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micro skill

If your to-do list is more than you can manage each day, it’s time to take action to cut it down.Andreas Rodriguez/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2017 winners of the award

Registration for the 2018 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards have closed. Companies can pre-register for 2019 at

How often do you find yourself trying to fit one more thing into an already-busy day?

For some, this can feel like a daily event, where just when we think we have the day in control we get one more thing added to our to-do list. This can lead to a feeling of being piled on and can drain our energy to the point of feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted. When this cycle becomes chronic, it can result in feeling overwhelmed.

This micro skill focuses on managing our perceived capacity level, which is what we believe we can cope with and manage each day. Like a glass, we all have a capacity before we feel full to the brim and things start to feel like they're overflowing and we're falling behind. One risk when we don't manage our perceived capacity level is increased stress, along with feeling chronically fatigued, which over time may result in burnout.

Timothy Brook, Gregory Blue and Jérôme Bourgon published Death by a Thousand Cuts in 1905. This book describes in vivid detail a tragic story about repeating what on the surface in isolation does minor damage to the human body; however, when repeated over and over, destroys it.

Consider the title of this book in relation to the above question. On the surface, doing one more thing may not be a big deal. However, the accumulation of this activity over and over – when we're already feeling at capacity – can put our health and happiness at risk.


We have a limited number of waking hours each day, and have a defined capacity for what we can achieve at home and at work. The first step is to evaluate how relevant this topic is for you. If you can relate to this concept and are experiencing the feeling of being pushed past your capacity daily, this micro skill may be something for you to consider. Improving your situation begins with an honest self-evaluation and deciding that you want to become better at managing your capacity level.


Each morning, you can think about how much perceived capacity (belief of what you can cope with in a day) will be used by your day's plans (meetings and tasks on your daily calendar, deliverables at work, chores at home). If you say to yourself, "I'm going to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., be with the kids from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., have some personal time after that to relax, and be in bed by 11 p.m.," this is setting your daily standard and expectations. When we don't follow our standard and start to add one more thing in each of the above activities, or feel like we have no choice, our perceived framework erodes, and we may feel like we're on a treadmill. Setting personal boundaries and sticking to them is one way to prevent the treadmill from speeding up.


Once you define your daily perceived capacity level, the next step is managing it. The following tips are meant to assist you.

· Determine your planned versus unplanned capacity – At the start of the day, take a mental inventory of the percentage of the day you have planned. It may be wise to plan for the unforeseen and build in some additional capacity. For example, Sam starts his day knowing he's at 90 per cent capacity. His schedule is full, from the time he wakes up to the end of the day; there's really no room left, so he doesn't have much capacity to add more. Pushing ourselves at 100 per cent daily can be taxing, because that's all we have.

In contrast to Sam, Sally determines that she's at 60 per cent of her planned capacity, leaving 40 per cent unplanned. So, it's clear who has more capacity and would believe they could cope with more. Being aware of your capacity at the start of each day can help set your boundaries for the day and let you know when you may need to say no to another task or activity. Learning to say no and explain why is not a sign of weakness. It can spark conversations to change priorities.

· Stop something if you want to add one more thing – When you believe you're at capacity and think it's indeed necessary to add one more thing, look for what you can stop doing to free up some capacity. Life is about choices. Ask if it really matters if you delay something for a day. This mindset can help you avoid feeling you're on a treadmill. Self-management takes focus and making yourself a priority.

· Monitor your daily capacity score – There may be days when you elect to push yourself and strain your capacity level to 95 per cent. However, if you rationalize and keep finding reasons why you need to push yourself beyond your capacity level, then you most likely will be back where you started. Logging your daily capacity score provides an objective record that can help you self-monitor. If you keep running at 100 per cent and are not sure what to do, hiring a professional coach may help you develop some skills around daily goal setting, self-advocating personal boundaries, and taking personal accountability.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

This article supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award. This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series