You’re worrying about too much at work, aren’t you?

How do I know?

Because the vast majority of people I meet are in the same boat. I see it in their eyes. I spot it in their reactions when they’re asked to take on even the most trivial new task. I feel their stress at not being able to get everything done and their panic at the thought that they might have forgotten about a ball in the air that’s about to drop.

We are talking constantly about our unmanageable workloads. We’re not talking enough about the energy and bandwidth that goes into thinking about our workloads. I’m pretty convinced that thoughtload is a bigger problem than workload. It’s the emotional labor, not the physical labor, that’s killing us.


For our purposes, let’s define workload as the volume of tasks you need to accomplish (number of tasks x time required for each). Workload includes the actual activities you need to do. If you have to build an excel spreadsheet, give a piece of feedback, talk to a customer, those are all examples of workload. Here’s the thing. I think most of us can cope with a reasonably heavy workload. We are pretty hardy creatures. I bet you can move through an impressive list of tasks in a day and feel energetic while doing it.


It’s not the toiling away that’s wearing you down. Instead, what’s burning you out is the narrator in your head who’s worrying incessantly about the things you’re not doing—not to mention the things everybody else is or isn’t doing. Have you noticed that the voice is particularly loud when you’re sitting in a terrible and unproductive meeting thinking about the actual work you could be doing instead?

Right now, the voice in my head is reminding me that four clients still haven’t scheduled their interviews and time is ticking (she loves dramatic phrases like that, “Time is ticking, Liane!”). She’s whispering about the email I owe my HBR editor about the topic of next month’s article. She’s also obsessed with planning, coordinating, and air traffic controlling all the other people in my orbit. She’s my mental load.

Are you managing with the workload but crumpling under the thoughtload? You’re not alone.

The more our work is shifting away from clear and autonomous lines of accountability into shared goals and cross-functional collaboration, the bigger a problem thoughtload becomes. It’s a vicious cycle problem because our thoughtload distracts us and makes us less efficient in completing our workload.

Liane's soaring heart rate Timeout for a frightening reinforcement of this concept. I’m experiencing a thoughtload epiphany as I write. I’m normally pretty good at blocking out my little voice while writing, but because I’m writing about it, I can feel my anxiety going up and my focus going down. Just for fun, I decided to check my smart watch to see… and LOOK AT MY HEART RATE since I’ve started thinking about my thoughtload! Yikes.

Ok, where was I? Right, collaboration, teamwork, and thoughtload. I was working with a team last week that is struggling to figure out how much collaboration is the right amount of collaboration. One of the team members was arguing for clear division of labor so that everyone could just run fast in their lanes. It was a justifiable self-protective argument because collaboration requires a higher thoughtload.

Fair enough.

So how do we work on cross-functional teams, how do we manage people, and how do we get through the week without taking on an overwhelming thoughtload?

I think the secret is to be much more deliberate about what we allow to be in our thoughtload.

The client I was just telling you about introduced a visual metaphor, which I think is helpful. Think about three categories of activities: focal, peripheral, and hidden.

Focal Activities: These are the projects, tasks, and people that you agree to carry in your thoughtload. These are the spots where you’re on point—the one who’s accountable for making sure things work out well. There’s a heavy thoughtload for focal activities. You should be reflecting, anticipating, planning, and monitoring these things multiple times a day.

Peripheral Activities: These are the projects, tasks, and people that you are aware of and contributing to, but not leading. For these things, you take on tasks when assigned, but it’s a more responsive, rather than proactive approach. You should be noticing, remarking, accomplishing, and supporting these things, but not keeping them in your thoughtload unless triggered by something or someone external.

Hidden Activities: These are the projects, tasks, and people that you have officially and clearly communicated will not be on your radar. You are being transparent with people that you are out-of-the-loop, uninformed, and of no use in making sure that everything is going along tikety-boo. You should be deleting, distributing, and declining these activities to ensure they don’t add to your thoughtload.

Tackling the Thoughtload Problem

  1. Assess the Current State
    • Make a list. The first thing you can do is make a list of the things that are currently contributing to your thoughtload. Every time you have an intrusive thought about an issue, quickly add it to your list. Don’t worry about doing anything with your list right away, just get a full accounting on what’s on there. Even having the list will reduce your stress because half of the stress is worrying that you’re missing something from the list.
    • Triage your list. Once you have a mostly complete list of the things that are weighing on you, start to split the list into things that must be focal, things with the potential to move to peripheral, and things you could shove into your blind spot.
  2. Shrink your focal list.
    • Now get busy pruning your focal list. Talk with your manager about what is most important. If you get push back on making one thing more important than others, switch tactics. Instead, sort the list into phases so that even if everything is important, you know what to worry about first. Even knowing that you don’t have to worry about something until next week will remove a meaningful thoughtload.
    • Another way to shrink your focal list is to delegate tasks. Provide the context, share your version of what good looks like, then let one of your team members run with the activity. Tell them that you’ll check in periodically but that you’re assuming they’ve “got it” until you hear differently.
  3. Find an owner for peripheral activities.
    • For any activities that will only be peripheral for you, find the rightful owner and let them know that you’re ready to help, but not taking the lead.
    • If there is no obvious owner, negotiate with your manager and your team to make someone the lead on the activity. Be upfront about how much room you have to add their tasks to your workload and equally clear that it’s not going to get a high priority in your thoughtload (so if they need you for something, they’ll have to ask.)
  4. Manage by Moment. Now start changing the way you work in the moment. Since January, I’ve been using a Bullet Journal (click here to learn about this awesome technique for managing attention.) It doesn’t matter what technique you use, but the idea is to have a receptacle for that intrusive thought so that you can put it somewhere you know you won’t lose it. With a bullet journal (which logs days, weeks, and months), you can put it straight into the spot where you’ll make time to do it.

Since I’ve started actively separating out workload from thoughtload, I’ve been a lot more productive and a lot less stressed. When that nasty voice starts raising my pulse rate, I just write down the task in the spot where I’ll do it and, poof, distressing thoughtload has become manageable workload.

This is a new idea and a new discipline for me, so I’d be really grateful for your comments and questions below. They’ll help me shape the idea into more tips, techniques, and tools to help more people reduce their thoughtload.

Further Reading

Killing your busy culture

Tsunami of stress

Good and bad stress

Video: Does Your Team Know How Hard You’re Working?