The non-helpful help

· December 14, 2023

Over the years I and many around me have periods of time when we have too much to do. That is we have more to do than can fit in the time we have to do it. Pretty common, especially in the workplace.

In these times I’ve noticed many people trying to be helpful and give the following advice:

Be more careful in how you plan your time.

It’s said with the utmost well-meant intentions but it is honestly not helpful. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s not helpful because that advice sent the problem right back at me, or whoever said it.

Also, most people I know finding themselves in this situation have already bent over backwards trying to plan their time better, trying to squeeze some more slots of time out of their day.

When in fact the problem is that there are too many things to do. Plain and simple. You have work for 2 people but you are only one person. There are 12 projects that requires your attention before the week is over, but you will only manage 3.

A better help

In this situation I think a better help would have been compassion and listening, if you cannot solve the problem. I know of at least 1 person where this recurring advice tipped her over the edge.

Imagine being super stressed from too many things that you feel people want you to do. Ask advice and then get an advice saying that you are bad in keeping track of your time. Pretty horrible, once you think about it.

The next time someone asks me this, and I cannot do something to help the situation I will at least listen.

Why this advice?

I want to emphasize that no person I’ve heard giving this advice did it out of malice. Instead they wanted to help. Maybe they felt that they couldn’t do anything about the situation, or they didn’t realize how much was already being done to try to remedy the situation. Or how much work is being pushed to the person asking the advice.

It could also be that the person being asked the advice has no power to fix the problem.

In any case - realizing that pushing the problem back to the advice seeking is less than non-helpful. You are adding to their burden. In fact, just being silent would be more helpful.

But as the people giving the advice wants to be helpful, a compassionate listening is well within the reach of what we can do I think.

Why this situation?

Before I suggest some potential solutions, let’s talk about why this situation happens. I think it is by organizational design in many cases. Mostly also well-intended, sometimes out of malice but rarely noticed.

I have actually met, more than one, manager that thought that the best way to get people to do their best was to push more work than they would manage to them. Then at least some of it would get done was the reasoning.

Just about every organizations I’ve ever worked in have more things to do than can possible fit in the available time and resources. Which makes this problem a prioritization problem.

Well, actually it could also be made into a quality problem. We could do all things with bad quality and try to squeeze them into the available time. There are several problems with this. First bad quality work tends to create more work as it comes back to us later.

Secondly, say that you got away with it and the bad quality was good enough - now people will think that workload you had is reasonable. Let's see... they had 12 projects going on, at the same time, last month - so I guess 13 would not be too far of a stretch.

No that will not fly. We will have to prioritize.

Prioritize, if it is to be useful, means not doing things. Down-prioritizing something means not doing that thing. It also means that we will look at that thing again later and see if we should do it. But right now - we are not doing it.

Herein lies the crux of prioritization; each thing on the todo-list is important to someone. That means that we will not be able to do some of these important things. That is important to realize; we will not do important things.

It might seem unnecessary to point out, but most places I’ve worked (and some people I’ve met), seems to think that down-prioritizing means that I do it with a little bit less effort. No! Not prioritizing means not doing. Very important distinction.

What to do

Let’s get to some advice. And the advice I have is very simple to state, but can be very hard to do. Here it is:

Do less things.

Simple don’t do all the things. And when asking for advice ask this:

Which of these things would you not do?

(or if you ask your boss)

Can you help me to prioritize these items, so that I know which ones not to do right now? Please.

Most people that I have met that have too much to do are getting a lot of things done. They have just reached their limits. And that’s when they break. Because they have been on that limit (or beyond it) for quite sometime.

And that’s when people around them are surprised. Because until then, it worked. Right? They did things and it worked just fine.

This is because people around you don’t know how you feel unless you tell them. And that is why Drop the ball is a good advice. Stop doing somethings. Just do not do it. If you already have done that, drop some more balls.

You will soon notice for who that was important. That person can now help you to prioritize:

Yes - I didn’t do X. Because I had A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. And J. And all of those people told me that it was important. But if you think X is more important I’m happy to stop doing all of them. Could you just go over to those people that cares about A-J and tell them that I’m stopping with that?

Or, a little bit less confrontational:

  • Yes - I didn’t do X. It simple didn’t fit in my workload. Can you make it smaller?

  • Yes - I didn’t do X. It simple didn’t fit in my workload. Is there parts of it that someone else can do?


People that has too many things to do are not helped by getting told that they need to plan better. That just causes more work for them.

Instead help them to drop things that are not important right now. Yes, drop things. If we don’t stop doing things people around us will not know about the situation.

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