This Week I Learned: Break free from collaboration overload [2022–03–31]

Peter Brownlow
3 min readMar 31, 2023
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

I really feel like this podcast episode from researcher Rob Cross (embedded at the bottom) is relevant to my life and to the lives of many people I have worked with.

We’re doing more collaborative work than ever before, and the problem is that it’s overloading us. There are times when making the space to take a good, solo run at something deeper is not only more productive but also instinctively feels easier. But wait, isn’t collaboration good?

Collaborative work can make us come up with creative approaches that we never would have had alone. Teams ship more than an individual ever can, and so we end up constantly answering questions, doing favours or helping out. Ever gotten to the end of a work week with the nagging feeling that you spent way too much time in meetings and messages and you’re unsure of what they added?

This style of work has risen 50% over the last decade, and takes up to 85% of some people’s work weeks.

Even when given a choice to not collaborate, people jump in. We’re just too eager to jump in to collaborations that burn up our time and might actually work better without 20 people in the fray.

Top 3 triggers: (1) the desire to help others, (2) the need for accomplishment & (3) fear.

(1) The more we help others the more we are asked for help. The problems are that it prevents you from meeting your own goals, and also over time you become a bottleneck, slowing others.

(2) Little wins feel good. The issue is that it gets addictive, leading you to solve more and more small problems for other people, and to avoid the bigger ones critical to your own success.

(3) FOMO can become a persistent problem that never lets you rest. Fear of losing control can sentence you to a life of doing every little thing to make sure that it’s done the way you want. Fear of what others will say can lead to saying “yes” early and often so that they can see how responsive you are.

Deal with it

(1) Learn to get comfortable saying “no” by asking the requester to help lower the priority of something else, in order to make room for their request without overloading you. Or, you could do the task differently, such as by you showing them how to do it for themselves from now on.

(2) Delegate. You can get a sense of worth and satisfaction from seeing others do more and better for themselves. This is another source of that feel-good-factor.

(3) Be intentional about crafting your work life. Ask yourself how much an opportunity really aligns with your goals and how much it will cost you over its lifetime (which could be months, compared to the seconds of the request). Try to maximise those collaborations where you want to do it anyway, it contributes to your goals and you’re the best person to do it.

Remember that you’re the only person who knows all of your goals and obligations, and that you often have more choice than you think.



Peter Brownlow

Software builder, people manager, topical deep-dive enthusiast