The Sustainable Workload Loop

Matt Schellhas
9 min readApr 17, 2021

Almost every manager I have ever had suffered from the same problem. You would look at their calendar and see meeting after meeting after meeting. One of those meetings was invariably “lunch”, and was double booked with something else. Not only was that stressful for them, but it led to a situation where they didn’t have much time to just sit and think about how to solve the problems that their team was facing. Some did that strategic thinking at home, robbing themselves of rest and undermining their personal lives. The rest just didn’t do it at all, and their work suffered.

When I became a manager I was wary of this trap. I figured that it would be difficult work to manage my time well with all of the added responsibilities of the role. Oddly, I find managing my time a lot easier as a manager than as a lead. As a lead I had to account for almost everything I do as a manager, plus all of the technical contributions expected of me.

But even that experience alone doesn’t seem to explain my success. The biggest reason I think is my mental health problems. Struggling with mental health problems is certainly not uncommon, but mine are primarily around a general lack of motivation. Most folks can always find some small bit of motivation to do little things they don’t really want to do. Take out the trash? Brush your teeth? It’s annoying, but it’s not a big deal. For me, those sort of little things are a bigger deal. If I don’t reserve a stash of motivation, that stuff just doesn’t get done. At a very early age, I had to learn how to manage my time well because the consequences were so ever-present.

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

There are two core parts to how I manage my workload. The first is a sort of grab bag that represents the stuff to do. It fills up over time: your boss asks you to write up a report, the cabinet door seems broken, you’re getting hungry again, you wish you could give better presentations. As you do things, it empties: you finish the report and make sure your boss understands it, you figure out that hinge was loose on the cabinet and tighten it, you scarf down a burrito, you practice speaking in front of a mirror.

The second part of my mental model is a loop. We’re all continuously making decisions on what to do — what to take out of the bag. Right now I’m writing this article. When I stop, it will go back…