How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

Whatever amount of time you set aside for work, you don’t want to be 100% busy.  You don’t want just enough work so you can get it done in the time you’ve set aside.  You want more.

How much more?  Lately I think the right amount is around 125% – that is, having 25% more work to do than you could really get done.

If you handle this in the right way, it forces you to work both smarter and faster: smarter comes from being forced to triage and put the most important things at the top.  Faster comes from learning to spend the right amount of time on things, which means less time for things that are less important (without throwing quality out the window).  Faster also comes from learning to say ‘no’ politely to things that you should say ‘no’ to (e.g. meetings you don’t need to attend); and smarter comes from making time for new things that could be great, knowing that something will be sacrificed in the meantime.

There’s a limit, of course.  200% busy is a disaster…it means the end of your personal time and your sanity, and it’s completely unsustainable.  I started my career as a management consultant with a 200% job.  I learned a ton, but I was always exhausted, I essentially sacrificed my personal life, and I never could have kept that up for the decades it takes to build a career.  And 25% is mind-numbingly boring (it’s possible – I actually had a job that devolved into this), not to mention you’ll never produce enough to get anywhere professionally.

So if you’re at 100% and have been asked to do more, take advantage. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you haven’t been asked to do more, find somewhere to jump in and do more.

What does 125% feel like?  It feels like (usually) controlled chaos…”usually” because there are always ebbs and flows, so if you’re normally at 125% you’ll have some 150% peaks that are very hard to manage.  125% is a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting.  You’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re learning.   And you’ll discover that you can get a lot more done than you thought possible.

(Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, this is part of the reason that having a job you hate makes it very hard to be very successful.  Success comes from a lot of things, but hard work is part of the answer.  Think about how painful it is to work really hard for 10, 20, or 30 years at something you basically dislike or don’t care much about.)

3 thoughts on “How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

  1. Good points Sasha, I’ve recently started using Remember the Milk (an online task management tool) to help me manage my tasks. I think I’m around 110% busy at the moment, but it seems to be increasing as every month goes by (new projects, reputation building for doing a good job etc).

    There is a culture in a lot of places to just ‘give the busy man more work’ and if you’re actually good at doing stuff, by deadlines and properly, then you end up getting more stuff next time – until as you say you hit 200% and all hell breaks loose!

    I wrote a blog post about Remember the Milk and starting to use it: – thought you might want a look.

  2. Ed, thanks for this. I just checked it out and it looks very interesting.

    After having tried lots of things (Outlook; Excel; etc.) I’ve gone back to a giant Post It with a list, pasted into the inside cover of the notebook I take everywhere. Probably not ideal but somehow every other approach has not gotten me anywhere.

    In fact, I’ve been thinking I need to calendar in an hour a day for my to do list, otherwise it doesn’t get done.

  3. Remember the Milk is great as it just slots into your workflow, allowing you to set tasks, priority, deadlines etc. I haven’t tried the option to sync it to your phone (my phone isn’t that advanced) but that looks very useful, as then you can update from anywhere.

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