through, preferably with the help of a coach.

If you would like some guidance on how to clarify your goals, priorities, and values and how to change your decision making process, I invite you to schedule a complimentary call to discuss how we can work together. If you prefer to do this alone, you can get the structure you need in my Accomplish More in Less Time in Higher Ed Administration self-study program. Click here for details.

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits.  Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.