My Capacity Threshold

Jan 09, 2023

Does your stomach start churning when you survey the avalanche of work waiting for you? Perhaps you let out a defeated sigh that first time you check your email each morning or power up your phone after a long flight.

What are your most natural reactions to being overwhelmed? Irritable? Short-tempered? Intense? Withdrawn? Focused? Competitive? Retreat?

These feelings were at the center of a recent conversation I had with a young CEO who was struggling to grasp a simple lesson, one with which many struggle—You  can’t do everything. 

Everyone Has a Capacity Limit

There is a good chance you consider yourself a master multi-tasker, someone with the ability to intuitively sort, prioritize, and juggle a lot of balls. You work efficiently and with skill, and you work hard. Guess what? You still can’t do it all. Regardless of how high the ceiling of your personal capacity is, there is still a ceiling. Like a tabletop overflowing with plates and bowls or papers and reports, there is always a finite amount that you can hold. This is true for everyone.

The size of your tabletop might be larger than most, but it still has edges that must be honored. The amount of responsibility that you can handle might be significantly higher than your peers, but there are still limits. Expanding our capacity isn’t the focus of this discussion (although it is a valid issue, and has been thoughtfully addressed by others, like Tony Schwartz at HBR). Managing that capacity is the issue here. This is critical because we will eventually realize that even with all the time management tricks and technology tools, we still all have a limit.  

So how do we determine our capacity? The simple answer is that when things start falling off, when you starting dropping the ball, you have probably reached or surpassed your capacity. A more thoughtful approach, though, is to consider the quality of the work you are doing along with the broken plates or unmet deadlines. If we can’t complete a job or address a need with skill, we don’t have room for it. 

Double-check What We are Stacking

Once we determine our capacity, we then turn our attention to the type of material on our table and how it is arranged. We can fill the table with whatever we want, but ultimately there are more important items that should get space first.

In short, this becomes a matter of priorities and strategy. Those things that are most important to us and most critical for success should get space first. Not everything  in life and work is of equal weight.

Unfortunately, we often confuse urgency with importance and load our table with an array of tasks that actually bear little strategic weight. Michael Hyatt wrote a wonderful, instructive blog on this some time ago, but I also recommend asking yourself a few simple questions in regard to the items on your table:

  1. What is the strategic weight of each item? There is always a certain degree of busy work in our life, but we must also be conscious to identify those items that “move the needle” in the important areas of our life.
  2. Are you doing the things that only you can do? For most leaders there is a 5-20% factor of things that uniquely belongs to them and that others can’t do. The rest is stuff they should be pushing to others. How much of your job can others do?
  3. Are the priorities of your life proportionately represented? Is adequate attention given to faith, family, work, and fun?

The Fine Art of Swapping

Very few people actually stay within their margin of capacity.

This is where most people get in trouble. You stack things higher and higher, until they begin to fall off your table. When things start to fall, instead of clearing new space, you look for a more creative stacking strategy. At some point, you turn into the young dad packing the car for a beach vacation. I don’t care if you have a master’s degree in geometry; you aren’t going to fit nine suitcases, three coolers, and fifteen beach chairs into the trunk. You have to take something out to get something else in.

When we get to this point, the only way to add new items to our table is to swap. We have to be willing to lay one item aside to make another item a priority. This is always a difficult proposition, especially for young entrepreneurs. We hate “either/or” choices and have built a strong muscle of “both/and,” which works for some things in life—but not capacity discussions. The trick is to continue to return to the original filter, which determines space allocation at your table. 

Survey, Stack, Swap

Unfortunately, capacity isn’t a question we can answer once and for all. It cannot be permanently checked off our list. It requires frequent reflection.

With that in mind, I encourage leaders to periodically assess their capacity by evaluating the three areas we have discussed:

  1. Survey the tabletop—Take an honest inventory of your priorities and the skill with which you are addressing them. Keep in mind that the size of your tabletop is not static, but will likely fluctuate through seasons of life and as you increase in skill and strategic abilities. Be aware of this and get comfortable with the size of your table.
  2. Stack and re-stack—Though I stated above that more creative stacking strategies are generally not an effective solution, as our capacity fluctuates, it is often worthwhile to practice a little stacking. Add some small pieces here and there and see how it goes.
  3. Swap – Ultimately, it always comes back to swapping. You eventually have to pull the trigger and say ‘”no” to one thing in order to say “yes” to another.

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