Overloading - A Simple Solution to Reduce This Workplace Problem


What if by simply drawing a line you could reduce the suffering and anguish of thousands and save lives in the process? Wouldn't you think it was a good idea?

In 1874, seafarer Samuel Plimsoll did just that. Plimsoll found a way to prevent ships from being overloaded and sinking under the weight of excess cargo. Literally thousands of lives were saved because Plimsoll Lines, indicating the maximum vessel load capacity, were painted on the side of ships. Given today's overloaded workplaces and lifestyles, we can learn a lot from Plimsoll's approach. We can learn to draw a line indicating our maximum capacity and prevent the negative effects of personal overloading. The Plimsoll Line is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

So What?

Although overloading can enter your life in different forms, it typically creates the same kind of problems for the person or object being overloaded. Overloading creates a burden that is too great to bear and the consequences of that excessive burden negatively impact your life. That is as true today as it was in the 1800s. You might think we are the first generation to find ourselves trapped in this overloading dilemma, but history tells us otherwise. Overloading was actually a much more serious problem in earlier times. Rather than being a matter of getting smoothly through the day or coping with stress-inducing technology, overloading was literally a matter of life and death. This was especially true in the world of shipping.

When it comes to matters of staying afloat, a brief review of Archimedes' principle is in order. Archimedes discovered that a body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. Apply this to the world of shipping, and the consequences of overloading are clear. Ships sink when they weigh more than the water they displace. Ships will actually float at different levels depending on water temperature and type. Therefore, a ship loaded to capacity in a North Atlantic saltwater port would be in danger of riding too low and possibly sinking in a freshwater port in the tropics.

In earlier times, with only hand tools for the job, it took years to build a ship. Moving only under the power of wind and sails, it took months or years to sail across the sea and return. It made sense that ship owners and sailors would take extra precautions to assure the safety of their vessels. Unfortunately, ship owners did not always care. Why? As seafaring commerce developed, insurance coverage on the ships and cargo underwritten by such entities as Lloyd's of London often enticed ship owners to overload their ships. If the ships arrived safely, the payoff was greater for the more heavily loaded ships. If the ships sank, insurance covered the loss.

Also, in the mid-19th century the Irish potato famine reached its peak. Irish land owners, eager to shift their focus from potatoes to wheat and livestock, looked for ways to clear their land of Irish paupers made destitute due to the devastation of the potato crop. Landlords either evicted paupers with no promise of support, or packed them into unseaworthy vessels with phony promises of assistance in British North America, sending them out to sea. You can probably guess why these overloaded vessels were known as coffin ships. Many people lost their lives on these dangerous voyages. Eventually the general public became concerned enough about the loss of crafts, crew and passengers that British Parliament was forced to appoint a committee to investigate the growing number of sinking ships.

Enter Samuel Plimsoll. As a young man Plimsoll was fascinated with the problems of shipping coal to London. The main problem that attracted his attention was the simple fact that too many ships were sinking. In 1868, Plimsoll was elected a member of British Parliament. He immediately began to campaign for legislation to protect seamen. In 1873, he published a book titled Our Seamen that documented the fact that every year nearly 1,000 sailors drowned on ships near and around the British shores. These numbers did not include casualties from British ships that sank in locations other than the British coastline. Fishing vessels were excluded from this total and so were non-British ships that sunk.

Plimsoll's solution was simple: determine the maximum safe load a vessel could handle and make sure the vessel never exceeded that load. He proposed that a mark or line be painted on the side of all ships to indicate the limit to which the vessel could be legally loaded. If the weight and buoyancy of the ship caused it to dip below the line - referred to as the Plimsoll Mark or Plimsoll Line - the ship could not set sail. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 made these load lines compulsory. Unfortunately, the line's actual position was not fixed by the 1876 law. As might be expected, the ship owners loosely interpreted the law and painted the line wherever they wanted, until the position was finally fixed by another law passed in 1894. It is estimated that this simple line has saved countless lives since the late 1800s.

Now What?

So here we are at the beginning of the 21st century. Many of us live nowhere near the sea. What can we learn from the Plimsoll Line story that will make our lives better?

Acknowledge that consistently overloading yourself is a form of dysfunctional behavior driven by irrational thinking. Therapists usually embrace one of two approaches when trying to help their clients solve such behavioral problems. They focus on the past so their clients can understand more about the source of their behavior, or they tell their clients to "forget the past" and work mainly on changing the unproductive behavior going forward. Here are examples of each of these approaches that you might consider trying:

By studying the history of shipping in the 1800s, Samuel Plimsoll began to understand why so many ships were sinking and developed a simple solution to the problem of overloading. If you are struggling with problems related to overloading, it is a good idea to study your personal history and discover past events and decisions that led to your present dilemma. One bad habit or decision rarely creates an overload of demands on your time and energy. It is usually a combination of many decisions and patterns of behavior. For example, people-pleasing behavior, and the inability to say "no" when it is appropriate, can create overloading. Study your personal history and see if you can identify specific decisions that are creating an excessive workload. I know this strategy sounds a bit oversimplified (somewhat like drawing a line on the side of ships and saving countless lives), but here's an idea for you: Stop making those same decisions if you want to eliminate overloading in the future.

Forget the past and just experiment until you discover your personal Plimsoll Line. Make a commitment to work no more than eight hours most days. You are kidding yourself if you think working 12, 14, 16 or more hours per day is a productive use of your time. Doing this sounds impressive to some people, but not to those who understand how the various systems of the human body work to optimize your performance. Your productivity plummets when you exceed your optimal workload. You will eventually sink. Try breaking an eight-hour day into 48-minute segments (there are, of course, 10 of these segments available). Make a commitment to spend at least 48 uninterrupted minutes tomorrow working on the most important things you need, want, or have to do to be successful. Then operate in your normal manner for the rest of the day. The next day go for two 48-minute blocks of highly focused time. My suggestion is that you draw your Plimsoll Line at about three 48-minute blocks of focused time most days. I am not suggesting that you only work 144 minutes each day. I am simply suggesting that you mentally designate three highly focused periods in a workday as a highly successful day. Then, cut yourself a little slack and stop pushing yourself so hard.

In the end remember that overloading is an upstream problem. When the ships began sinking in the warm freshwater due to being overloaded in the cold saltwater ports, it was a little late to start working on a solution to the problem. It would have been better to prevent the problems before the ships embarked on the voyage. The upstream issue that leads to work overload is making the decision to take on any additional tasks. If you are already overloaded, start focusing on how to eliminate tasks, not increase them. Start making sound decisions today to prevent overloading in the future.

Chris Crouch has spent years researching and studying both the mental and physical aspects of being more productive. He shares his discoveries through books, articles, presentations and training materials.

This article is an excerpt from his book Being Productive: Learning How to Get More Done with Less Effort available through

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